Not having the usual security of knowing what theatre I'd be attending I was a bit apprehensive to say the least because this time I would be walking through an area in north inner city Dublin that sadly hasn't got the best of reputations. I did feel safe though as I strolled along in the mid-day sunshine. Turning off Lower Gardiner Street I now faced the long stretch of Sean McDermott Street, the Magdalene Laundry standing far down on the right-hand side. Approaching the building I saw what looked like a security man slowly pacing up and down, a white camper-van parked outside.
As I wasn't sure how or when I should enter the building I checked with the two women inside the van who very kindly allowed me to sit with them until it was time for the next performance. Just before 12.30pm one of the ladies then took myself and the other two audience members, both women (only three audience members permitted to each performance ) to the main hall door where she banged loudly on its peeling red paint.
For a moment nothing happens. The three of us exchange relaxed quizzical glances, the last time we would make eye contact for the duration of the performance. Suddenly the small grid in the hall door is pulled open from where a pair of angry eyes peer out, flitting backwards and forwards across our faces. Then comes the sound of bolts being roughly dragged open. Once inside, the three of us are immediately separated.
All this time a young girl, a "penitent" stands in the corner next to the hall door, our eyes meeting every so often. I notice her red raw hands. I hardly notice the young man arriving next to me who by now is becoming extremely agitated. He keeps shouting things like, "What are they doing in there?", "This is ridiculous!" while all the time moving very angrily. Referring to my bucket, he asks me what's in it, I tell him I think it is Dettol. Suddenly he loses it, bangs on the glass panel of the inner door then storms out. During all of this loud shouts in a male voice are coming from the right annex. Now I am alone with the girl in the corner still eyeing me every so often. Once or twice a young woman carrying a bundle of white sheets charges out of the building and back in again, slamming the doors as she goes.
The lady in charge arrives back out, moves the lady in the left annex over into the right then me into the left. I am ordered to sit on the chair in the corner of the tiny space. In front of me sits a man, beside me within a hair's breath is seated a young girl. She slowly holds out her hand to me, I'm not sure what to do. I take it. The beseeching look on her face, her large sad eyes penetrating mine makes me respond to her plight. Through facial expressions and hand stroking I convey to her my understanding of her situation. Suddenly she jumps up, shouting at the man who then tries to restrain her. An angry exchange of shouts continues until the two of them are on the floor. The man gathers the girl, moves himself into a seated position against the wall then infolds the distressed girl's head in his arms. She quietens. She returns to her seat, holds out her hand to me, I take it in both my hands. The door opens and I'm moved out.
The annex on the right is equally small. This time my only companion is an extremely angry young man. He moves with the agitation of a caged animal, at intervals thumping the wall and banging on the door. With each thump I nearly jump out of my skin. Trying to conceal my terror I use the odd calming word to try and subdue him, fearful that at any moment he could strike out. Then a split second of reality comes through, this is just a performance...but I am very much part of it.
For some reason during a moment in his quietness I run my finger along the paper rail to get a feel of the place. I'm searching for the negative energy in the wallpaper and deeper still in the bricks themselves. To my right on the ledge of the long thin window sits a framed notice with the address of the laundry. It reads: Gloucester St. Magdalene Asylum. To me the word Asylum congures up images of the old Lunatic Asylums. The state of mind I am in just then might well lead me to believe I'm in one such place. I am once again removed, leaving the agitated man to continue his ranting.
Continuing her roll-call the girl walks over to a filing cabinet which I hadn't noticed just behind me. She pulls open the two top drawers then continues her pacing. While she is slightly out of sight I look into the top drawer. Horror grips me as I see the locks of hair pinned to pieces of cardboard. The lower drawer contains huge amounts of carbolic soap bars. I cry even more.
The next room that I'm shown into is the one that still haunts me two weeks later.......
Details of that vignette along with the remaining pieces will appear as continuous posts in order to prevent each post being too long.
Above images of the Magdalene Laundry taken by me prior to attending the performance.
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