Patricia Burke Brogan, who has died aged 90, was an Irish former postulant nun who drew on her experiences of working at a Magdalene Laundry in the 1960s in Eclipsed, an award-winning play which was one of the first attempts to expose the abuse suffered by Irish women in institutions run by the Catholic Church.
Magdalene laundries, originally Magdalene asylums, began as Protestant institutions in the 18th century to house “fallen women”. In the 19th century there were establishments in England and Scotland as well as in Ireland, but it was in Ireland that they lasted longest and expanded on an almost industrial scale.
Initially, most inmates were prostitutes who usually stayed for no more than a year or two. But as the asylums came under the control of the Catholic Church in Ireland they were converted into laundries servicing both the clergy and commercial clients, creating an incentive to increase the workforce and keep the women (who worked without pay) locked up.
Unmarried mothers, separated from their babies, were bundled off. Even a suspicion that a girl might be in danger of having sex outside marriage was a good enough excuse. Once inside, the women, for the most part, became institutionalised.
In fact the Church was not wholly to blame. In the majority of cases the women were signed in by their own families, while the Irish state colluded by lending the services of the local Gardai any time an inmate tried to make a break for freedom.
Patricia Burke, as she then was, joined the Sisters of Mercy to help the poor, but aged 21, she found herself assigned for a brief period to a Magdalene laundry at Forster Street, Galway. She recalled being “brought down this long, brown corridor, and every time we went through doors they were locked behind”.
The destination was a huge room full of machines: she recalled the “deafening noise” and “young women, old women [who] looked at me like I was another of the people who’d locked them up... It was like I was in Dante’s Inferno.”
Given a key, she toyed with the idea of letting the women out. “But most of them had no place to go... When I asked the superior why they weren’t let out, she said: ‘Oh, if you let them out they’d be back here in no time, pregnant again’.”
The experience disturbed her so much that she decided to leave the order. Shortly afterwards she wrote a short story based on her experience which won a local competition but was little noticed otherwise. Then in the 1980s she began work on her play.
She sent it round to theatre directors, most of whom rejected it as too controversial – there were still Magdalene laundries operating in Ireland at the time (the last would close in 1996) – and it was not until 1991 that Punchbag, a fledgling theatre company in Galway, agreed to take it on.
When Eclipsed opened in a small venue in Galway in February 1992, protests were threatened outside and Patricia Burke Brogan received hate mail. But, as she recalled, people “were coming in buses from all over the west of Ireland to see it”. The play transferred to Dublin, and when it featured as an item on a national radio show, former Magdalene women began calling in with their stories, some of them harrowing.
In August 1992, Eclipsed won the Fringe First award at Edinburgh and it went on to be staged in three continents, winning the US Moss Hart Award in 1994.
There followed a deluge of documentaries and films, most notoriously Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), many of them painting a lurid picture of life behind the laundry walls, with stories of routine humiliations and sexual and physical abuse by nuns and priests.
Patricia Burke Brogan had concerns about some of the dramatisations. “I never saw any physical beating-up,” she told The Irish Times in 2013. “I know in some places the women beat up one another because they were trapped and frustrated.” The critical issue was that the women were stigmatised and “had their freedom taken from them”.
Nor did she feel comfortable with the focus on the Church’s role. “People thought I was being anti-Church but I wasn’t,” she told an interviewer. “Everyone blamed the sisters, but the state did nothing to intervene.” In 2002 she took her audiences back to the laundries in another play, Stained Glass at Samhain, with the message that society as a whole should take responsibility.
Her views were borne out in the 2013 report of an official inquiry, which found “significant” state collusion in the consignment of more than 11,000 women to laundries since 1922 – but also found, overall, that people’s perception of living conditions there tended to be worse than the reality.
In 2014 Patricia Burke Brogan published Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, to which President Michael D Higgins wrote the foreword, noting that her play had “changed everything” in Ireland.
She was born Patricia Burke in Kildysart, south-west Co Clare, in 1932. Her father was a sergeant in the Garda. When she was two the family moved to Moylough, Co Galway, where, after leaving school, she became a postulant nun with the Sisters of Mercy.
As well as her plays, she published collections of poetry, and she was an accomplished artist whose work featured on the cover of an anthology published for Galway’s 2020 designation as City of Culture. Earlier this year she was given the Freedom of the City.
Her husband Eddie Brogan predeceased her.
Patricia Burke Brogan, born 1932, died September 5 2022