‘I am thinking about your baby! I think about nothing else’.
I shout these words, in a play. I am wearing the cloak of the character of ‘Tina’; who digs, every day, slowly and methodically in Liberty Park, in Dublin 1, with Bernadette.
They have heard about the discovery of children's bones buried in a septic tank in Tuam, on the radio. They have returned to the place they were incarcerated; the last Laundry in public ownership, the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene Home.
It’s hard to fathom the scale of what happened to women in Magdalene laundries. What makes it harder, is the lack of accountability.
There have been multiple reports where the burden of evidence was placed on survivors, but no formal judicial process has ever asked the Catholic Church to be accountable for its crimes.
It's 2017, a year earlier, and and we leave Tina and Bernadette digging in Liberty Park to visit the other side of the Laundry, the one that looks more respectable, echoes of Victorian England, and we see the artist Rachel Fallon standing at the door holding an apron up. The performance is called 'I Remember - Aprons Of Power - Places of Power'. In the act of raising the Apron it is transformed from a garment of servitude.
Concealing the wearer's upper body, the Apron becomes a banner that reveals its message “I Remember“, claiming the power of a military motto for this cause (“Je Me Souviens” Royal 2nd Regiment, Canada), a reminder of why we must continue to fight for justice.
Across the River Liffey, in Project Arts Centre, Jesse Jones premieres her new work 'Tremble Tremble' starring Olwen Fouéré. It was made in the lead-up to the repeal referendum and focused on the role of female body autonomy through allegories of female gigantism and the history of the witch trials.
In 2012, I saw Alice Maher’s film ‘Cassandra’s Necklace’, in which the young seer of the doomed city of Troy, who told the truth and was murdered for her pains, is seen wearing a bloody necklace of dismembered tongues, a defiant display symbolizing the violent silencing of the female voice throughout myth and history.
In 2011, Amanda Coogan put on her yellow dress for the first time and sat in a bucket wearing a sunflower yellow dress with a voluminous skirt. She put the skirt in the container, pulled it out and rubbed it repeatedly.
Seven years later, Tina and Bernadette took their cue from Amanda scrubbing her dress, in a ritualistic purification of the soul of the nation - to take up shovels and dig.
And then, Maoliosa Boyle, Director/Curator at Rua Red asked me, Amanda, Alice, Jesse and Rachel to create work in response to the figure of Mary Magdalene.
She was inspired to curate this series by her time living in Dublin as a single mother, she was appalled that women just like her were being incarcerated in the same city, in Sean McDermott St, which only closed in 1996. This research and anger brought her back to her home of Derry in 1998 where she forensically documented the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry, the evidence displayed as large-scale prints on the walls of the Orchard Gallery in 1999.
Bernadette: "Nothing happens here" Tina: "Except reports"
At the end of 2020, a piece of legislation came before Dáil Eireann that would seal the records of all State investigations into Church and State abuse for 30 years. As a group of artists we rose up together for the first time with a signal.
We drew eyes on our hands and we said: “Survivors, you are seen and heard. Government we won’t forget. The world is watching”. Thousands of people on social media replicated the image, TDs were flooded with emails and the Government did a characteristic U-turn.
We hear that the Commission to Inquire in Mother and Baby Homes has deleted all the testimony given to them without the consent of the women who gave it.
I’m imagining the Tinas and the Bernadettes who had to leave Ireland, who might have taken all the courage they could muster, to revisit the land that tried to destroy them, in the hopes of using their voice to incant some form of justice for future generations.
They learn, on the radio, that their words have been deleted. Weeks of anxiety later; Roderic O’Gorman announces they have been miraculously recovered. We don’t know what’s buried here.
They can destroy the recordings of Survivors' testimony, but they will never destroy their voices.
The commission is due to be dissolved on Sunday. It can’t be.
An entity that no longer exists can no longer be accountable for its actions. We don’t know what's buried here.
We call on all to rise up and demand justice.
Please repeat the action of drawing an eye on the palm of your hand and take a photo on your phone in black and white, then post it to social media with these words:
And to Tina, and Bernadette, if you’re reading this:
Under Section 31 Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 you have the right to report any concerns you have about how the recordings of your testimony have been handled. If you need someone to stand alongside you, I’ll be there with you, holding my shovel.
But know this, we are all now thinking about your baby.
And for the next five days, we pledge to think about nothing else.
- This article was edited on February 24 at 2.56pm.