This poem was written by the Irish poet Paula Meehan in response to the work. She grew up on Sean Mac Dermott Street in Dublin's North Inner City where the last of the Magdalen Laundries was situated.
Seven Stanzas for the Magdalenes
for Ethna O’Regan
While they were washing the stains
from the poor’s dirty linen
I wrote in Miss Shannon’s class
An Old Boot Tells Its Story;
while they were scrubbing the sweat
of sex, of fever, of blood,
the marks of labour, of birth,
of afterbirth, weeping,
flushing it all down the drain,
we recited the seven
times table, the mysteries
glorious and sorrowful,
cad a dhéanfaimid feasta?
the tri-coloured ribbon-o.
In two big pillow cases
I’d lug the family wash
along Sean McDermott Street;
or in the new baby’s pram
curtains and blankets and rugs
wobbled over the cobbles
the year I turned eleven.
I thought they were nearly nuns
if I thought at all about
the sad ones checking the wash,
their hands chapped raw and mottled,
their cropped hair, their hickiness;
how one with the bluest eyes
petted my head, said good girl
good girl, when the one in charge
wasn’t looking. My world was
dark and light, fearsome, dazzling
by turns. I can feel her hand
on my head, smell carbolic
and bleach, hear the undersong
of clicking rosary beads.
The Republic was young then,
we thought at last we were free.
With hindsight I write this down,
the convent closed, the Magdalenes
still without justice and peace:
they turn in their unmarked graves
or take their cause to the streets.
I roam the rooms of the past
where dust settles on the floors,
the statues have tumbled down
and with them our foolish faith
in plaster and paint and stone.
I believe in this one truth
light sings to the breaking dark.
The Magdalen Laundries were infamous institutions run by the Catholic Church since the 19th century not just in Ireland but in most European countries. However only in Ireland did they remain in operation into the seventies and eighties of the 20th century. Homes for so-called "fallen women", they housed hundreds upon hundreds of girls who were considered immoral and wild, pregnant unmarried women or those who had concealed their pregnancies and lost their babies in childbirth. Very often these women had given birth in secret and alone somewhere in the open under such harsh conditions that the babies didn't survive. If they were discovered they invariably ended up in a Magdalen laundry. The women were held as virtual prisoners in these homes and put to work in laundries run by various different orders of nuns. They yielded an enormous profit for the orders since the women worked like slaves for their keep.
Often the girls were brought there by family members or priests. If they arrived pregnant their babies were instantly taken away after they were born and put up for adoption. They were told that they were a danger to society and sinners like Mary Magdalene, that they should do penance and pray for forgiveness of their sins. Abandoned by their families many women would stay in the laundries for the rest of their lives.
One of the laundries in Dublin run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity was the last to be closed. Until 1996 forty women had still lived in the institution and many continued to stay there, unable to return to an independent way of existence, until they were re-housed approximately six years ago.
The building had already fallen into disrepair when I was given permission to go in and photograph the rooms where the women had lived, the dining halls, corridors and recreational spaces. It is hard to describe the utter feeling of desolation, the sense of despair and isolation that was palpable everywhere. It seemed to permeate the very wall paper and floor boards of the place. There was little evidence of the inmates, hardly anything remained of the women's individuality but what was there, a name tag on a door, a small colourful wall hanging, or a piece of bric-a-brac somewhere on a shelf was heart-breakingly poignant. Entering this place which seemed filled with shadowy presences, with the indescribable sadness of so many unlived lives, was emotionally difficult for me.
What I set out to do with my photographs then is on the one hand to make a documentation of the cruelty and savagery of the powerful over the powerless, on the other an act of salvage. I wished to transform memory into remembrance in an attempt to restore dignity and humanity to these women who had been robbed of both by an inhuman bigoted Catholic Church.
Ethna O’Regan 2012
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Ethna O’Regan – Curriculum Vitae
Walterstr. 30, 12051 Berlin, Germany.
0049 (0) 162 7572000
2007 - B.A. (Hons) Photography (Hons 2:1 Upper Division), Dublin Institute of
2009 - After Magdalene, Kunsthalle m3, Berlin, Germany.
2011 - Salon Photo Prize, Matt Roberts Arts, London, England.
2010 - Demise en scene, PhotoIreland Festival, Monster Truck, Dublin, Ireland.
2008 - RHA Annual Exhibition, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, Ireland.
2007 - International Graduates Exhibition, Catalyst Arts, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Annual Members Show, Catalyst Arts, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
RDS Student Awards Show, Ballsbridge, Dublin, Ireland.
Iontas Small Works Exhibition, Sligo Art Gallery, Ireland.
Photoworks 2007, National Photographic Archive, Dublin, Ireland.
2006 - Portent, La Catedral, Dublin, Ireland.
Findings: exploring the concept of everyday life as a performance, The LAB, Dublin,
2005 - Iontas Small Works Exhibition, Sligo Art Gallery, Ireland.
Portrait Ireland, Newtownbarry House, Wexford, Ireland.
Epoch - The Urban Condition, Meeting House Square, Dublin.
Student Exhibition, Catalyst Arts, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
2004 - Collective, Arthouse, Dublin.
2003 - Iontas Small Works Exhibitions, Sligo Art Gallery, Ireland.
Iontas On Tour, Millemium Court Arts Centre, Portadown and Limerick City Gallery
of Art, Ireland.
Transmission Member’s Show, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland.
2009 Visual Artists Bursary award, Arts Council of Ireland.