Eclipsed and the world of the Magdalene Laundries

The cast of Eclipsed: (L to R) Laura Crosby, Helen Gregg, Sarah O’Toole, Andrea Kelly, Jean Oldham, Liz Quinn, Órla McGovern, Fiona Kelly, and Lynelle Colleran. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

The cast of Eclipsed: (L to R) Laura Crosby, Helen Gregg, Sarah O’Toole, Andrea Kelly, Jean Oldham, Liz Quinn, Órla McGovern, Fiona Kelly, and Lynelle Colleran. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

THE DIFFERING reactions to the Magdalene Laundries over the years have been mirrored in the responses to Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed, which will have a staged reading in Galway next week.

Set in 1963 in a convent laundry at St Paul’s Home for Penitent Women in Killmacha, Eclipsed explores the practice of making pregnant and unwed Irish mothers work as ‘penitents’, supervised by nuns who regarded them as vessels of evil. In these laundries the women were treated as virtual slaves while their infants were forcibly put up for adoption.

Eclipsed will be given a performed reading by eight of Galway’s leading actresses in the Druid Lane Theatre, on Friday March 8 at 8pm.

The cast is Órla McGovern, Fiona Kelly, Helen Gregg, Liz Quinn, Sarah O’Toole, Laura Crosby, Lynelle Colleran, and Andrea Kelly, who also directs.

Órla McGovern performed in the original Punchbag production in 1992, while Fiona and Andrea Kelly were in the 1998 Town Hall Theatre revival. In that time Eclipsed has gone from being a shocking, controversial, play, to a poignant and prescient study of a disgraceful episode in Irish social and women’s history.

“Patricia was training as a noviciate nun and she saw first hand the lives of the Magdalene women,” says Andrea, “and from that she concluded that convent life was not for her. When the play came out in 1992 it was extremely controversial and Patricia got a lot of criticism for it. She was accused of being anti-church and received pictures of herself in the post with devil’s horns drawn on.

“But this was not being anti-church, she was reporting on what she saw. It was a product of the social situation of the time. Everything was very hierarchical. The bishops were on top and were pressing down on the nuns, who themselves started pressing down on the women in the laundries. Patricia Burke Brogan should be recognised for being one of the first to expose this sordid and sorry saga.

“When I was in the 1998 production, the story of the Magdalene Laundries was new to me. I was only 21 at the time and I couldn’t believe something like this had actually happened in Ireland. In the wake of the McAleese Report, it will be fascinating to see the reaction to the play, now we are no longer afraid to criticise the church. It is one of the reasons I wanted to do this, it’s very topical.”

The play will not be a full staging, but a reading. However this will be far more than just eight women speaking from a script. There will be lighting and music, each actress will appear in a stylised costume, there will be minimal movement, and the acting will come through the voice as each player enters into the mind, dreams, and torments of the Eclipsed characters.

“It’s what comes through in the voice that will trigger images in the audience’s mind and allow them to connect with the characters,” says Andrea. “This will be a listening experience. The play lends itself to that as each of the women develop escapist fantasies to help them cope. We will hear about journeys to Paris and being with Elvis, and see the humour and romanticism in these women.”

Yet all the while grim reality of their situation is never far away as they also lament the babies taken from them, and the social stigmas of being labelled fallen women by church and society. Indeed, the extent of State involvement in the laundries was one of the McAleese Report’s most shocking revelations.

“The play shows that these women have been incarcerated against their will,” says Andrea, “and the thing is it was not just the church who put them in there. If they escaped, the gardaí would bring them back, and people in the neighbourhood would have seen them so somebody must have informed the authorities. Families would put their daughters in there. So what I’m hoping is that people will also reflect on society’s role in all this and ask themselves, in these situations, would I have done that?”

The play will be preceded by a reception in the theatre at 7pm, where playwright Patricia Burke Brogan and a representative of COPE will speak.

Tickets are €10 and available from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Middle Street, and www.entertainment.ie

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