Institutionalised and bereft of a place to call home

As a nation, we have historically been conditioned to stay quiet. Perhaps out of fear of upsetting the status quo or of those who hold reign over our livelihoods, those in command. It may be down to all of the above, and as such, that is how places like the mother and baby homes (also known as Magdalene laundries), survived and prospered for so many years in Ireland. ‘Magdalene’ means public sinner. Ireland’s first such institution, the Magdalene Asylum for Penitent Females in Dublin, was founded by the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1765. Since then, an estimated 300,000 women are thought to have passed through the laundries in total, at least 10,000 of them since 1922. Despite a large number of survivors, the laundries went unchallenged until the 1990s.

When the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity decided to sell some of its land in 1992 to pay debts, they applied to have 133 bodies moved from unmarked graves on the property. What wasn’t expected was the remains of 155 people to be found for whom only 75 death certificates existed. The bodies of the women who had worked in the High Park convent laundry were disinterred, cremated and reburied in Glasnevin cemetery. The discovery turned the Magdalene laundries from an open secret to front-page news.

In the book “A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland” it is written that when the Sisters of Charity sold the laundry in 1992, an average annual revenue equivalent in today’s terms of €826,312 was being brought in. So much so that in 1975 its ‘surplus on trade’ was the equivalent in today’s terms of €541,334.

Due in part to the uproar surrounding the discovery of the mass grave, the last Magdalene laundry finally closed in October 1996. Known as the Gloucester Street Laundry. It was home to 40 women at the time of its closing, most of whom were elderly (the eldest was 79) and many with developmental disabilities. All however, and most shockingly were still working within the laundry, albeit referred to as occupational therapy at the time.

Reverend Mother, Sister Lucy Bruton of the Gloucester Street Laundry is quoted in The Irish times (Sep 25, 1996) as saying; “What we tried to do, in some cases successfully, was to provide money and protection for women in need. Of course, we failed, we made mistakes. One of my greatest regrets is that we continued with the status quo rather than pioneering change. If a woman came in today with her daughter I’d tell her to get lost. I’m not saying I’d refuse to take the girl, but I’d indicate to the mother that you don’t hide people away.”

The 40 women in the laundry all continued to live there after the laundry closed. One can only assume this was because they were institutionalised.

To be institutionalised means ‘a person gradually becomes less able to think and act independently, because of having lived for a long time under the rules of an institution’. Looking at this definition, one can’t help but think these women did not have any experience of the modern world. Sadly, for many, their families ignored their existence, thus leaving them with no support network or place to go if they were to leave the laundry. This was often the case, as referred to in the Times “The relatives of some other women residents, though known, rarely if ever come to see them. Sister Lucy says she regularly telephones some families, but they still won’t come to take the women out.”

In February 2013, Enda Kenny delivered an emotional apology in the Dáil on behalf of the State to the Magdalene Laundry survivors where he announced a compensation fund. Payments would be made for their years of unpaid work in the laundries. The fund would also be used to pay for counselling services, medical treatment and other welfare measures for the women who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries. The Taoiseach described how the women had carried “this country’s terrible secret” with them at home and abroad. The Taoiseach also acknowledged that the State itself was directly involved in over a quarter of all admissions to the Magdalene Laundries – through the social services, industrial schools, the court system and other routes, which at the time was a big step and condolence for many survivors.

In 2017 after “significant human remains” were discovered in the grounds of a former home in Tuam, County Galway the topic of Magdalene laundries was brought back into the spotlight. In 2020, Michael D Higgins signed the controversial mother and baby homes bill, into law. A database of 60,000 records was transferred to the child and family agency Tusla, while the remaining records were set to be sealed for 30 years. Anyone seeking to get information from the archive through GDPR, would have to prove that their application does not infringe on the rights of others.

If this topic is relative to your circumstances and you wish to get more information or support, these websites might be of help; , and of course our local resources like Teach Tom.


In Patricia Burke-Brogan’s play ‘Eclipsed’, we meet Nellie-Nora both in her younger and senior years. Her older self is played by Geraldine Roantree. She portrays Nellie Nora as a now senior penitent who is a product of the system, a general workhorse whose kindness is apparent in her younger years throughout the play. However in the closing epilogue, it is made clear that she is institutionalised. She does not and will not venture into the outside world. The fear instilled through a lifetime of confinement and servitude is too great an imposer.

Unlike those we read of in the excerpt from the Times, in Eclipsed we get to meet Rosa, played by Claire Sheehan. She is one of the adopted children from the orphanage, who returns as an adult seeking out her mother. As we discover, she was unaware of the circumstances of her birth, and in unveiling items and processing information, she discovers who she really is.

Geraldine Roantree

Geraldine spent her childhood in Arklow mimicking voices and entertaining friends and family. After a long break and a move to Carrick-on-Suir, she took part in many productions with Brewery Lane Theatre group. A highlight there was a reading of Under Milkwood and part in Charlie’s Aunt. Two shows with Gallowglass, in Clonmel followed.

Recently, Geraldine has worked in site- specific pieces with Asylum Productions in Callan and with Heritage Tales in Kilkenny. She is currently in rehearsal for The Local, with Asylum, for Kilkenny Arts Week 2023 which already sold out.

We interviewed Geraldine on some trivia about her and her character Nellie-Nora Senior.

What is your favourite theatrical moment?

My favourite on street moment was giving out eggs, the oval of life, on Bridge Street.

What spurred you to be involved in Eclipsed?

I wanted to take part in the play to get to like it better.

What is your characters name full name?

My full character name is Nellie-Nora Langan

What about your character can you relate to?

I can relate to her wanting to keep an eye on St Paul’s, to mind the place.

What is your characters pet peeve?

She hates people leaving lights on.

What is your characters favourite food?

She loves marshmallows.

What is your characters favourite song?

She loves, Love Forever True.


Claire Sheehan

Clare is a Newcastle-on-Tyne native, living in Kilkenny for some 21 years. She caught the acting bug after appearing in school Comedy Sketch Shows and playing Buttons in the school panto Cinderella in Newcastle on Tyne. In later years Claire Sheehan directed young people’s performances while teaching in London. She forgot about theatre for a while until her cousins and a holiday romance (ongoing) brought her to Kilkenny. She began performing with Barnstorm Adult Theatre Club in One Act Plays, and is a regular featured in Barn Owl Players productions.

We interviewed Clare on some trivia about her and her character Caroline/Rosa.

What’s your favourite theatrical moment?

Tripping over during performance at Rothe House. Afterwards I laughed until mascara ran down my face.

What spurred you to be involved in Eclipsed?

A topical full-length play with lots of good female parts.

What’s your characters name full name?

Newly discovered, Rosá Coyne. Her adoptive family called her Caroline.

What about your character can you relate to?

I know women directly involved in this part of Ireland’s history.

What is your characters pet peeve?

People who have no empathy and little sympathy

Whats your characters favourite food?

Veg Curry

What is your characters favourite song?

Gene Pitney – Something’s gotta hold of me now.


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