When councillors voted last year to halt the sale of the site of the old Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street to a Japanese company – thwarting an effort to turn it into a hotel – it was unclear what might come next.

Councillor Gary Gannon, of the Social Democrats, drawing on what he says have been broad consultations with survivors of institutional abuse and others, has now drummed up a proposal for what he thinks should go on the large site.

This includes a community space, an installation to show what life inside was once like, a social-history museum, a memorial garden, housing, and food markets.

He also suggests using the long, 20-foot-tall boundary wall that runs along the 2-acre site – a barrier to escape for those inside, and a warning to those outside – as a powerful place to contemplate Ireland’s “architecture of containment”.

“All over the world we have memorials that use walls,” says Gannon. “But in Ireland we always use walls as a way of incarcerating.”

A New Vision

The proposals are the result of combined efforts.

Gannon says he has consulted with survivors of institutional abuse and other local stakeholders in the north inner-city.

He has also worked alongside Maeve O’Rourke from the Justice for Magdalenes Research and Katherine O’Donnell from UCD’s School of Philosophy.

It’s important to put forward ideas that include a memorial to the victims of institutional abuse, that show the site can be “economically viable”, and that can help regenerate the north inner-city, says Gannon.

“We think the idea of using the assets of the structure of the building as a memorial is important,” says Gannon.

The wall overlooking Railway Street – which bears scorch marks and two crucifixes at its highest point – could be illuminated with the names and faces of the women who were once incarcerated inside, he says.

Walls are symbolic across Ireland, he says. “So that’s a way of connecting the experience, whether it’s on Sean MacDermott Street, whether it’s in Letterfrack, whether it’s in Artane.”

“People knew that walls were used to incarcerate and to send a message that if you didn’t behave you would be inside,” he says.

The origins of the Sean McDermott Street laundry lie in a refuge for “troubled and homeless” women, set up in 1821. From 1887, the Sisters of Charity ran the institution there, where women were incarcerated, subject to forced labour and abuse, and which didn’t close until 1996.

In 2013, former Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised unreservedly to victims of the Magdalene laundries.

This followed the publication of Justice Quirke’s report into “restorative justice” for the victims of the laundries.

One of the recommendations Quirke put forward was that the state “fund, staff and accommodate a small dedicated unit” that would acquire, maintain and administer “any garden, museum or other form of memorial”.

Gannon thinks the whole site could serve as a collective memorial for all the victims of institutional abuse in Ireland, with the wall serving as “a site of conscience”.

“The history is not something to be proud of, but taking ownership of the history is,” says Gannon.

Lord Mayor Nial Ring, an independent councillor, is backing the plans.

New Spaces

Alongside the wall, Gannon and those working with him propose creating a other amenities: housing, and spaces for those who live in the neighbourhood, and those who are visiting.

The chapel could be used as a space for people to gather. “This should be a community asset – a theatre, a conference space, and place for secular and multi-denominational ceremonies,” the proposal notes.

The ground floor of the laundry, meanwhile, should be an installation that shows what daily life was like for women in the laundry, the proposal says.

That could mean displaying pressers, irons and sheets, and setting up rooms where visitors can learn more or reflect. A memorial garden within the walls might also serve as a place for contemplation, the plans say.

It’s a large site, with space too for 55 homes for older people. That mirrors earlier plans; the Japanese company Tokoyo Inn had agreed to build these alongside its hotel, a Dublin City Council report said.

A markets space could, meanwhile, bring weekend or seasonal traders to sell there, linking in with local residents, perhaps, and with restaurants not far away around Parnell Street, says the plans.

“Providing a space for a local and international food emporium could help foster that sense of a living memorial to our past failings by promoting differences and inclusion,” the plans say.

The second and third floors should be a social-history museum for the north inner-city, the proposal says. Something “to rival” Kilmainham Gaol on the south side – with space also for an archive, “when we finally retrieve the many documents that chronicle Ireland’s history of incarceration”.

Opening It Up

At yesterday’s meeting of the council’s Central Area Committee, councillors passed a motion – put forward by Gannon and Ring – to hold a Commemoration of Truth event in the chapel of the former laundry.

May 11 will be the twentieth anniversary of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s apology to victims of child abuse on behalf of the Irish state.

Commemorating that anniversary would be a way to “demonstrate the potential of what this site could be”, says Gannon.

Central Area Manager Karl Mitchell said he was worried about how safe parts of the old laundry are.

Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam says there is still a lot of work to be done on the idea of a May commemoration before he could back it.

“There’s uncertainty there and the manager indicated that the building is structurally unsound. If that’s the case then there’s no way any events can be held in the church,” says McAdam.

The motion was brief, he said. “I would like more clarification in terms of the actual use of the building and the actual use of the church.”

Gannon says that during the event people would only use the parts of the building that are structurally sound.

Gannon and O’Rourke from the Justice for Magdalenes Research are putting together a working group to organise the event, and they have been consulting with the organisers of the #StandForTruth events and Justice for Magdalenes organisers.

On the day, a series of 50-minute ticketed events are proposed, which would include survivors telling their stories in the chapel and music.

Gannon and Ring also want to illuminate the wall with the names and pictures of those who have shared their stories of incarceration.

Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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