It was 21 years ago this week that Kildysart woman Patricia Burke-Brogan’s play ‘Eclipsed’ exposed the horror of the Magdalene laundry industry. She spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh about her true vocation of being a whistleblower.
PATRICIA Burke-Brogan was 21 and had a vocation; at least she thought she had one.
She did, but it wasn’t life as a ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ nun with the Sisters of Mercy order in Galway that she had just joined in 1955 after leaving Carysfort College with her primary teaching qualification.
All it took to realise this was one week during her novice year. “A day would have convinced me,” she says nearly 60 years on. “A few hours would have done it,” she adds.
A week, a day, a few hours inside the walls of the Magdalene Laundry on Foster Street in Galway. Fifty-eight years ago, but yesterday at the same time – especially in the week of the final admission of there being Church and State collusion in the operation in the Magdalene industry around the country.
“The noise of the machines, the sweating walls, chemical smells and so many women – young, middle-aged and old,” recalls Burke-Brogan. “I was shocked. I was shocked that inside these laundries, these women were gone, erased, just disappeared.
“You give up a lot when you go into a convent. You give up your will and you have to be obedient and toe the line, be almost a saint and say nothing. I knew the Magdalene Laundry was there but I didn’t know what was going on there. I was as blind as the people who were sent into the laundry.
“There could have been 100 people there. There were machines and women, machines and women. There was one particular woman, I remember, who showed it was a dumping ground for women that families and the State didn’t want. The woman was Down Syndrome and obviously she was put in there because they didn’t want her at home. The others had different degrees of sorrow attached to them. I get emotional when I think of it still,” she adds.
In this environment, the Kildysart-born novice was supposed to stay silent – but couldn’t and instead questioned her faith, her vocation and, above all, her superiors before coming out the other side with a new vocation.
“I just had the courage to ask ‘how long are they going to be here, are they going to be here all the time, are they going to be let out?’. They said, if we let them out, ‘they’ll be back here pregnant in no time’.
“That was the attitude of the superiors, this thing that it was in the blood for seven generations. Some were the children of women who were born out of wedlock and it would happen to them – their mothers were fallen women, they would be fallen women. It was awful. It was disgusting. These were Catholic people who did this – so called Christians. They were getting rid of them because there was the thing that having a baby outside of marriage was a desperate sin. The fact that they stole away their lives didn’t seem to be a sin at all. I just couldn’t understand it. It was like Dante’s inferno, that’s how I describe it.”
She left the nuns with a new vocation. It took a few years, many in fact, for Burke-Brogan to become a whistle-blower – it’s easy to see why. The Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s was still one in which the Church ruled – that extended a couple of more generations but there came a time when she couldn’t stay silent any longer.
“The way I put it was that I thought I had a vocation to work for the poor, but I had a crisis of faith and a crisis of vocation as a result of that,” she says. “My vocation was, as I look at it now, to highlight what was happening. My vocation was to open up the doors on this room and show what was going on.
“It took time for me to do it, because it wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing, but I had to do it. It was my vocation. I feel that’s maybe why I had to go into the nuns, experience what I did and then come out and write about it. It was finding the courage to do it.”
First she wrote a short story about her experience that was the first to open the door on the Magdalene system and show the world what was going on – then came her acclaimed play on the subject.
“I called the short story ‘Sun Flowers’, because sunflowers love looking at the sun. These women weren’t able – they were out of the sun, locked away, like slaves working,” she says. “Then I began to write the play, ‘Eclipsed’. I developed it slowly. I started in the early ‘80s and it took nearly 10 years.
“I sent the script all over the place. Druid, the local company, sent it back – I don’t think they even read it. I sent it to Red Kettle and they wrote back saying: ‘Do you realise what you’re saying’. They asked to change this and that, but I wouldn’t.
“I sent it to Field Day in Derry. They were doing terrific work and I got a letter to say they were interested in doing a second reading. I waited for nine months and then discovered they had broken up. That was a pity.
“The Abbey said they didn’t like Mother Victoria – in other words, they were afraid. Then I went to Punch Bag. In November ‘91, they did a kind of reading in public – the place was packed. Then it opened on February 14, 1992. When it appeared on stage, people were horrified,” she adds.
That’s 21 years ago this week, with the premiere taking place in a small converted garage near the Spanish Arch in Galway. It has since travelled the world.
“The setting was very appropriate,” says Burke-Brogan. “There were holy water hens as I call them – they were organising a protest, but it fell through. I got this envelope one morning that was posted from Blackpool. I opened it and there was my photo with horns and witch written on it. I was in an awful state – this thing came out of nowhere.
“I got strange phonecalls. There was the odd letter to the paper that ‘them women were a lot better off in the Magdalene Laundries than on the street’ – as much to say they were prostitutes, which they were not. I’m sure there are still people who say that – they just don’t want to know the truth.”