Eclipsed: A tale to be told, and heard

Cast Penitents

By Tim Slight,  KATS Member

History, it’s a peculiar dish, isn’t it? Personal history can invoke warm fuzzy feelings of loveliness, those of childhood, your wedding day, or the day a newborn baby enters the world. Political history is more complicated, with state affairs such as the signing of the Good Friday agreement giving hope to a nation while horrific events like September 11th shake the foundations of democracy.

Goodness knows as an Englishman writing this I am aware of the burden of history, from the atrocities in Africa, India, Ireland and beyond, empires rarely arrive and leave with grace & favour.

However, it’s very easy to blame the sands of time. “That was then,” people cry. But their cries often go unheard, as statues of slave traders such as Edward Colston are pulled down by the masses. So angry were they at our past actions that they ensured his new place of ‘pride’ would be the dirty grey drink of Bristol Harbour.

History is a difficult pill to swallow. Add to it those whose actions are performed on command, or under the instruction of God and you end up with a foggy mess. Throw in the fact you can’t hide behind the “everyone was doing it” or “that was then” card and you end up with Patricia Burke Brogan’s ‘Eclipsed’.

I first read Eclipsed when I discovered KATS were going to produce it in the Watergate Theatre, having never seen the play specifically I immersed myself into this narrative of Irish history. Written in 1994, ‘Eclipsed’ tells the story of Brigit, Nellie Nora, Mandy, Cathy and Juliet, the women of Saint Paul’s Home for Penitent women. ‘Penitent women’, remember their crime? Being pregnant, an unmarried mother, an orphan or being too attractive for the risk of “falling away” (getting pregnant) and the temptation and distraction of those weak and lustful men.

Similar to Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, and the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, ‘Eclipsed’ paints a bleak picture of women fallen, of sinners, those that nobody wants, ostracised by society, the feelings of which enforced by the brutish power of the church.

However, through the darkness comes a story of friendship, dreams and at times, hope. A celebration of sisterhood, the banter and honesty as sharp as the ironed creases, with stolen moments of joy found in all manner of small places, from the enjoyment of a drag on a discarded cigarette butt, the dreams of a sultana cake on one’s birthday or the spectacle and romance of a celebrity wedding.

This enjoyment, of course, is as forbidden as their past, under the draconian governance of Mother Victoria. Obedience is insisted upon. Failure to do so leads to retribution, often in a violent way. Well, it is ‘what God would have wanted’. The welfare and health of these ladies is secondary to the religious front and the starching of his Lordship’s linen.

Her second in command Sister Virginia sees the women’s plight, their cruel treatment and contradictions in the Church’s teaching that challenges her own faith– would God want them to suffer? Is he not a forgiving man? She is humane enough to suggest medicine and fresh air for the women, to work on their mental health. However, in broaching this with her superior, Mother Victoria scorns her for her weakness. Take prayer, obey and should that fail, a slap for the sinners will bring order. Mother Victoria’s tone while advising this is as stoic as fits the time. These women need punishment, not support for their wellbeing.

One of the many strengths of this story is that it isn’t ABC, nor paint by numbers. You don’t ever know the complete backstory, it is instead hinted at. The hopelessness of their future sheds no light on their past. It instead allows the viewer to make their own mind up based the horrors or situations that brought them there. There is a lovely scene in the second act that portrays the ladies joy at finding lipstick, that feeling of femininity that a bit of ‘lippy’ can add, to feel like a woman, to feel sexy. However, this joy soon turns to anguish for one lady, where this seemingly innocuous item of makeup triggers her trauma at having been abused by someone she trusted, the reason she is now seen as “fallen”.

Gandhi was once attributed as saying “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member,” and as the male of this species I am in no way suggesting these ladies were weak, but their treatment was appalling and their story needs to be both told, and heard. Ireland was a subservient nation and under the Church’s power, of corruption and brainwashing, of common sense no longer being common.

These women and girls were failed at every opportunity, and for those that hid behind the “of that time” mantra, women are still victim to just “being pretty” (Sarah Everard and Ashling Murphy to name but two) and how the film Philomena identified how God’s sisters, knowing their game was up, conveniently had a fire at the convent that burned documents relating to the adoption information relating to the women’s children. However of course, as if by divine intervention, the contracts stating these same women were prohibited from future requests relating to finding their children escaped the lick of flame.

I had lost my own loving mother only a year earlier and this film left me both in absolute bits and very angry at the Church’s cold and cruel treatment of their own, these potentially now elderly ladies. I have never been a big subscriber to God and his telling, both that movie and this play confirms it wasn’t me, it was them, I was on the right side. Further confirmed to the fact that when us overseas in the UK were in celebration, deep in the throes of Britpop, singing 3 Lions on a shirt and enjoying the summer of Euro ‘96, Ireland was only then closing its last Magdalene laundry.

It is easy to turn away, easy to hide behind the passing of time, the nun’s habit or the “good book” but on behalf of all those failed penitent women, we owe them their voice. The recent Mother and Babies Report of 2021 gave a long overdue public apology and acknowledgement of their barbaric treatment. However, their stories still need to be heard.

‘Eclipsed’ stars Paula Drohan, Linda Beale, Sarah Walsh, Megan Kelly, Rosey Hayes, Edwina Cummins, Katie Monahan, Claire Sheehan and Geradline Rowntree, with established KATS, and Barnstorm regular, Delia Lowery directing.

Eclipsed is on 31st August to 2nd September @ The Watergate Theatre Kilkenny. Go see it, allow these “fallen women” to stand again.


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