This weekend past I visited the graves of forgotten women. It’s something see I do now and again when I can. It started when I was in the early days of researching this current book. There’s a gravesite in Glasnevin Cemetery, unmarked and unnoticed among the more haphazard stones of a century ago that belongs to one of the women I’m writing about. I know that Maria Kirwan bought the plot DX39 and the one beside it a couple of years before she died. I know that in September 1852 she was laid to rest there, only to be dug up a month later when the police investigation into her death got going.
I know that the grave was waterlogged that grim October day, that the new O’Connell tower was under construction, that the part of the graveyard she inhabits is known as the Dublin section, not quite as posh as the Garden section but classy enough for the good burghers of Dublin town who paid handsomely for headstones for their dearly beloved that left the reader in no doubt about the wealth of the mourners and the success of their businesses on such and such a street. Maria doesn’t have a stone. After her untimely death there was no one to buy one. Her husband didn’t care, too busy with the family he had built behind her back, her mother was too in thrall to the husband that had killed her, taking his money and speaking in his defence. Her brother had left for a new life in America and her doting father was dead. The victim often disappears in a murder case but that bare patch of ground is such a stark reminder of the anonymity of death. I know she’s down there but you can only find her if you know where to look.
I look at Maria’s face every time I sit down at my desk, she’s the subject of one of her husband’s sketches that I’ve copied and pinned at eye level to keep me focused on the task at hand. But every now and then I pay her a visit too. Sometimes I take flowers but every time I stop for a moment to think of her, or at least the version of her that now lives in my book. It started as a focusing exercise, a way of grounding myself to the characters I’m writing but now I pop in if I’m passing Glasnevin cemetery. Her grave reminds me that I’m writing about real women, that even though I’m imagining their story their pain was real, their lives and deaths were real. This is the hinterland of fiction, with its ghosts and phantoms. I have to keep one foot in the real world and be respectful of the historical fact.
This weekend I brought two bunches of flowers. There was another grave I wanted to visit. Actually in Glasnevin there are a number of graves I’d like to place flowers on, just a gentle nod to say I’ve noticed, just an acknowledgement of their story, their passing, a nod of solidarity as one human being to another, a nod to say they are not forgotten. There’s the Millennium Plot, in the somewhat grim mass grave section, this is where they bury those who died alone. Who had no one to mark their passing, on the street, in a bedsit wherever. It’s all too easy to slip through the cracks in this world we live in now, just look at poor Joyce Vincent, subject of the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who wasn’t discovered for three years after her death, the television still playing for her skeleton when she was found. It’s a very modern fear, that lonely forgotten death, even if it is nothing new. We should all pay more attention to those around us. Maybe stopping at the Millennium Plot would remind us that.
But this weekend the extra flowers weren’t for them. Last week former presidential spouse Senator Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalen Laundries was published. It got a rather mixed reception. While it did find beyond doubt was that the Irish State had indeed routinely sent women into the infamous Magdalen Laundries, it also took the word of the religious orders about the word of the women who had come forward to describe their experiences. Lets not forget that these laundries were the sweat shops that provided the grand hotels with nice starched linen, the crisp white tablecloths of State banquets, that kept wayward girls and women off the streets in the days when the female sex were viewed as dangerous and crushable. These were places where the courts sent female convicts, where families sent their rebellious women folk, the receptacle where the destitute and the desperate ended up, in some occasions sent there by those they had approached to help including, staggeringly, the Red Cross, The Simon Community and the Samaritans. Over the past seven days we have watched the Taoiseach stumble his way round a non-apology, the religious orders who ran the homes try to tell the women who had suffered under their care that they just hadn’t fully appreciated the experience in the spirit it was intended and the women who were there still waiting for proper recognition of what they’ve been through.
These workhouses were no different from the grim places of terror that haunted the Famine weakened. They were run with the same pious ruthlessness that calmly discussed in the 1840s how they could make a handy buck from the sale of the bodies piling up within their walls if they sold them to the anatomists. We think of workhouses as fossils, relics from an unrecognisably brutal time when life was cheap and brutal. But the Magdalen Laundries continued into the 20th Century. They continued past the formation of a new State, they continued until the last one closed it’s doors in the 1990s. You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s weakest. What do these stories, and these, say about Ireland?
It’s not good enough to say that times were different. Times are always different from what passed before. This was a brutal thing done by religious orders who should have shown more compassion, a State that should have shown more concern for it’s citizens and a people that should have cared more about their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. Sadly the Magdalens aren’t an isolated tale of a section of society ill-treated by those who had a duty of care. We’ve already heard of the Industrial Schools, the Orphanages, the Asylums. modern Irish history is littered with the weak and vulnerable being treated like inconvenient rubbish by those who should have done better. We should at least have the honesty to say that if you didn’t decry the system you allowed it, you condoned it, you are just as liable. It’s easy to feel that it’s just all too much, that the constant revelations over the past couple of decades are threatening to overwhelm you in a wave of intolerable injustice. But you can’t turn away, not this time. When the decision was made to deal with the vulnerable by pushing them out of sight out of mind and turning a blind eye no one came out well. It’s a shame the whole country has to take their part in. It should never have happened, but it did. It should never happen again, but it will.
So that’s where I brought my bunch of flowers.
This stone stands in the car park of Glasnevin Cemetery, commemorating nameless women whose sins went with them to the grave. It’s not the only Magdalen stone in the Graveyard. There are others and still more in graveyards around the country. Then there are the buildings were we locked away those that couldn’t look after themselves, or that didn’t fit in. None of it should be forgotten. This is a part of Ireland’s history that is still a part of our present. We need to remember the truth, the reality of what happened and why it happened and watch for that brutality and nip it in the bud. Maria’s grave helps keep my fiction rooted in fact. I’d like the other flowers to do something similar. I’ll keep leaving flowers and you never know it might catch on, perhaps one day it’ll be as big a trend as the padlocks that hang from the Ha’penny Bridge to honour teenage love. Something that will get people talking, asking questions and will keep the memory of all this stuff alive. It’s our duty to remember or it will keep happening because no lessons will ever be learnt.