Local Residents Ask for More of a Voice on Future of Magdalene Laundry Site

The local community must have more say over the future of the former Magdalene laundry site on Sean McDermott Street, says historian Terry Fagan.

Dublin City Council should hold forums across all the flat complexes so nobody is left out of the loop, including older local residents, he says.

“Bring the local people in, lay down the plans, get their opinion,” says Fagan, who works with Hands On Peer Education (H.O.P.E.) on Upper Buckingham Street.

Amidst the debate over what should or should not be done with the site, there has been a focus on hearing from survivors of Magdalene laundries. And, in June, survivors are due to gather at the Mansion House to meet and discuss a potential memorial to their experiences.

But there are (at least) two sides to consider – those who survived the laundries and those in the local community, says Sian Muldowney, coordinator of the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON).

June’s gathering is the right start, she says. But, “For the community? They’re aware of the history but they’re going to have to live with whatever happens. And once that land is gone it’s gone. Whatever is developed is developed.”

And if nothing is developed because Dublin city councillors block a bid from Japanese hotel chain Toyoko Inn Co. Ltd to buy the site, local residents have to live with that too.

Enliven the Area

“We live here,” says Joe Dowling, a local community worker who, along with Fagan and friend Tony Dunleavy, want their voices heard about the site’s future. “We’ve seen that eyesore for years and years.”

“As kids we used to bring in the shirts but we didn’t know what was going on behind the gates,” says Dowling.

Dowling, Dunleavy and Fagan all say that a memorial at the former laundry site takes priority. Yet a hotel could enliven the area and create local employment, too, they argue.

As they see it, it’s a chance for regeneration. With the council-owned site up for sale, the preferred bidder for some time has been Toyoko, according to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

It wants to put a 350-bedroom hotel, alongside commercial and office and retail space, and a gallery or cultural space in the convent’s chapel – as well as a community centre and a supermarket, they added.

The proposal also includes 76 apartments, most of which are earmarked for social housing for elderly people, according to the spokesperson.

For the sale to proceed, though, councillors must give their approval, and councillors from Sinn Féin – the largest party on the council – said in January that they would vote against the sale if there were going to be a hotel on the site.

That vote has been delayed, though. It had been on the agenda for May, but “that is now unlikely as discussions-negotiations continue with the preferred bidder,” said the spokesperson. “It is not clear at present when this proposal will be coming before councillors for approval.”

Threat of Nothing

Should the sale of the site fail, “no redevelopment will take place”, the spokesperson said.

That’s a concern for some locals who would like to see the hotel built, or social housing put on the site, or other types of development.

As Dowling tells it, the area around Sean McDermott Street doesn’t “keep people around” past 6pm in the evening. A hotel could change that.

“It’d bring a bit of life back into the community, a bit of work into the community,” says Dowling, who fears that a failed sale to Toyoko Inn Co would leave the laundry lying idle for “another ten years”.

For Fagan, the priority is social housing, mainly for elderly people. “There are a lot of elderly people in this area who’d like to see social housing or jobs for the area,” he says.

Last month, ICON did a survey through its mailing list and Facebook of Dublin 1 residents. It asked what they’d like to see on the site.

The group doesn’t have the resources to go door-to-door, said Muldowney. While the survey was a window into some locals’ opinions, there were limitations.

They did it “knowing that there’d probably be a range of different views”, says ICON’s Muldowney, and that it would be “a sample of those motivated to respond”.

They heard from 223 people, and 84 percent said the council should not sell the site to Toyoko. The majority said they wanted to see a mix of affordable and social housing, and a memorial.

ICON think that “any public land should be used for public use”, says Muldowney. “There’s also a view that the site shouldn’t just be abandoned, that there needs to be something done.”

That the site could lie idle, she says, “is a real fear within the community”.

The Memorial

These days, the Sean McDermott Street site holds an old convent and chapel. The laundry itself was demolished in 2005 after a fire, said the council spokesperson.

There have been consistent calls for a memorial to survivors of the Magdalene laundries, which was first promised more than five years ago.

In June, when survivors meet at Mansion House, they’re due to discuss what form an on-site memorial might take.

Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon says he would like to see something similar to a national heritage site where the laundry once stood. “I want something incredibly substantial there,” he says.

It could take the form of a “space for understanding”, he says. Or a “social-history museum”.

But Gannon says the views of those survivors due to gather at the Mansion House in June should take precedence, and inform future council consultation.

Katherine O’Donnell of Justice for Magdalenes Research, a group supporting Magdalene women, said in January that a consultation process is essential.

“I can’t speak for the Magdalene women and no one survivor can,” she said, at the time.

But “anecdotally, the couple of dozen women I’ve been in touch with are really keen that it be social housing”, she said. “That is a way of commemoration too.”

Asking Around

Listening to the women who were interned within laundries is more pressing than local community concerns, says Gannon. “That has to be a priority.”

Says Fagan: “Let’s face it, they’re the ones who suffered, they’re the ones who have top priority, who’ve a say on what needs to be done with that site,” he says. “But we have a say too.”

H.O.P.E. Office Manager Irene Crawley says that there hasn’t been enough consultation. “There should be local door-to-door surveys,” she says.

There’s a good argument for pre-sale engagement with local residents, says Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe, who favours the hotel proposal for the site.

There’s also a good argument for drawing up a local area plan for the north-east inner city, Cuffe says, to “provide for specific proposals on key sites”. “It would allow us to have public involvement in the future of key sites that the council owns.”

However, it looks as if the council have no immediate plans for a wide-ranging consultation.

Any development will be under the usual planning rules, said the council spokesperson. That means “at least 12 months from the date of approval for the disposal of the site to the time a building contractor enters the site”.

There would “be sufficient time during that period for consultation with all interested parties, including the local community”, the spokesperson said.

The council is committed to an on-site memorial, as is Toyoko Inn Hotels, said the council spokesperson. It recently commissioned a heritage architect to prepare initial drawings and suggestions to assist its consultation process.

Author:

Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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