The new two-part RTÉ documentary Ireland’s Dirty Laundry tells the story of the Magdalene Laundries, primarily through the moving testimonies of some of the survivors. Below, producer Nuala Cunningham introduces the films, which premiere on RTÉ One on March 2nd and 9th.
As producers, our company New Decade first became involved with the Magdalene story in 2018 when the women, who had worked in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, were invited to come to Dublin for an event to recognise their experience there.
Many had never spoken before about their time in the laundries. Many had never even told their families until the invitation arrived. It was a hugely cathartic experience for a great number of them to open up over those days and it strongly impressed on us, the importance of listening and allowing space for the women to speak.
The two central wishes from the women were that they wanted not only to be heard but, crucially, to be believed and that their stories would be shared especially with the younger generations, so that they would know and understand, but also to ensure that it can never happen again.
Our director Gerry Gregg’s motto throughout was that the women’s testimony would be the backbone and driving force of the documentaries. The commentators and experts had to ‘fight for their place’ in the edits.
Gerry, working with Editor Fernando de Juan, agreed that we wanted the women’s experiences placed in the context of the particular relationship which had developed between the Catholic Church and the new Irish Free State in 1922 and how society as a whole was therefore involved and complicit with the incarceration of these women. It was very much “Ireland’s” dirty laundry not just the fault of any one institution.
Balance was very important to everyone involved in the making of these films and we repeatedly requested interviews with the congregations who ran the laundries, but they declined. Notwithstanding their decision not to participate we hope that we have presented the story in an understanding way and acknowledged the great complexities involved.
Education was one of the most sorely felt losses among the very many losses these women suffered. They missed out on the chance to learn themselves and they feel that one of their most vital legacies will be to allow their experiences be part of a system to educate others.
As a result, we will be collaborating with curriculum consultants to produce a learning module on the subject of the laundries, which will be available to all students and researchers who wish to learn more on the subject. For this and for so much more we are hugely thankful for the help and guidance provided by Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke and Claire McGettrick.
We were grateful to RTE’s Sean McGiolla Phadraig and Roger Childs, who were immediately supportive of our proposal to produce 2 x 1hr documentaries and together with ARTE (France/Germany) and BAI we were in a position to begin work. That was in March 2020. We had not planned to begin filming until later that year when we felt sure that ‘everything would be fine’. By March 2021 we realised that we would need to revise our filming plans to take account of the Covid restrictions in place.
As we know, necessity can be the mother of invention, and we thought about the driving themes of the films and how we wanted the women to have a platform and to be listened to. The idea of filming in a theatre came out of those discussions, and that is what we did.
The theatre space became the platform from which the women would tell their stories. We used the unique EyeDirect camera system so that the women could address the audience directly and it has been hugely effective we believe. We used the empty chair to represent those women who, for a variety of reasons, could not be represented. Seeing the final result, we cannot now imagine having filmed it any other way.
Ireland’s Dirty Laundry screens on RTÉ One in two parts, on March 2nd and March 9th 2022 at 9.35 pm..