Ronnie O’Gorman – An artist opened Galway’s ‘Secrets Box’

Ronnie-OGorman-Dick-DonaghueRonnie O’Gorman is a recognised innovator in the media business. His newspaper, The Galway Advertiser, was the first free sheet in Ireland and one of the first papers to really embrace the use of colour and more telegraphic formats, content and layouts, which are now widespread in the print media business. Ronnie was born in Galway, where his family had run a successful business, printing works, bookshop and stationers since the turn of the century. He graduated in London and worked with the Westminster Press before returning to Galway in 1970 to set up the Galway Advertiser. The Galway Advertiser is today acknowledged as the leading free newspaper in Ireland.


An artist opened Galway’s ‘Secrets Box’

By Ronnie O’Gorman 

Most families, most adults, and most communities have secrets; past indiscretions they would rather forget about, and usually not very serious. But  some of them can be very painful, and are kept hidden, in a sort of a Secrets Box,  long after they need to be.
It took an artist like Patricia Burke Brogan, to prise open the heavy doors of the Magdalene Laundry, which had remained a sad, and neglected, community secret for generations. The marginalisation of unmarried mothers was so embedded in our psyche that we were afraid to look inside ourselves.
There were no whistleblowers in the Ireland of the early 1990s; yet Patricia deeply felt that the stories of the ‘Maggies’ had to be told. Not in a sensational headline-grabbing way, but in such a way that the lives of the women involved would be remembered as part of our shared humanity.*
pattPatricia, a former  Mercy novice, who had worked as a supervisor in the laundry, originally wrote the story as a one-act play. Single-mothers, Cathy, Brigit, Mandy and Nellie-Nora, whose children are either dead, or have been taken away for adoption, or were enclosed in orphanages, were condemned to work in humiliating conditions in a laundry. The women are ‘disgraced and forgotten’ by the community outside the gates; while their lovers, the fathers of their children, are not held responsible. Having read the play, Fintan O’Toole, the literary editor and drama critic with The Irish Times, encouraged Patricia to enlarge the story into a full-length play, and send it to Irish theatre companies for production.
After several rejections, Punchbag Theatre Company, agreed to do it. Eclipsed  opened in a converted garage near the Spanish Arch,  on St Valentine’s Day, February 14  1992 (the irony of the date was not lost on Patricia). It was an immediate success. ** There were some objections, which probably helped  its promotion. One evening people stood outside the theatre objecting that nuns were depicted in a bad light. Yet the crowds kept coming. People openly wept in the audience. It went on tour of Irish theatres receiving excellent reviews. But  when Punchbag took the play to the Edinburgh Theatre festival, and it won the major Fringe award, it attracted  the mother and father of all the publicity that you can imagine.

Hidden stories

Despite all this success Patricia was uncertain how to cope. There were still demonstrations outside theatres; and sinister phone calls. She was most upset when opening her post one morning she found a photograph of herself, cut out from a newspaper, disfigured with horns and devil symbols in black ink. She denied that she was  anti-Catholic Church. “ Everyone blamed the sisters, but the State did nothing to intervene.”
But there were also the quiet ‘thank yous’ from friends and strangers; even desperate calls from distant voices wondering if Patricia knew what happened to such-and -such baby?  a mother?  or family sibling?
Opening an exhibition of Patricia’s paintings and etchings at a later date, Minister for Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht,  Michael D Higgins, commented on the ‘risks’ that she took in bringing her ‘ hidden story of grief, and enforced silence’ to the world.  “ It represented,”  he said, ‘“ a drawing back of the veil in many senses.”  Patricia was faithful to the characters the play represented. “ It was as if the hidden stories could almost not have had another author”.

Film rights

Patricia’s uncertainty at how to cope with the reaction to her play, and her naivety in dealing with  legal contracts, lawyers, and the important business of copyright, became evident when Samson Films contacted her to say that the BBC appointed it to negotiate film rights, and script.  Of course Patricia was interested, and anxious to be involved in the project. It was agreed that she adapt the play for film. But it all ended in tears. Misunderstandings, deadlines, and disagreements over her script, incredibly cost Patricia any say in the final film. She lost all entitlements to her story.***
Frustrated at this turn of events Patricia decided not to lose sight of her initial objective. She turned her thoughts ‘ to the darkness of their great wounding’ which had affected thousands of Magdalene women .‘ Though those women gave birth, created new lives, the art in which woman is most like God, they were used and rejected by lovers, by their families, and by the Irish State. The Church colluded. Their names and the names of their babies were obliterated from the history of humankind.’
‘What has happened to me, and to my play Eclipsed, brings me closer to them in their despised and rejected lives. With them I too am eclipsed.’****

NOTES: * It should be stressed that Patricia does not blame the nuns for the humiliation of the laundry inmates. The nuns shared the same culture of condemnation that existed in the  Ireland of the time. I have often wondered about the parents of the girls who put their daughters away. Were they too victims of the warped morality of the time that made them punish their children? Everyone suffered.
**The Advertiser drama critic at the time was An tSuir Ailbé, an Irish scholar, school teacher, and a member of the Mercy community. She saw the play on its opening night, and described it as ‘ A small masterpiece’. There was great excitement in the Advertiser office when the BBC flew her to Edinburgh for an interview, and some sticky questions on the Magdalene laundries. Ailbé, however, was well able for them!
Although Patricia Burke Brogan has written two further plays, Requiem of Love, and Stained Glass at Samhain, Eclipsed continues to attract attention. It was the first to tell the story of the Magdalene laundries, and has been performed on three continents, winning major awards and still attracting publicity.
*** In 2002 The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullen, was a successful film starring Anne Marie Duff, Nora Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Geraldine McEwan, and Eileen Walsh.
**** Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, by Patricia Burke Brogan  published by Wordsonthestreet.

Was this a glimpse of Dante’s Purgatorio?

‘No one wants these women. We protect them from their passions. We give them food, shelter and clothing. We look after their spiritual needs.’ And that was all that was believed to be required for the inmates of the Magdalene Laundry, in Forster Street, Galway. It is true that no one wanted ‘these women’, because of the twisted sense of morality of the time. Girls who gave birth to a child outside marriage were ostracised by society. If the pregnancy and birth could not be kept hidden (some families kept their pregnant daughter locked away in an upstairs bedroom, or sent to a relative in England); people feared local gossip, and judgment to such an extent that parents turned against their own daughters. They brought their daughters to the nuns, and walked away. The problem was out of sight, and, they probably believed, gone away.
Patricia Burke Brogan, a young noviciate with the Mercy sisters, although concerned at the discipline demanded in the religious life, she was happy enough, and teaching in the school. But her vocation was immediately challenged when she was sent across the city to Forster Street to supervise the Magdalene laundry which, she was told, was ‘the richest branch-house of our Order’.
Stepping inside the building she noted that each door was double locked and bolted behind her. Having walked down a long dark corridor with the Mother- in- charge, another heavy double-locked door was opened, and Patricia was met by a deafening noise:‘ We’re in a room with huge machines from which steam hisses. Prison bars pattern the roof-windows. The grey walls are sweating. There is a stench of soiled clothing. Bleach fumes sting my throat. I gasp for air.’ * Gradually Patricia made out that the room was full of women. ‘Elderly women, middle-aged women, and young girls all seem to merge with the grey womb-like washing machines.’
After the lecture from the Mother about why the nuns must look after the women, Patricia is warned not to speak to them. Her job was to supervise them, nothing more. Patricia asks why the women are there? She is told abruptly that the women are all penitents.‘ They’re weak. They’ve no control Sister.
They have broken the sixth and nine commandments.’
It is the first time she has heard of ‘The Maggies’ as the women were called in Galway town. Patricia wondered if she had slipped down into Dante’s Purgatorio.

Seven generations

Once the Mother- in -charge went away, Patricia went over to an arthritic woman bent over a sink hand-scrubbing a dirty shirt collar. She took the scrub from the woman and began to scrub herself, despite the woman protesting that it was her work. But Patricia felt that Christ would have done the same.
Moments later the Mother-in – charge had burst in. She loudly reprimanded the woman for allowing Patricia to help. She warned Patricia that she was there to supervise, not to do the work.
‘But they are our Sisters in Christ,’ Patricia protested.
‘Our Sisters’!
‘Yes Mother. Part of His Mystical Body.’
‘You are preparing to take vows, Sister. A vow of obedience. Keep aloof from those fallen women… some of them were mothers of women in the laundry now. You see this weakness for sins of the flesh stays in the blood for seven generations. From now on you’ll just check their work, Sister!’

Grieving for their babies

Some days later two young women approach Patricia and tell her that they are going on strike. ‘No more of this filthy, dirty work. You can run over now and tell the big-toothy dragon’ (mother-in-charge).
At a signal from the two ringleaders, all of the women, except for the white-capped consecrated penitents (who were those who had taken an oath never to escape), sit on the flagstone floor. Some hold baby clothes in their arms, and rock their bodies as they sing lullabies.
Seoithín Seo hó, mo stoirín, mo leanbh. Mo sheód gan cealg, mo chuid den tsaol mór.
Suddenly the consecrated penitents join the others on the flagstones. They too rock to ad fro. To and fro. The place is full of mothers grieving for their babies.
It is a moment of decision for Patricia. What was she to do? Saying a silent prayer for guidance, she walked towards the protesting women, and sat down among them.
Everyone looked at her in surprise. Time passed. Then slowly, slowly, one after the other, the women got up, and went back to their work in silence.’


NOTES: * I am taking all the quotes from Patricia’s latest book, Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, published by Wordsonthestreet

Patricia’s vocation did not take root

Patricia Burke Brogan joined the noviciate of the Mercy Sisters at the convent of St Vincent, Newtownsmith, Galway  at the end of the 1950s.  It was before the reforms of Vatican II had relaxed rule of the heavy medieval habit, the shorn hair, and a constant reminder ‘to keep custody of the eyes’. What was called ‘discipline’, which was nothing less than outrageous bullying, was meted out on the novices by some of the older nuns, in a cutting and wounding way. The nuns were hard on each other.
Deeply upset by the treatment of the  Magdalen women at Forster Street, Patricia left the convent. But not before appearing before Bishop Michael Browne, and three senior members of the order, in one final ordeal. She had asked to leave six months before, but was told she had to wait for permission  from the Vatican, and warned that if she told anyone of her intentions it would be a mortal sin!
This delay, however, was not necessary. Patricia could have walked away at any time. However, she waited the prescribed time, and gladly signed her departure form (with the Bishop’s own gold pen), which included a fee of £50 to be paid to the bishop ‘for his presence’ on that occasion.
Its probable the nuns were glad to be rid of her. She was a bit of a rebel. For three years, ‘keeping custody of the eyes’, she cleaned and polished corridors, washed and chopped vegetables, and carved the meat for the following day. One day, while re-heating dinners in the refectory, she decided to put the best slices of meat under the novices’ plate-covers. “ The superiors at the top tables have vows of poverty so they should practice poverty. Novices are the future members of this congregation, and need extra nourishment.” she remarked to another novice.
Without a word being said,  Patricia was ordered to different duties the next day.

Dancing in Gort

Leaving the convent Patricia was warned that she would never get a job in the diocese. Yet as a fully qualified teacher, she had little difficulty. She became the mhúinteoir of the little national school at Ballinderreen, on the edge of the Burren, and enjoyed happy years teaching art and stories to the imaginative children there. National schools were extremely relaxed places at the time. Visitors would pop in and out. A frequent visitor was lady Christabel Ampthill, who came to live in Kinvara castle to  escape from the publicity of the notorious Russell Baby Case of 1922. It was proved that despite her being virgo intacta, she had given birth to a son. Her husband sued her for a divorce.*
She was an expert horsewoman, and would ride up to the school and invite all the children to a party at the castle.
Another visitor, but properly so, was the parish priest. He would ask Patricia to buy him a pair of new shoes in Galway. He couldn’t understand how rapidly they were being worn down. He did not know that when he put his shoes outside the bedroom on a Saturday night to be polished, his housekeeper quietly took them for her boyfriend so they could go wild dancing in Gort.

Christmas tree

Apart from the plight of the Magdalen women, there was one particular incident in the early days of Patricia’s noviciate that prompted her to reconsider her vocation. It was a very simple one; but an intimate family tradition at Christmas time was not appreciated in her community, and immediately left Patricia feeling isolated rather than part of her new ‘family’.
An elderly  friend  Mikey Walsh, always brought them from his land, a Christmas tree  every Christmas Eve. But when Patricia joined the convent he cut a larger than usual tree, brought it into Galway on the bus, and carried it to the door of the convent.
Patricia was polishing the long corridor floor when she was summoned to the Mother of Novices’ office. She was told that a Mikey Walsh had brought a tree for her but it was not acceptable ‘to entertain strange men in the convent’. The tree was left outside in the garden. She could look at it from the window just this once.
There was the tree lying on its side in the earth.
‘Could we not have offered Mikey a cup of tea? Asked Patricia, ‘We always gave him tea and cake at home.’
The Mother shook her head. ‘ You may return to your work in the long corridor now, Sister’.
Some days later a letter from her father was handed to her already opened and read. It was all about Mikey who returned home puzzled by his reception. He had managed to get the tree into a hackney cab as far as the nearest Longford-Galway bus stop. He was allowed stand the tree at the end of the bus for the 25 miles to Galway. The poor man carried the tree all the way to the Salmon Weir Bridge, and rang the convent door bell. After some time a sister opened the door. ‘ I have a present here for Sister Patricia,’ said Mikey, ‘ all the way from Cooloo,’
Without a word, the tree was taken inside. The door was shut.
As Patricia went back to her polishing the long corridor she wondered if the tree would take root in the earth outside. She instinctively felt that she would not take root in the convent. **


NOTES: * I have written several times about this intriguing case. DNA testing was later to prove that the baby was the legitimate son of Lady Ampthill’s husband. The mystery was how the child was conceived. In 1976 the House of Lords agreed that the boy, Geoffrey,  could succeed to his father’s title as Fourth Baron Ampthill.
** I am taking the story of the last three weeks from Patricia’s Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, published by Wordsonthestreet.

Coping with the Magdalen fallout

Ilearn something of the impact that the Magdalen Laundries scandal had on the Mercy nuns themselves reading the personal testimony of Sister Phyllis Kilcoyne. Sister Kilcoyne is part of the Leadership Team of the Western Province of the Mercy Order.*
I suppose every sister reacted in her own way, but Phyllis’s reaction went back to the time when she told her mother that she was joining the nuns, and her mother’s tearful plea that she reconsider her decision.
Her mother’s experience of nuns at primary school was quite negative. She remembered them as being harsh and uncaring. When Phyllis told her of her vocation, she cried for weeks. Her father accepted her decision, and tried to act as peacemaker, but her mother was never really reconciled to her daughter’s decision. Phyllis joined the convent directly from school. Her mother visited her regularly and, clearly disapproving of her daughter’s choice, told her that she would always be welcomed home. It was a difficult time for both women.
‘At one level, I thought I was doing a good thing. But at another level my choice was hurting her.’ Her mother’s upset caused Phyllis to seriously reconsider her vocation. She questioned some of the practices within the convent, some of which she thought were nonsensical. She particularly objected to the fact that her mother’s letters were read before she got them.
For the next decade and more, Phyllis still questioned whether it was the life that she really wanted. But, in her mid-thirties, after a prolonged retreat with the Jesuits, she knew that the religious life was her true calling.
She would give it everything she had.
She never looked back.‘ Over the years the pain around the relationship with my mother had wounded me, and caused me to falter in my faith many times. But now I am at peace with whatever comes my way.’


When Justice Sean Ryan’s report of child abuse was published in May 2009, Phyllis felt embarrassed and ashamed.
She remembered her mother’s disappointment that she was joining the nuns, and her negative experience of them as a child. Over the years a sadness had grown between them.
Although they were very caring to each other, there was ‘ an unspoken barrier’. But one evening they watched the orphanage story on television together, when her mother was in her nineties, and in a nursing home. Phyllis instantly understood her mother’s long time concern. ‘It helped me,’ writes Phyllis, ‘ to hear her story in a new way.
It was an insight for me, and a release for her, and it brought tears to us both.
In a mysterious way I felt God was offering me this truth to help bring about a reconciliation in my heart with my mother. This indeed happened. I was with her when she died.’

A lower energy

Phyllis had never worked in an orphanage but she talked with sisters who did. They all acknowledged the pain that was caused by what happened, and its revelations. ‘I am happy that we, as an order, did apologise to the victims of abuse; but it still cast a big cloud over all our lives. I found myself dealing with sisters who were very vulnerable around the story.
All of that lowered our energy considerably. But I do believe that good will always triumph over evil, and that the truth will always set us free.’
Phyllis was born in a county Sligo village, the eldest of three and the only girl. Her family were not particularly religious. She attended a two-teacher school, and was the only girl in the class. She was on her own most of the day. But in secondary school, the Mercy nuns were caring and interested in her and their students, enough to attract Phyllis to join them immediately after school. She became headmistress of the school, but after the Magdalen revelations, she moved from the school into family therapy, and has played a vital role in finding new directions for the Sisters of Mercy. That quest is still on-going.
‘Our opportunities as Mercy sisters are endless now. If there is an idea that we have that we would like to set up some little project, or do something for any group in society, there are few regulations around that. But sadly our energy and our numbers are diminishing. There is the contradiction. When we were younger we had the energy, but felt restricted in what we could do. Now the reverse is the case.’


NOTES: * Credo – Personal Testimonies of Faith, compiled and edited by John Quinn, published by Veritas, which will be launched at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop at 6.30pm this evening, by acclaimed harpist Mary O’Hara.


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