Sculpture to honour Magdalen women

On Sunday, Final Journey, a statue by Mike Wilkins, to honour the women of the Galway Magdalen Laundry, was unveiled by the Mayor of Galway Cllr Padraig Conneely at the corner of Forster Street and Bóthar Breandán Ó hEithir.

The poet Patricia Burke Brogan also spoke at the event. Here is her address at Sunday’s event in full:

“I am delighted and honoured to be here with you at the unveiling of this extraordinary sculpture.

“In memory of our Magdalen women, it stands here on the space where women were hidden away, their lives eclipsed.

“When Margaret Geraghty, Bridie Horgan, Orla Higgins, and I had our first meeting we decided on a motto ‘The concept of dignity, the violation of dignity - the Magdalens’. I met with sculptor Mike Wilkins, and gave him my poem Make Visible The Tree. We then approached City Hall. There were many meetings.

“In the history of every people there are areas of great wounding, times when human beings inflicted great damage. History often avoids retrieving these areas especially if recalling them threatens to upset the status quo.

“I have always been fascinated by layers, layers of time, layers in landscape, layers in the artistic imagination. In the story of this limestone sculpture we have many layers.

“Three hundred million years ago the island of Ireland was covered by a tropical ocean. As time went on brachiopods and other marine organisms, skeletal remains of past lives, fell to the seabed and formed a layer. This layer was later crushed under the weight of another layer of rock, migamite. Crushed being the operative word here.

“Isn’t it extraordinary that this crushed material, now called limestone, has been carved by sculptor Mike Wilkins into this woman shape, which represents our crushed Magdalen women?

“The women were sentenced without trial. Their crime was that they had given birth to a baby. It is a dark judgment on society when the art in which a woman is most like God, the act of creating new life, becomes a crime.

“That crime was considered to be so horrendous that its punishment could be advanced without due process.

“And for that crime the baby was snatched from the new mother. She, the mother, was put away. Hidden, crushed under layers of self-righteousness. Her name and the name of her baby were erased from the discourse of society.

“This happened in recent Irish history. But this limestone was laid down millions of years ago.

“I now move from sculpture to theatre. I’ve written two plays set in the Magdalen experience. Eclipsed first produced in 1992 and Stained Glass At Samhain, looked at the Magdalen experience from a different angle.

“Sister Luke in Stained Glass At Samhain, when she comes back to her Magdalen Laundry at Killmacha, speaks of ‘the pain held in the earth’.

“I quote from Peter Brook, the famous theatre director: ‘The responsibility of anyone in the arts is to look, which is more difficult, for the other side of the coin, The moment you see a black side, your obligation is to look for the luminous side. The role of the artists to see what is behind the surface.”

“Peter Brook sees theatre as a kind of medicine. The theatre artist, like the doctor, must be able to look deeply into the wound before producing an act of healing.

“‘Theatre in it’s origin,’ he says, ‘was conceived as a healing instrument for the city.’

“I believe that this wonderful luminous limestone sculpture will heal our city, that the pain held in the earth here in this place of betrayal will be appeased.”

Ms Burke Brogan then read her poem Make Visible The Tree, written in 1990 when the laundry was demolished.

Make Visible The Tree

By Patricia Burke Brogan

This is the Place of Betrayal.

Roll back the stones

behind madonna blue walls.

Make visible the tree.

Above percussion of engines

from gloom of catacombs,

through a glaze of prayer,

stumble of chanting,

make visible the tree,

its branches ragged

with washed-out linens

of a bleached out shroud.

In this shattered landscape,

sharpened tongues

of sulphur-yellow bulldozers

slice through wombs

of blood-soaked generations.

This is the place where Veronica,

forsaken,

stares and stares

at a blank towel.

Part of this poem is inscribed at the base of the Final Journey statue.

Speaking after the launch, Labour Cllr Billy Cameron said: “I feel that as a city we have come to maturity in recognising the women and the wrongs done by past society. The Magdalens were ignored by the wider society of the day. People simply did not want to know about the abuse and depravity these women endured in this era of sexual intolerance.

“Even though the last remnants of the Magdalen laundries were closed in 1996 their legacy is ingrained in the psyche of Irish women. The unveiling of this sculpture and recognition by Galway city of injustices done can only start the healing process.”

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