Cat and Éiméar McClay sharing their research into Irish social institutions across the 20th century

December 8, 2021 12:17 pm

During our residency at Market Gallery, we focused on a project centred around the corrupt network of social institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland throughout the 20th century, with a particular focus on the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes. Subsequent to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, these institutions were used to solve the insufficient capacity of state-funded social care. The moralistic Catholic doctrine under which they were organised had a particularly detrimental effect on the women and children who were placed under their care. In the past, women who fell pregnant out of wedlock in Ireland were commonly ostracised, and disowned by their families. As the majority of maternity hospitals outside of Dublin refused to admit unmarried mothers, entry into the mother and baby homes (which typically had purpose-built maternity wards) was the only option for many women.

Across the month, we explored a number of additional topics that resonated with our research into the Irish social institutions. This helped us to create a more holistic view of these facilities, through providing an insight into the broader context in which they existed historically, as well as the ways in which they continue to hold influence. This research included Catholic shrines and reliquaries, the history of abortion legislation and bodily autonomy in Ireland, and Irish burial customs. 

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Conditions in the laundries (critical fabulation)

Across the course of the residency, we developed short text pieces, which we included as subtitles over video animation work that we made exploring the Irish Magdalene Laundries. We experimented with a variety of writing styles and structures, including what Saidiya Hartman describes as ‘critical fabulation’. This approach involves the combination of both historical and archival research, critical theory, and fiction into a narrative that attempts to fill gaps in historical records. In our own experimentation with critical fabulation, we created fictional narratives based on our historical research into the laundries to explore the conditions typically faced by those incarcerated. 

Many of the firsthand accounts that we read from women who spent time in the Magdalene Laundries bemoaned the relentless domestic labour they were forced to perform within these institutions. As well as the profit this labour created for the Catholic church, the washing done by the women in the laundries served a symbolic function. Through removing stains from fabric, they were believed by the nuns to also scrub away their sins. Considering this, the labour carried out within these institutions helped to ratify their function as a quasi-purgatory for those incarcerated. 

We also used this approach to explore the poor hygiene conditions faced by those incarcerated, as well as the insufficient medical attention provided for those who suffered sickness or physical injury. Many former residents recount being permitted to bathe as little as once a month, in water that was never changed between uses by those ahead of them in the queue.

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Appropriated text

Whilst conducting research into the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes, we discovered many first-person accounts of the conditions suffered by those incarcerated. In order to convey an embodied perspective, we experimented with appropriating sections of various survivors’ testimonies, and incorporating them in the form of subtitles over some of the animations we had developed exploring similar themes. 

We were particularly moved by a short text written by historian Catherine Corless, which we subsequently included in the form of subtitles over a 3D-animated video inspired by her work. The original text is featured on a hand-written sign as part of a shrine at the Tuam Mother and Baby home burial ground. Corless is an important political figure in current discussions of the homes, as her research precipitated much of the recent concern surrounding the poor living conditions of those incarcerated. Through her investigation into library, church and council records, she discovered that 796 children died in the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, for whom she was unable to find burial records. After learning that two boys had uncovered a pile of skeletons belonging to children and infants in the grounds of the home in the 1970s, Corless proposed that some of the 796 deceased had been buried in a defunct septic tank situated there. This story quickly gained  international media coverage, provoking an inquiry into the events at Tuam by the Irish government. Following this inquiry, titled the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, it was confirmed that the bodies found in the mass grave on the grounds of the home dated from the time the home was in operation. This evidence both corroborated Corless’s suspicions, and debunked specious claims that the remains belonged to a famine-era grave. Nonetheless, the bodies remain in the sewage facility at the time of writing. According to an article published in the Irish Independent on 3 November 2021, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman hopes that legislation will be processed “as quickly as possible” to allow the exhumation of the site in 2022.

The text in this video is a transcription from the 1998 documentary film, Sex in a Cold Climate, which details the mistreatment of those incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries. Our chosen passage is a section of dialogue from Christina Mulcahy, who lived in a mother and baby home after giving birth to her son in 1940. When her baby was 10-months-old, Christina was cruelly refused the opportunity to say goodbye to him, after she was ordered to leave the home without him with no prior warning. Much later in life, with the help of her subsequent family, Christina was finally reunited with her son shortly before she died in February 1997. 

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Factual info regarding conditions + contemporary discussions of the laundries

Using our research into the Magdalene Laundries, we wrote a few short texts detailing certain aspects of how they were run. This included looking at how those in charge dealt with the burials of women who died whilst under their care. The disrespectful handling of deceased residents exemplifies the low regard in which those incarcerated were considered by the nuns. In 1993, the exhumation of a mass grave found on the site of a former Magdalene Laundry at High Park, Dublin drew vital attention to this abnegation of care. The 133 bodies disinterred belonged to women previously incarcerated in the laundry; burial records were not provided in all instances. 34 women were marked as ‘No Trace’ cases, meaning that no information could be sourced regarding their identities or causes of death. Furthermore, 23 women were identified using quasi-religious titles, such as Magdalene of —. The discovery of this mass grave during a redevelopment of the site on which it was created, and the level of secrecy and uncertainty surrounding its contents raised many questions regarding the operation of the Magdalene Laundries and the relationship between the church and state in Ireland.

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Adjacent research topics

This video depicts the kind of cot typically provided for children who lived in the mother and baby homes in Ireland during the 20th century. The text subtitled over the visual discusses cillíní, the unconsecrated graves in which unbaptised children and people who died by suicide were buried in Ireland in the past. The manner in which these people were physically separated from the rest of the population in the land after death reinscribed their perceived position as moral outliers in a devoutly Catholic society. The social attitudes that led to the creation of these graves for those who strayed from Catholic doctrine are reflected in how residents of the Magdalene Laundries were treated after death.