An artist opened Galway’s ‘Secrets Box’

Most families, most adults, and most communities have secrets; past indiscretions they would rather forget about, and usually not very serious. But  some of them can be very painful, and are kept hidden, in a sort of a Secrets Box,  long after they need to be.

 It took an artist like Patricia Burke Brogan, to prise open the heavy doors of the Magdalene Laundry, which had remained a sad, and neglected, community secret for generations. The marginalisation of unmarried mothers was so embedded in our psyche that we were afraid to look inside ourselves.

There were no whistleblowers in the Ireland of the early 1990s; yet Patricia deeply felt that the stories of the ‘Maggies’ had to be told. Not in a sensational headline-grabbing way, but in such a way that the lives of the women involved would be remembered as part of our shared humanity.*

Patricia, a former  Mercy novice, who had worked as a supervisor in the laundry, originally wrote the story as a one-act play. Single-mothers, Cathy, Brigit, Mandy and Nellie-Nora, whose children are either dead, or have been taken away for adoption, or were enclosed in orphanages, were condemned to work in humiliating conditions in a laundry. The women are ‘disgraced and forgotten’ by the community outside the gates; while their lovers, the fathers of their children, are not held responsible. Having read the play, Fintan O’Toole, the literary editor and drama critic with The Irish Times, encouraged Patricia to enlarge the story into a full-length play, and send it to Irish theatre companies for production.

After several rejections, Punchbag Theatre Company, agreed to do it. Eclipsed  opened in a converted garage near the Spanish Arch,  on St Valentine’s Day, February 14  1992 (the irony of the date was not lost on Patricia ). It was an immediate success. ** There were some objections, which probably helped  its promotion. One evening people stood outside the theatre objecting that nuns were depicted in a bad light. Yet the crowds kept coming. People openly wept in the audience. It went on tour of Irish theatres receiving excellent reviews. But  when Punchbag took the play to the Edinburgh Theatre festival, and it won the major Fringe award, it attracted  the mother and father of all the publicity that you can imagine.

Hidden stories

Despite all this success Patricia was uncertain how to cope. There were still demonstrations outside theatres; and sinister phone calls. She was most upset when opening her post one morning she found a photograph of herself, cut out from a newspaper, disfigured with horns and devil symbols in black ink. She denied that she was  anti-Catholic Church. “ Everyone blamed the sisters, but the State did nothing to intervene.”

But there were also the quiet ‘thank yous’ from friends and strangers; even desperate calls from distant voices wondering if Patricia knew what happened to such-and -such baby?  a mother?  or family sibling?

Opening an exhibition of Patricia’s paintings and etchings at a later date, Minister for Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht,  Michael D Higgins, commented on the ‘risks’ that she took in bringing her ‘ hidden story of grief, and enforced silence’ to the world.  “ It represented,”  he said, ‘“ a drawing back of the veil in many senses.”  Patricia was faithful to the characters the play represented. “ It was as if the hidden stories could almost not have had another author”.

Film rights

Patricia’s uncertainty at how to cope with the reaction to her play, and her naivety in dealing with  legal contracts, lawyers, and the important business of copyright, became evident when Samson Films contacted her to say that the BBC appointed it to negotiate film rights, and script.  Of course Patricia was interested, and anxious to be involved in the project. It was agreed that she adapt the play for film. But it all ended in tears. Misunderstandings, deadlines, and disagreements over her script, incredibly cost Patricia any say in the final film. She lost all entitlements to her story.***

Frustrated at this turn of events Patricia decided not to lose sight of her initial objective. She turned her thoughts ‘ to the darkness of their great wounding’ which had affected thousands of Magdalene women .‘ Though those women gave birth, created new lives, the art in which woman is most like God, they were used and rejected by lovers, by their families, and by the Irish State. The Church colluded. Their names and the names of their babies were obliterated from the history of humankind.’

‘What has happened to me, and to my play Eclipsed, brings me closer to them in their despised and rejected lives. With them I too am eclipsed.’****

Next week: What Patricia saw in the laundry at Forster Street, Galway.

NOTES: * It should be stressed that Patricia does not blame the nuns for the humiliation of the laundry inmates. The nuns shared the same culture of condemnation that existed in the  Ireland of the time. I have often wondered about the parents of the girls who put their daughters away. Were they too victims of the warped morality of the time that made them punish their children? Everyone suffered.

**The Advertiser drama critic at the time was An tSuir Ailbé, an Irish scholar, school teacher, and a member of the Mercy community. She saw the play on its opening night, and described it as ‘ A small masterpiece’. There was great excitement in the Advertiser office when the BBC flew her to Edinburgh for an interview, and some sticky questions on the Magdalene laundries. Ailbé, however, was well able for them!

Although Patricia Burke Brogan has written two further plays, Requiem of Love, and Stained Glass at Samhain, Eclipsed continues to attract attention. It was the first to tell the story of the Magdalene laundries, and has been performed on three continents, winning major awards and still attracting publicity.

*** In 2002 The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullen, was a successful film starring Anne Marie Duff, Nora Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Geraldine McEwan, and Eileen Walsh.

**** Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, by Patricia Burke Brogan  published by Wordsonthestreet (Salthill ) on sale €18.

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