As It Happens

'Final act of the cover up': Dublin councillor blasts plan to turn last Magdalene laundry into a hotel

The plan is to turn the last Magdalene laundry into a clean new hotel, but Gary Gannon says it should be a memorial for all the women and children who were abused at the site.
A Dublin city councillor is trying to stop a proposed development to turn the last Magdalene laundry building into a hotel. (Gary Gannon)
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Story transcript

It's the last of Ireland's Magdalene laundries that's still in state control and the plan is to turn it into a hotel.

But Dublin Coun. Gary Gannon is urging the government to, instead, make the Gloucester Street laundry into a memorial for all the women and children who were abused there.
Gary Gannon is a Dublin city councillor. (Submitted by Gary Gannon)

The laundries were owned by the Catholic church. The nuns who ran them would take in orphans and pregnant girls, lock them up and force them to work in abusive conditions.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Gannon about the proposed hotel development and why he wants to stop it. Here is part of their conversation.

What would be lost if the laundry did become a hotel?

The opportunity would be lost for us to find some sort of a place, a centre of understanding, where we could touch the walls and know that this level of institutional incarceration existed. That in our society, for over 100 years, we locked women up who committed no crime, for what somebody else perceived as some sort of moral failing — and that happened until very recently.

When we knock this building down and when we sell it off to private ownership, we lose the opportunity to basically find that sense of reckoning. 
A woman hold a poster as relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families in Dublin in 2013. ( Peter Morrison/Canadian Press/Associated Press)

Is there no way to do both? To redevelop the hotel and the area and to commemorate what happened to those women at Magdalene laundries? Could there not be some kind of memorial, a plaque or whatever, that would recognize that and not preserve the building as it is?

Firstly, no plaque could ever do justice to the debts that we owe these women. You have to remember, we locked women up in our country, forced them to work for free for great profits for the church, took away their whole livelihood and left them in servitude there — for some people, for the entirety of their lives.

As to whether a hotel would redevelop the area, I don't think anyone believes that. You have to understand, this potential hotel they are talking about building is in the absolute centre of Dublin city. It's five minutes away from O'Connell Street. I mean, we're surrounded by hotels. 

What the Irish people need, and certainly what many people have being talking to want, is a place of understanding, some sort of centre of commemoration, a museum or a memorial of substance to those women.

Not only the women who were housed in that particular laundry, but to people who suffered from institutional incarceration throughout Ireland, of which there were many.

And this is up until very recently. The last woman was brought into that laundry in 1995 and it only closed in 1996. It's a very recent history and to knock it down now and to build another hotel — I'm not against hotels in any way shape or form, I quite like them — but, to many of us, it would feel like the final act of the cover up.

The interior of the derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry, in Dublin, pictured in 2013. (Julien Behal/Associated Press)

Isn't there, though, a good history of it? There's memory, there's documentation and some of these memories and history have been recorded. Is that not enough?

To be quite clear, we actually don't have documentation yet. We don't know how many women were actually incarcerated in this laundry throughout the history. We don't know their names. We don't know their history. In many cases, we don't know where they are buried.

So we actually say we haven't got all the information yet. That's how recent this history is and that's how deep the cover up goes on to what actually occurred there.

So, no, the United Nations Committee against Torture has each year expressed almost a demand on the Irish government to find out more details about how many women were incarcerated there. Find out where they were buried. Find out about their suffering and their experience. And we haven't done that yet.

Just the oral memory fades as oral memory tends to do. So does the sense of belief that actually we locked women up who committed no crime, for moral failings. How do I explain that to my grandchildren? We actually do need a physical space.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Gary Gannon.

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