Opinion: a new exhibition about the Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes and industrial schools urges us to ensure such houses of horror never occur again

The publication of the fifth interim report by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation has once again focused public attention on the appalling experiences of many women and children. It has also has highlighted a continuing lack of engagement on the part of the religious orders who ran the homes and the councils who had responsibility for them. Minister Katherine Zappone has indicated that a national monument honouring women and children who were resident in mother and baby institutions will be erected in the Phoenix Park, though no decision has yet been taken about what form that memorial may take. 

Given the coverage of the report, and the discussion that will doubtless ensue about what will be an appropriate memorial, it seems timely to visit Alison Lowry’s new exhibition (A)dressing Our Hidden Truths. This opened at National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, last month and runs until May 2020. 

Alison Lowry talks about her exhibition

The hosting of this exhibition in the National Museum is important. It reflects not only public interest in the bleak and often distressing history of industrial schools, mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Ireland, but also a new openness and awareness by the museum and those who work there that difficult conversations need to be had about our past. Who better to facilitate them then the museum whose stated mission is to "be an authoritative voice on relevant aspects of Irish heritage, culture and natural history"? 

Under the leadership of the director Lynn Scarff, the museum has been making a number of dynamic changes, including establishing a contemporary collecting policy. Evidence of collecting the "now" was best and most visibly exemplified when curator Brenda Malone began collecting material culture associated with both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns the day after the abortion referendum. Social and traditional media were used to crowdsource materials and lampposts were scaled to secure copies of the campaign posters. 

Lowry's uncompromising exhibition highlights the disturbing and appalling history of the industrial schools, laundries and mother and baby homes. Several of Lowry's pieces capture the horror of what it must have been like for young women and children to have lived in institutions, isolated and powerless. Of all of the exhibits "Home Babies" is the most arresting and moving. Nine christening robes in pâte de verre (glass paste) hang in darkened rooms where they sway gently in the soft light, reminding visitors not only of those buried in Tuam (and elsewhere), but of the thousands of children who spent their childhoods in these institutions.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy hears from Magdalene laundry survivors as the National Museum opens a landmark exhibition

The soundscape that accompanies visitors through the rooms is evocative and haunting. It includes the reading out of the names of the 796 infants and children buried in Tuam and a reworked version of Weile Weila Waile by the poet Connie Roberts, which sets the traditional song in the Industrial School and Laundry in Sunday's Well, Cork.

However, there are a couple of pieces in the exhibition which are more problematic. One has pairs of glass scissors suspended from rosary beads hanging above a mound of hair. Another exhibit has hundreds of paper dolls cut out of old five pound notes, the banknote that featured Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, and these paper dolls tumble out of bags used in the offertory collections at mass. In both pieces. the link between avarice, corruption, abuse and the Catholic Church is clear. Such criticism is valid: there were (and are) huge problems within the Catholic Church and organisations and individuals within the church bear enormous responsibility for much of the abuse that took place within these institutions.

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However, focusing that direct blame exclusively towards the Catholic Church lets everyone else off scot-free because the misogynist state was as culpable as the church. Society was as culpable as the church, individuals were as culpable as the church. The children born and brought up in the homes had fathers, but these men were not stigmatised in any way for abandoning women and children. Almost every girl and woman who was brought to one of these institutions was brought there either by or with the knowledge of their family.

The Catholic Church is an easy (and legitimate) target, but we all need to look closer to home to see what questions weren't asked, what action wasn't taken, what secrets were kept hidden. It's not just the church that has to ask hard questions of itself, it is everyone who knew that these institutions existed and everyone who used the Magdalene Laundries long after rumours about the way in which they were run had surfaced (the last laundry closed in 1996).

Excellent work is now being done by historians, members of the commission of investigation and many others who are peeling back the layers of Irish society in the 19th and 20th centuries and exposing unpleasant truths that need to be discussed, analysed and understood, nonetheless there is still much more to do. (A)dressing Our Hidden Truths is a beautiful and important exhibition which should be seen by many. I hope it sparks conversations and encourages reflection - reflection on the role played by the state, society, individuals as well as the church. The exhibition urges us not to be complacent, to be critical and aware - and to be active in ensuring institutional abuse can never happen again.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ