Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Laundry" Performing The Story Of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries (Part 2)

Continuing my chronicling of the "Laundry" vignettes:

Still holding the bucket of "breast-milk" I'm now ushered from the main hall-way into a bathroom.

I'm told to place the bucket on the floor a little ways inside the door then the lady in charge leaves. A "heavily pregnant" girl moves across the room and seats herself on a stool, her face totally without expression. My eyes move to the milky-white liquid in the bath which I take to be either disinfectant or carbolic soap, whichever it is the smell is almost overpowering. A movement to my left startles me.

She appears to be in a catatonic state, her movements slow yet deliberate. Turning, the girl then presses her slim white body against the wall, arms outstretched as if trying to move through the very brickwork itself in search of something. At this point my tears return, I desperately want to help her find whatever it is she's looking for. Once again I'm drawn into the nightmare. It's real, it's not real. It was once real, very real.

Facing me now she slowly walks towards me her enormous dark eyes fixed steadily on mine. I realise for the first time she is completely naked except for the bandage-like binding around her breasts. She begins to unwind this, holding out the end of it towards me. I automatically take it and she begins to twirl around until she is completely free. I struggle to control my sobs, for her sake. I then take the delicate white hand she holds out to help her step into the bath. Even in the water her body conveys a terrible sadness by its tormented movements. At one point she curls into the foetal position. What happens next explains everything in this room.

At the distant sound of a new-born infant's cries the girl in the bath stretches out her arm as if trying to comfort her child. I have never seen such pain in anyone's eyes. As a mother my heart broke for her and all the girls for whom this was a reality, so much so that now I cry without reservation. I am past self-consciousness. Still holding the bandage I help this unfortunate young girl step out of the sanitised water and as she twirls back into the binding I realise with absolute horror that this is possibly being used to surpress her milk. What God in Heaven put these nuns on this earth?

I'm so upset at believing this beautiful girl must now be perished with the cold I pick up one of the towels surrounding the bottom of the bath and place it around her shoulders. Continuing my attempts to comfort her I gently take some of her lovely long black wavy hair from beneath the towel, imagining this will make her feel less cold. Just then the door opens and I'm once again asked to leave. Walking out the doorway I give one final glance back at the poor soul grieving beyond belief the loss of her baby.

Emotionally drained I walk with the lady in charge to the next room praying for some respite here. There are many chairs in this room, most occupied, some at the back sit empty. "Matron", as I shall refer to her from hereon in, instructs me to be seated. Immediately I feel I've just arrived in a classroom where its occupants, hunched over on their knees on chairs, are seemingly reciting some sort of legal text about the protection of children and rights of citizens in a most monotonous tone. At the end of each line they appear to self-flagellate by slapping themselves on their backs. Very unsettling.

If that seems strange their next piece makes me feel even more uneasy. Rising from their scrunched up positions they then form a straight line where this time they begin to sing in yet again monotone fashion. Every so often they first turn in one direction then the other, each time leaning on each others' shoulders as if resting or taking comfort. I'm not at all sure what's happening here. This room is full of lighting, mainly red in colour giving an almost warm, cosy ambience. I'm sure that's not what it's meant to portray and it's just me not picking up on the theme. The beautiful high vaulted ceiling, the highly polished parquet flooring all convey a feeling that nothing bad could have happened in here. Somehow I sense I'm so wrong.

Once again my thoughts are interrupted and I'm moved out now to face a two-way mirror behind which a young girl, a "Maggie" as the inmates were also known as, beckons to me, again in that slow motion movement. I remain motionless. She disappears and my reflection stares back at me. When she reappears she is several steps closer to me than before, I continue watching in bewilderment. After this is repeated several times, each time she's moving closer, I have such a strong feeling of wanting to help her in some way but I don't know how. All I can do is place my hand on the glass in the hope that she takes comfort from it. I not prepared for the final time when she now stands right up against the mirror which almost causes me to jump back. She uses sign language to me, I struggle to understand the urgency in her request but gather she wants me to tell the outside world she's in here. Still with my hand on the glass, I nod, "yes".

I'm aware of a girl slowly leading me into the church. We stop at a magnificant stain glass window dipicting an image of the Virgin Mary with child in her arms. The young girl gazes up lovingly at the scene and several times says to me "Isn't he beautiful?" I respond "yes, he is". At this point I suspect she must have had a baby who was taken from her. I feel sad. She then leads me across to a wall which has a couple of holes in it. Her question startles me, "Did you hear him?" I respond, "no". My head is all over the place so I don't connect this question with the observation I'd just made a minute before. "They took him away". Still no connection. (Hours later it dawns on me, I feel so stupid!). We remain together a few moments longer then an older woman leads me right into the small church.

For the first time during these performances I feel a tremendous sense of peace. The brightness of this little building in contrast to the dark, austere outer rooms is a welcome pleasure to behold. My respite is brief because as I sit with this lovely lady I completely break down , constantly apologising through my tears. She reassures me it's OK, holds my hand then puts her arm around me. I feel guilty because I should be the one comforting her, not the other way around.

After handing me a tissue she proceeds to tell the the story of why she is still here. She did leave many years earlier and married but later in life when her husband died she could not cope with being on her own so chose to return to this place. It is beyond me why someone would choose this wretched life over lonliness. She seems very much at peace. We look at one of the stain glass windows portraying a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, my comforting lady seems to like this one in particular. I finally stop crying. She gives me a lemon sweet which she says helps when you're distressed. I want to stay with this lady but it's time to move on.

We walk over to a confession box which she assures me is unlike any that I know. There I'm introduced to another young "Maggie" who's waiting for me in the warm glow of an amber lamp-light......

This vignette along with the remaining pieces will appear in the next and final part of this blog post.

Girl In Bath Image: Anu Productions and © Pat Redmond.
Other Images taken by me prior to attending the performance.


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