KATS theatre group holds up mirror to society as Brogan play reminds us that we cannot forget

Linda Beale who played the role of Sr. Virginia with great understanding

Words: Gerry Cody

Photos: Fionn Bowes Fitzpatrick

There was a photo placed on social media recently, showing a man outside his public house on James’s Green, in Kilkenny.

The year was 1919; the pub was The Fair Green Bar. That post received over seven thousand views, which goes to show that people love looking back and take great solace in beautiful memories. Nostalgia can evoke nice warm feelings.

Memory is a strange thing. We look at a simple sepia photo and we reflect on how nice and simple things were. But as the saying goes, ‘there’s more to a photo than meets the eye’.

We choose for example to overlook the fact that at the time the photo was shot, Ireland was experiencing a time of hardship.

A glance at the book ‘Kilkenny in times of revolution’ by Mooncoin man Eoin Swithin Walsh, paints a picture of Kilkenny in a different light between1900 and 1923. He wrote:

“No Kilkenny inhabitant escaped the revolutionary era of that time untouched, especially during the turbulence of 1916 and the Civil War.”

Point being: like looking at the social media photo, memory can be subjective.

Which brings me to the point of this article. A visit to the Watergate theatre to see a production of Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan.

A Harrowing Tale

Presented by Kats theatre society and directed by Delia Lowery, this is an award winning play set in a Magdalene laundry during the 1960’s.

I first saw this production in the early 1990’s when it was presented by Punchbag theatre in Galway and I later brought it to the Watergate when it toured with the same company.

It was, and is a harrowing story.

During her summer holidays, novice and teacher and author of Eclipsed, Patricia Burke Brogan was sent to the Magdalene laundry in Galway’s Forster Street to help supervise the women. What she saw shocked her and ultimately played a role in her decision to leave the order. Patricia Burke Brogan’s writing is a stark reminder of the brutal intolerance of ‘female deviance’ in our country’s not so distant past, while also being brought on a finely crafted journey of friendship, love, hope and survival. According to Patricia Burke Brogan, “I was brought into this huge space with these machines – the noise of the machines, the deafening noise – and then out of the haze I saw these women, young women, old women, and they looked at me like I was another of the people who’d locked them up . . . it was like I was in Dante’s inferno.”

Remembering Saoirse

It brings to mind ‘The Kilkenny Famine experience’ for which there is a monument at Mac Donagh shopping centre in Kilkenny.

Local poet Kathleen Phelan put pen to paper to remember one of the children who died there.

Having completed the poem and following discussions with Marion Acreman at Mac Donagh Junction, the poem is now proudly displayed at the memorial crypt for all to see and ensuring that ‘Soairse’ and all who are buried there will be remembered.

Titled ‘The Workhouse Child’ some of the lines read’ Your bones,/ your body structure lie here/ With eyes closed I imagine how I’ve put you back together/Not as you were back then/but how you would wish to be.

In fact Burke Brogan’s play, tragic, funny and humane, did much to shed light on the day to day life behind the Magdalene walls and the treatment of the girls and women imprisoned in these places as witnessed by Burke Brogan herself.

Design was special

There was much to be lauded about this KATS production. The set was spectacular and the designer –Siobhán Hegarty – gave the production a real sense of the harsh realities of living and working in such institutions. In a programme note Hegarty explains about the set: “It has been primarily constructed using cardboard boxes, recycled and repurposed. These boxes symbolise the ‘boxing in’ of these unfortunate women. In my mind these boxes show the layered nature, complexity and fragility of the human soul”. This production shows how essential a good set designer is and how beneficial one is to the success of a show.

One must assume that the character Sister Virginia, played superbly by Linda Beale was based on the author herself. Although not someone who walks the boards on a regular basis Beale has the experience of performing with local musical and theatre groups. Her portrayal of Sister Virginia epitomises the importance of understanding the character. She showed all the trials and tribulations of a tortured mind, showing empathy to those incarcerated at the laundry while attempting to show respect to those in power.

Another character that hit me in the face and who I could not forget was the driver of the laundry van. His role was the one on which not just the play but the very existence of the Magdalene laundries existed. He was, one imagines, in every sense of the word your ordinary everyday man, doing his best in Ireland of the 1960s. A good catholic man bringing home a wage every Friday and placing the envelope on the mantelpiece.

Of course he never appears in the play. But these are the lines from the character Cathy that introduce him : Having escaped from the home, she explains that: “A laundry van passed, turned around and came back at me. I fought them, I bit them, I screamed, but they brought me back.”

Mirror to society

So when we apportion blame to the religious and the evilness that occurred back then, we would do well to hold up a mirror to society in general. The mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, the general public, who, one can only assume knew what was happening at the laundries, still allowed this to happen. Like our van driver who felt it the right thing to return Cathy to her ‘prison’. And let us not be naïve enough to imagine we have learned from our sins of the past. More recently Catherine Corless spent eight months trying unsuccessfully to get people to pay attention to the research she was doing on an institution for unmarried mothers in Tuam, the Galway town where she grew up.

An amateur historian who had spent weeks scouring records in libraries, churches and council offices, she had uncovered the fact that, between 1925 and 1961, 796 children died in the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, run by nuns from the Bon Secours order, but she was unable to find records of where they were buried.

“I couldn’t understand it. We were shocked. We expected an outrage. The only ones who were outraged seemed to be us,” she said. “The mentality seemed to be: ‘That’s a long time ago, forget about it, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Obviously it does matter and the team at Kats have provided a great service to the public by showing that this type of tragedy is in our DNA. We are blemished by it. As a nation we will, and in some ways have, recovered from it. But forget it, we cannot.

The cast performed as a team and the united spirit was very much part of the production. Credit must be given to Delia Lowery who directed this show and it was quite obvious that not only did she understand the intricacies of the Laundries but she seemed to have every minutiae covered. And she did what is most important in any show and that was to surround herself with a strong team.

Cast: Geraldine Roantree; Claire Sheehan; Katie Monahan; Edwina Cunmmins; Sarah Walsh; Rosey Hayes; Megan Kelly; Linda Beale; Paula Drohan.

Director Delia Lowery, Set DesignerSiobhán Hegarty, Stage Manager Dee Gibney; Lights Gerry Taylor; Assistant stage manager Cliodhna Ryan; Costume design Clare Gibbs; PR, Sarah Bergin, Stage Bobby Reade , Brendan Maguire.


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