Local Play Examines Modern Irish Sweatshops

By Betsy Hunton Special to the Planet
Friday June 11, 2004

The Wilde Irish Productions theater group is back at the Berkeley City Club with another sterling production—Irish, of course. This time it is Patricia Burke Brogan’s heartbreaking—maybe the word should be “horrifying”—internationally known drama, Eclipsed. 

Although Brogan herself insists angrily “it’s not a documentary!”, her play seems to have been the first in the storm of media attention paid to the (unfortunately) true Magdalene Laundry scandals. Films, articles, TV specials: the whole works have been spurred by the story of these women who, until uncomfortably recently, lived out their lives as quasi-slaves, providing free labor to the money-making laundries attached to some Irish (and English and Scottish) convents.  

Their crimes? They were—or sometimes were only suspected by their families of potentially being—too sexual. (Some were only seen as “too pretty”!) Enraged by, or fearful of, the stigma of illegitimate pregnancy, their families dumped them at the laundries where they were given new names.  

Their babies were placed in orphanages. Those children who as adults have attempted to trace their family history are frequently stymied. (A computer search has so far been unable to find any reference at all to the babies’ fathers). 

The last of the Irish Magdalene Laundries was closed in 1996.  

Brogan’s drama, fiction as it is, has unusual authenticity; the playwright is a former novice who was assigned to a Magdalene Laundry. 

One suspects that it is her personal acquaintance with the reality of life among these women that produces the most surprising part of the play—the playfulness which is often seen among the young women. This drama is not unrelenting misery.  

Yes, it’s a very painful story; but these are young women—probably late teens, early twenties, still very much full of life. They’ve become friends and they act the way young people do. When nobody is there to catch them, they’re very apt to joke and tease and waste time.  

It’s very real and very poignant. And a very effective part of the dramatic technique. 

It isn’t surprising that the Wilde Irish company has created such a strong production—they’re given to placing the right actors in the right roles, and this is no different. The Magdalenes themselves are fine actors, and believable, establishing individualized personalities. And both the Mother Superior (Breda Courtney) and the novice (Lauren Bloom) are uncomfortably real. 

To remark on only one or two of the production’s technical strengths: first, there is Richard Olmsted’s staging. He has done a truly remarkable job of transforming the City Club’s oblong room into a believable laundry. (It doesn’t seem do-able, but he did). And Greg Sharpin’s sound design is equally extraordinary. It’s pretty clear that the people who are running things in this production know what they’re doing. 

The laundries first came to public attention in Dublin in 1993 when 133 graves of unnamed women were found on grounds sold to developers by an old convent named High Park. (Subsequently more than 20 more graves were located). The graves belonged to the women who had served out their lives as unpaid workers in the laundry attached to the convent. 

Originally established in Ireland as a refuge and rehabilitation project for prostitutes, the laundries date back several centuries. Somewhere in the last half of the 19th century, they became dumping grounds for unwed mothers—even rape or incest victims—and for “wild” girls who were suspiciously flirtatious, or even, just too pretty. The “rehabilitation” to which they were subjected was labor in the laundries; they served as unpaid laborers doing the laundry generated by the church and, subsequently, other sources.  

It is considered to have been a good source of revenue for the church.›