The era of the Magdalene laundries

Image by Paul O’Shaughnessy and kindly supplied by Judy Murphy at the Connacht/ Galway City Tribune

KATS present an account of Irelands dark history

Written by KATS member Tim Slight.

It is very easy to dismiss literature, or to pigeonhole it into a box that doesn’t suit our narrative. However, it’s in these uncomfortable stories and texts that we should challenge our pasts, look at ourselves in the mirror and hopefully make the future a better place. One such story is Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed.

Eclipsed deals with Ireland’s dark past, that place we would rather not go, but one that can’t be cancelled, no matter how hard some might have tried. It was originally identified for production by KATS regular Niall O’Riordan and he tells how he felt this was an important story people should hear. “I came across Eclipsed when a colleague (I’m a secondary school teacher) told me she was teaching it to her 5th year group. As soon as she mentioned the setting, a Magdalene laundry, I immediately wanted to read it. When I did, I couldn’t get over how tenderly Brogan managed to tell such a harrowing story, and I was glad it was being read by students. I was often asked what made me as a man want to direct this play for women. It is true, this play has an all-female cast, but I’ve never considered it a play for women. To me, it’s always been a play for those who’ve felt othered by society, the way the forgotten Magdalene’s were.”

Patricia Burke-Brogan was born in in Kildysart, Southwest Co. Clare. She grew up with a love for reading, and many decades later made a career as a painter, poet and novelist. In the 1960’s at 21 years young, she joined the Sisters of Mercy (Foster St, Galway) to help the poor as a postulant nun, but after working briefly in the Magdalene laundry she left the order. She then returned to her writings and worked to highlight the plight of the women in the laundry and what she had witnessed there, first in a short story and then in the 1980’s with a play, Eclipsed, which was first performed in 1992, by a small fledgling Galway theatre company called Punchbag Theatre Company. The play, credits the characters as ‘fiction’, however, it is no secret that the humane, caring and likable Sister Virginia is based on Brogan’s experiences at the laundry.

She told of the brutal and harsh imprisonment of women for breaking strict moral codes; having a baby without being married. But it wasn’t just single pregnant women who were signed in, women who were deemed too “fast” or a little bit “slow” or even those who were a burden to their family were also confined within those walls. They worked without pay in laundries, run by the all-important church in collusion with the State, and most heartbreakingly, their own families.

As expected, the responses were mixed. She received hate mail and demonstrations were held outside the theatre. She told The Times in 2013 how many of the larger theatres rejected the play. But she remained steadfast and committed to telling the story of these fallen women. In her interview she also recalled her first day in the laundry. “She was “brought down this long, brown corridor and every time we went through doors, they were locked behind. 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. I was given the key, so that transferred the authority to me, and I wondered if I should just open the place and let them out. But most of them had no place to go ….”

“It’s all about the stigma, really: that’s why it was covered up, that’s why nobody talked about it.”

Since Punchbag, the play has had more than 61 productions on three continents and won many awards globally. KATS production is the first since Patricia’s passing in September 2022. She was awarded the Freedom of Galway city early in 2022 for her work in protecting and assisting the laundry residents and a plaque was unveiled closed to the site where the laundry was located.

KATS Present Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed in the Watergate Theatre: August 31st – September 2nd at 7.30pm nightly.


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