Writing the Ruin: 
Poetry and the Magdalen Laundries

Three years ago, I sat at a very long table in a very small roomthe kind of table and room that typify an English grad student’s existenceand learned for the first time of the lost years and grievous experiences of a host of Irishwomen branded as "fallen." The subject was addressed only briefly, in a discussion of Patricia Burke Brogan’s ground-breaking playEclipsed, but it rankled all the right parts of me: the woman, the poet, the individual who had come into self-presence while living in the West of Ireland... I could not stop thinking, what a petrifying term: "fallen woman." It renders femininity so precariousthe stuff of verdict and differential instead of mutual experience. I must dive into this; there’s an important poem here. Famous last words...

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Wild Fuchsia
"Men didn’t mean a thing to me. I’d been in an orphanage from the age of two. They put me in the Magdalen home for nothing. I had done nothing wrong."

 Bridget Schrompf, Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry, Limerick, 1958-1961

Like a firestorm, the way it blooms
red and pouring:
atmospheric phenomenon. 

There’s something about it
not to like. Perhaps it is
that way it sharpens the air.

Four blushy sepal blades apiece,
the drip of the eight stamens,
amaranthine heart, gravity.
Who wants to be made so aware?

There is also that sense
of the impossibly pretty thing
that cannot be overlooked.

Fuschia, do you know yourself
this bold? 
Can you hear the river 
racing through your name?

What should one do,
after all? It really musn’t be 
touched. O ruinous.

And yet, 
one can’t but understand
how hard it is to resist
such beauteous profusion,
handling just the tip
of one bloodshine petal.

But the bruise
of silk? Will one’s own hand
be stained?

Filament, anther, stigma, style—
such an intricate system 
of parts; they can hardly 
have commenced without intent.

Do you know yourself
fashioned to covet birds,
to encourage? your color
the wine of every bee?

Let go, you may overrun
the counties.

Too loose and ever-new, your bloom,
the way you slip into flower—
(there is something not to like)
a luxurious contagion.

Let us have the management
of hedgerows. You will make the most
glorious walls, blazing
beauty is in the orderly line,
the live fence, the palisade!

The strictures of defense
can be handsome.

In every county, you will 
come to illustrate the link
between barrier and beauty.

Tumult of loveliness and the pull
of calyx and flush 
and spreading shrub 
that roots in the poorest of soils, 
we will cultivate with care
the wilderness of your nature.


The Glass Lake

Some impressionist has rendered a girl lake-gazing
for the cover art. A bonnet rimmed with primrose 
ribbon waving in the unseen breeze. Her back is 
gently turned, legs bare, sundress mirroring the lake’s palate 
of green and violets, beryl and forget-me-not. A kind of soft
come on in, suited to the "intimate" and "spellbinding." 

But I am ahead of myself, jumbling the sequence
of events, starting with the end. Come on in.

Hardly shy or frightened, Niamh offers her room to show
Sister's friend (it is me this time) the way of things.

My first impression is of sentinels—or perhaps, welcome. 
These are my teddies, she bursts of the queued plush 
choreographed toward the door. Her whiskery lip turns up. 

Her walls differ from her friend’s, no cut-outs (Mother 
Theresa, Jim Carey, Cinderella, Christ) to landscape humanity 
but bloom: a secret garden fashioned in art class
of the barest posies and watery broadstrokes of dawn.

Waves shake through seascapes the colors of a first party dress.
Clumps of roses and clover, stick-figure oaks, something like mums.

The model in the photoclock has not been tossed. The old
wireless looks ready to hum. When it sings, surely 
the voices will be amethyst and green like the heather in the garden.

She maps the space, touching things: duvet here, lamp 
there, a sketch of daffodils by the window. In place. 
Yes, I think, this could be a destination. 

I’m into music, she divulges suddenly, waving off
the small stack of Sidney Sheldon, a Catherine Coulter 
boasting histrionic pirate lovers...I haven’t use for these.

There is a calming of time, a sargassoing, here in this room. 
She grins as if we’ve a secret—Would you like one?

and submerges into gaze. 
Decides: The Glass Lake. 

I can’t like the risk of reducing this place 
with its baker’s dozen bears, one lamp, floribunda 
in crayon, single window and chair. But you might—

No, I won’t be wanting it. I won’t read it: it’s too thick.

Too thick a prettiness: all painting and spine and vernal miss.
Oh this is the one. This girl, she looks and looks—
what is she thinking? What does she see in the still blue pool?
Does she see it nearly broken—mishmash of bits in bruise hues—
yet with the forgiveness of perspective, a best-drawn thing? 

Does she see how the soft parts of lake indicate depths
of perception, how she begins to take on the nature
of the object as she watches, turning verdantly blue? 
How there is the matter of reflection? Is she contemplating
jumping in, or wishing herself bird enough to dive far
into the heart of it and bring up something?

This move must be the most delicate, this take.

But in the wide bloom of iris, the mystery of her gaze, I see
that I am all wrong. This is not my statement to make, 
and the close of my hand on the book is just to illustrate

the extent, the maturation of this unfathomed 
female whose actions mean I give 
part of me to you, that you may recognize

the still life can sometimes be enough.


Letters to a Girl on Leaving Home

Now then, miss, it’s fixed. 
So let this be an end 
to the pettish whine and carry on 

you’ve been feeding the nuns.
Such a show—you with six months 
plumping, bold as brass—over this

daft business of wanting 
to keep it with us, as if we’d not
suffered your pleasure enough 

with the heart-break blood-
red of the pants hid in the bin 
after your Mick’s twenty-first.

And him with the hot eye for Boston. 
Jesus. A head full of cheese
you have: nothing but hole. 

How could you, my girl, 
lay us open on the altar?
Take a flyer for a little trouser? 

What matter. Done now and
no harbor but bargains. 
Your father’s organized a lad— 

gone forty and not the full
shilling, but you’ll take him, so. 
He’s a farm and no wife, and not enough

sense to care if his neighbors do 
the math. Right. This keeps it decent.
Keeps mother-and-baby home 

from turning into Magdalen asylum for you, chick. 
It’s blessed you are with folks like us. 

And if you’re after thinking, He’s half- 
cracked! What matters that? 
If when his fingers move on you, 

they come from a rough place 
or his whisperings froth as though 
some sick barm, his glance unglued, 

think how much better wed- 
than padlock, what pummelling 
of tongues would bolt your nights! 

No one down the village likes 
him, of course, so far gone off. 
Let them fasten on that. "Mad- 

man’s wife" remakes you martyred 
and so seemly again: 
Fair play to her, taking her lumps. 

You rail so, intent to beat 
against his heart once more, at least 
in namesake...Then strip 

"bastard" of root and wing— 
give yourself again 
to cauterize the stain 

of broken dream. My own: I wished 
for you an otter’s life: shore and river. 
What did I know of the urge of current, 

the pulse, the shudder of wind? 
We wish for what we do not comprehend. 
Striving searching course, wet life... 

a surge of sun...But I can’t abide you 
swelling up to drown the rest of us. 
Every dream has an end. That’s the bargain.


             Time-riddled, what line now remits 
            that in a month you will flood 
            with that florid word, bloom with the pain 

            of its first syllable, the ache of its second 
            —miscarry—though by then be bound 
            into fearsome covenant for good? 


Body Sonnets

II: Death of a Maiden

It rose and rose from me, rapid and clear
and light as hot glass from the tip of a pipe.
It grew so beautifully, it had to break.

Vividness. The girl with the cracker-jack
grin, those lightning wings and a big-heart chest.
And yet, why would that heroine lose bloom

and sight of life’s big come-on in medias res
just as the story begins, begin again
to absence, embarrassment and the loss (oh God

who is writing this?) of a body dawning
long-fingered and flush as a lilac bush
to nothing greater than pure loneliness?

Who scripted this as an end more proper 
than a one-off death, spectacularly Irish?

V: Composition 

My body bears the story like a page
on which you are composed each day in verse.
In memory I find the means to pray
with faith again. So come, be written. First,
the hale and buoyant movement of your hands 
like rills along my pulse, my skin; your voice
felt as blueness, its grit blowing like sand
on a dark dune; breathing I love you by choice;
the sense of touching you so like a rhyme,
a coming right again; your eyes my image
of wind and summering; your scent a line
to do with leaves; your grin the gist of moorage.
Forget, I’m told, and Learn to be alone.
But the womb’s an inky thing: bloodripe, touchstone.


Rachel Dilworth has recently completed a manuscript of poetry that explores the complex history of Ireland’s “Magdalen laundries.” She has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Ireland, Yale University’s Frederick M. Clapp Fellowship for poetry, Yale’s Francis Bergen Memorial Prize, the Academy of American Poets Celeste Turner Wright Prize, and a Breadloaf Writers Conference Waiter Scholarship. Poems of hers are forthcoming in TriQuarterly and the book LifePlace and have appeared previously in Ekphrasis and the Putah-Cache bioregion series.


By Rachel Dilworth

The story which I encountered in that frowzy little room, and which was to become the focus of my artistic life for some time, was the highly complex and disturbing one of Ireland’s “Magdalen Laundries.” The laundries, also called Magdalen “asylums” or “homes,” were nineteenth- and twentieth-century residential institutions run by the Catholic Church (and a number of Protestant philanthropists) for the “care” and containment of supposedly wayward women. The term “Magdalen laundry” referred to both the conceptual and the practical nature of the homes, emphasizing the symbolism of Mary Magdalen—Christianity’s exemplar of female repentance and redemption—as well as the industrial-style laundry work that the women were required to perform. The first Magdalen asylums of the 1800s were smallish ventures offering prostitutes, expectant or post-pregnancy single mothers, and “compromised” girls the option of temporary refuge and moral “rehabilitation.” Over time, however, and alongside shifts in the structure of Irish society, government, and religious orders, the nature of the institutions changed dramatically.

By the middle years of the Twentieth Century, the character of the convent-run Magdalen asylum seems to have shifted from that of voluntarily-entered refuge to stark penitentiary. Institutions housed as many as 150 to 200 inmates at a time, behind locked doors. An extensive catalogue of women classed as morally deviant or socially undesirable were deposited in the homes by town priests, family members, nuns, and employers. These women included a major subset of unwed mothers, as well as girls considered “at risk” of becoming sexually active due to good looks or poor discipline, women with mild mental handicaps, victims of incest and rape, epileptics, alcoholics, and others seen as either vulnerable or “bad.” 

Individuals were held without legal mandate for years at a time, and led lives of repentant prayer and arduous manual labor. Many young women became so institutionalized that they were unable to live “outside,” even if eventually allowed to leave. Others became so frightened of men, so scarred by a lack of normal social relationships, that they lived permanently damaged lives. Still others were victimized in the asylums by clergymen or van drivers.

The story of the Magdalen institutions is a staggeringly complicated one. Much certainly can be, and has been, said about massive control and improper conduct on the part of the Church; however, most women came to these institutions already rejected by their families, their lovers, or their communities. To truly consider the history of what happened to thousands of Irish women and why, one must squarely examine not only the authority of the Church, but the role of social mores and behaviors, attitudes about female sexuality and who bears the responsibility for sexual conduct, education (or the lack thereof) about sexuality, the mythologies of the feminine in both the Irish and the Christian mind, communal attitudes toward silence and toward the marginalization of the other, and so on. But what does all of this have to do with poetry?

I learned only the barest bones of the preceding information on that evening years ago, and yet immediately, I found the “Magdalen” story scalding those raw, breathless regions of self that are the province of poems. The more I puzzled the history of these marginalized women, the more its dimensions seemed to me to parallel the dimensions of poetry. The story was a negotiation, even an argument, between voice and silence—or, the said and the tautly held back—individual and collective reality, perceived and unassailable truth, physical and conceptual place, idea and event. And it was muscled with such sinews of emotion, psychological ramification, historical and cultural circumstance, and gender-sensitive experience... Truly, it was the stuff of the poems we all want to write: the poems that matter.

Might it not be of unique benefit, I wondered, to use the complex capabilities of poetry to explore such a complex—and extremely sensitive—subject? Moreover, to use the forum of a whole volume to bring diverse elements of, and perspectives on, the issue into dialogue, thereby creating a more encompassing overview? Might it not be rewarding to explore the freedom offered by a collection format to highlight not only the direct but the indirect story (attitudes, cultural truisms, core concepts such as institutionalization, etc.)? Idea bloomed into prospectus and before I knew it, I was flying to Dublin to begin a Fulbright Fellowship year of intensive research and creative production.

From its inception, this project pushed and tugged and prodded at my understanding of what belongs in poems, how to find it, how to put it there, and why—what it means to be a poet “in the world.” Never before had I let poetry be a matter of such extraordinary range, such fervent investigation...never had I let it be so wholly about casting beyond my own reach into the distinct humanity of others, or about finding the far parts of me where “the other” ranges like wind.

With this project, writing poetry became not merely a matter of observation or experience or rumination, but of vigorous multidimensional research—of literally seeking out the truth of things. Poems no longer grew mainly out of my own riddled interior, but out of sources: first-hand interviews with former “Magdalens” and members of religious orders, visits to care facilities, the language of nineteenth-century materials in the National Library, film documentaries, secondary history and social science texts, newspaper articles, autobiographies, visits to defunct laundry buildings or Magdalen gravesites, and so on. As a result, I often found myself writing poems that didn’t sound to me like poems at all; and I struggled constantly with a tension between the urge to inform—to outright tell—and the need to craft beautiful, engaging poetry. But in time, amidst all that tension, new places began to burst open: new kinds of beauty, new dimensions of information, new ways to write.

The research, the reaching out that this manuscript entailed also became an extraordinary education for me in “the place” that poetry occupies, or can occupy, in the world at large. The story of the laundries encompasses individual and collective histories that are highly sensitive. Much of my time in Ireland was spent, therefore, running into walls. Irish on all sides of the issue were tired of having difficult aspects of their lives poked and peered at and sensationalized. And they had even less interest in a foreigner swooping in to poke and peer. But somehow, blessedly, the walls that being an American researching such a disturbing phenomenon put up, being a poet eventually took down. There was something about the yield, the access, or the goal of poetry that people trusted. I think their reasoning was something like this: while individuals can all-too-easily betray or strong-arm the truth, poems really can’t. Truth is the very stuff of poetry; moreover, the form inherently acknowledges the importance of facets and of personal interpretation. And at the end of the day, a poem built of weak things—the dust of the sensational or the ill-considered—just falls apart, devoid of real power.

As a citizen of a country that tends to marginalize poetry as inconsequential, I was staggered by the faith that the form engendered abroad. It was the fact that I was a poet that led the sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, the order that ran the largest Magdalen asylum in Ireland (and fired huge controversy with the exhumation of over a hundred “Magdalens” in conjunction with the sale of land) to introduce me to a number of former residents of “St. Mary’s” who remain in care—mainly women who would have difficulty living independently. (This very affecting experience became the impetus for the poem “The Glass Lake,” which appears here.) It was being a poet that offered me the friendship of two women who had been incarcerated in the Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry in Cork as virgin girls—their whole lives altered by the sexual paranoia of others. It was the fact that I was a poet which spurred the daughter of a woman who died in a Magdalen asylum (hemorrhaging from an abortion obtained on the streets) to invite me into her home and weep to me of her mother’s life of childhood incest, troubled marriage, rape, inability to parent, prostitution, and early death in an institution.

Never before this work did I understand that being a poet could mean so much responsibility, frustration, intimacy, extraordinary experience, connection, challenge, fear... Never before did I truly understand that being a poet could mean, quite simply, so much.