Maison des Esclaves, Senegal. Photo courtesy of ICSC

T?here should be “something more for this site” than another hotel, says Sian Muldowney on a recent Thursday in the gym hall of the Belvedere Youth Club, on Buckingham Street.

More than 90 people sat in rows of plastic chairs, arranged in a semi-circle. The meeting was organised by Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon.

They were there to talk about what should be done with the former Magdalene laundry site on Sean McDermott Street, just metres away.

The laundry stood behind the red-brick convent building that borders the street. It closed in 1996. The site is owned by Dublin City Council.

Councillors have said they’ll reject a proposal to sell it to a Japanese hotel chain. Last week, newly elected Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring said he will form a group to consult on it.

Deirdre Cadwell says those who survived the laundries, as she did, deserve a proper memorial, a museum. “They’re the ones who deserve it.”

Some suggest looking around the world – at memorials to slavery in Senegal and workhouses in England – for ideas on how to turn places with troubled and dark histories into sites of conscience.

Living History

Muldowney, who is co-ordinator of the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON), argued that a museum alongside social housing could better regenerate the area than a hotel.

Local groups have been debating what the neighbourhood needs most from the site.

Ninety-six women died while incarcerated at the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street. Any sale must reckon with this building’s past, says Muldowney – and respect the wishes of survivors.

Back in June, more than 200 women who had survived life in Magdalene laundries gathered for two days at the Mansion House. Many said the site needed a museum or interactive centre, said Cadwell, who was among them.

Sites of conscience aren’t neutral spaces, says Linda Norris, a programme director with the International Sites of Conscience Coalition.

These museums and memorials are places that highlight history, and in the process try to promote justice and human rights, she says. “We don’t want to just present information.”

The 250 members of the coalition founded in 1999, spread across 55 countries around the world read like a guide to man’s inhumanity to man.

They include the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, and the Perm-36 Gulag Museum in Perm, in Russia, and the Maison des Esclaves – or House of Slaves – on Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal.

The last of these, built around 1776, shares the history and stories of the transatlantic slave trade, says Norris – and also works as a catalyst to talk about contemporary slavery.

Another member is the Peace School of Monte Sole in Italy. Between 29 September and 5 October 1944, 800 people from mountains outside Bologna were killed by Nazi SS troops and Italian fascists.

Today, the school runs summer stays where people can learn how this terror became possible, says Norris.

Other institutions have joined after some “serious thinking” too, says Norris. Such as Monticello in Virginia, which was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. “One of our heroic founding fathers, also a slave owner,” says Norris.

Norris has been talking with Gannon, the Social Democrats councillor, about what might be possible on Sean McDermott Street.

A museum that engages in what is going on today but also, most importantly, listens to survivors and victims who may have spent time there, she says. “Survivors and victims’ voice are incredibly important.”

Norris draws a parallel between the Sean McDermott Street site and Parramatta Female Factory Precinct in Australia.

“It’s really the first place in Australia that supports the policy of forced removal of children from their parents,” says Norris.

It housed female convicts from 1821 onwards – the same year that Brigid Burke set up a refuge at Mecklenburg Street – later Railway Street – in Dublin’s north inner-city for “troubled and homeless” women, an institution that later became the Sean McDermott Street laundry.

Three Answers

At June’s gathering at Mansion House, each of the survivors was asked three questions.

What should the public know about the Magdalene laundries? What should be learned? And how can we ensure it’s never forgotten?

Those testimonies should be published by the end of July, says Maeve O’Rourke, a research and policy officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

Many women said this history should be taught at schools, says O’Rourke, who volunteers with
Justice for Magdalene Research.

“A significant number of women spoke about a commemorative centre and museum,” she says. Social housing also came up.

She was struck by a theme in the testimony, she says. “They often say that the reason they’re doing it is so that it never happens to anybody else.”

Cadwell liked what she saw at the National 1798 Rebellion Centre in Co. Wexford recently, she says. It was interactive.

Cadwell was raised in the Good Shepherd Convent in Co. Waterford. As a teenager, she was moved to Dublin, and back and forth between High Park in Drumcondra and Sean McDermott Street laundry from 1978 to 1982.

“I remember going in the door,” says Cadwell. “I used to be terrified every time I’d go by that building. I knew I was there for punishment.”

“That building, it has horrible memories,” she says. A museum could help educate a younger generation about what happened in the laundries throughout Ireland.

“But that’s what it’s about. It’s not just for us women, it’s Irish history,” says Cadwell, who’d also like to see some elderly accommodation built on-site.

When she got out, Cadwell moved to the United States.

She recently returned and settled again here. “I felt that I could do more here,” she says. “I felt that I might have something to give.”

[CORRECTION: This article was updated on Wednesday 25 July at 13.14. There are 250 members of the International Sites of Conscience Coalition, not 130. Apologies for the error.]

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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