On a cold, wet Tuesday afternoon, the bright lobby of the Herbert Park Hotel looks warm and inviting. Taxis pull up. People dip in and out. Next door, builders work on new high-end offices.
Many years ago, this site looked pretty different. While locals in the area remember it as the Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien Bakery, the site was once partially home to Dublin by Lamplight, a laundry and “female penitentiary”.
With uncertainty and attention still surrounding the Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street. Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello wants lesser-known laundry sites like the one in Ballsbridge to be remembered too.
“Basically, I want to get plaques for the demolished laundries in the South East Area. It’s hard as three of the five are gone, so how do you mark them?” asks Costello.
Some residents from the area and councillors agree that the sites should be marked, but some believe that a plaque on the pavement, as suggested by Costello, would be inappropriate, or that it might be easy to remove. They have other ideas.
Plaques on the Pavement
Last week, Costello made a presentation to councillors on the commemorative naming sub-committee, proposing that plaques be put on the pavement outside these old sites, when the buildings no longer exist.
He mentioned the old laundry near Herbert Park, another that is now a car park near Waterloo Road, and also the site of what is now the Sugar Club on Leeson Street.
“They liked it, but didn’t accept it,” says Costello, but there are plans to look at it again in January, he says, possibly with a wider city perspective.
“Usually we stick a plaque on a building, but if the building is gone? I think how do we remember what has been lost is an important question.”
The idea is to “put a shape on lost memories, or buried memories”, says Costello. He’s in part inspired by “Stolperstein”, which were used to commemorate victims of Nazi extermination at exactly their last elective place of residence or work, but is “open to anything creative”, he says.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey agrees that plaques are a good idea. But “wouldn’t be in favour of putting them on the ground”, as “it doesn’t seem appropriate”, he says, suggesting a wall opposite the site, or on the nearest public building, with details of what happened.
Given how much streetscapes have changed over the years, Costello believes plaques in the pavement could work better. They’ve been used already elsewhere, on Barnardo Square off Dame Street, to commemorate the establishment of Scouting Ireland in 1908.
Dublin by Lamplight is mostly known as the title of a play, named after a reference to a laundry on that site in James Joyce’s short story “Clay”, which appeared in Dubliners.
In the story, a woman named Maria, part of the laundry staff, takes an evening off to visit some old acquaintances. References to Dublin by Lamplight are kept to the beginning, and there’s not much mention of what goes on there.
After that, it becomes harder to pin down.
The 1911 census records 21 women living at 35 Ballsbridge Terrace, ranging from 21 to 69 years of age, mostly down as “inmate of institution”, and broken down into, mostly, “laundress”, with some domestic servants, and matrons. No details are entered for illnesses, or children.
A 1913 map of the area has the site down as a “female penitentiary”.
The same map shows an “asylum for penitent females” attached to a laundry just off Burlington Lane, where the car park is now. The asylum held 35 inmates in 1911, according to the book Prostitution and Irish Society 1800-1940 by Maria Luddy.
Esther Murnane, a resident of nearby Pembroke Road, doesn’t remember ever hearing of a laundry on the Herbert Park site, but remembers seeing the one in Donnybrook when it was still operating, and how it was “a very sad place”.
It’s sad to hear there was another so close by, she says, and she thinks there should be some kind of memorial. “People forget so easily,” she says.
“They deserve a memorial because of how they were treated, and how they lived. Something visual that would make an impact,” she says.
“I’m not sure about a plaque on the ground; a statue would be nice,” says Murnane, as a plaque could easily be removed if a development took place.
Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan also didn’t know about the laundry on the Herbert Park site, though he has heard of the ones at what’s now the Sugar Club, and the car park on Waterloo Road.
“I’m not that in favour of a plaque on the ground, I prefer a plaque on the wall. It’s more appropriate, where people can study it, instead of looking down,” says McCartan. But he’s in favour of highlighting the history of laundries in the area, and the stigmatization of women living in them.
Paddy Byrne has lived in the area for over 50 years, and owns the pharmacy facing the hotel. He has a strong interest in local history, and has also never heard of a laundry on the site.
“I think plaques and things like that are a brilliant idea. I find it really odd that no one knows it was there. It might be hard to put it on the site of where it was,” he says.
“But there are plenty of places in Ballsbridge,” he says, suggesting nearby Herbert Park. “There [was] a chair in there to Gerry Ryan. There should be a plaque to the Magdalene laundries. That’d be a nice place for a plaque, wouldn’t it?”