Beneath the Black Iron Cross: Another untold narrative

Beneath the Black Iron Cross: Another untold narrative

This week, Olga Walker (University of Canberra) discusses her own familial connection to the Magdalene Laundries. 

Since my last contribution to the Four Nations History Network in February 2017 my research journey has yet again taken me on a tour of some very interesting highways and byways. The period of interest in my PhD is from 1948 to 1954, the country is Ireland, and the topic is Irish female migration to Britain. Undertaking this research has allowed me a glimpse into what life might have been like for women of the 1940s and 1950s in Ireland, before they left for Britain. The predominant narrative located in the archival documents I have examined is related to a particularised construction of the identity of female Irish migrants.

The focus of this blog was originally going to be Irish people travelling home from Britain for Christmas, 1954. December is usually a very busy time. In London, the government was concerned about issues such as National Assistance and increasing pensions before Christmas.[i] In Ireland government concern covered issues such as employment permits for people from the south working in the six counties[ii], and the shortage of passenger train accommodation[iii], an important topic, due to the ever increasing number of passenger movements into the country at that time of the year.

As I set aside the time to undertake the research for the blog, I factored in an afternoon to embark on some much needed research into the women in my own family. It has come to light that I have a great-aunt who I didn’t know existed. Moreover, a shock awaited me as I became aware of a deep, dark family secret about her. She now lies buried in a shared grave beneath a black iron cross behind brick walls and iron spikes in the grounds of a convent in Ireland. Through this family-history work, it has become clear that, quite apart from the major narratives and general discourses that cluster around Irish migration I have become accustomed to, there is yet another potent narrative which, seemingly, still remains hidden; it was both a national and family secret.

Early research of scholarly and other literatures on the topic of the Magdalene Laundries shows that it has relevance to societies in Ireland, Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. You may well imagine how excited I was to read Jo Thor’s post, “Let’s not forget the Scottish and English Magdalene Establishments”However, to date, while the topic is being discussed as a trope which constructs women’s identity a certain shape, the stories of the many women involved and their families are still untold. These women are in shame, in the shadows.

Many scholars have already written about the Laundries, including Diarmaid Ferriter (2005)[v] Maria Luddy (1997, 2007)[vi], along with James M Smith (2007)[vii] and Rebecca Lea McCarthy (2009)[viii]. Miryam Clough (2017)[ix] discusses the topic as she explores: “…the idea that shame has historically been, and continues to be, used by an oftentimes patriarchal Christian Church as a mechanism to control and regulate female sexuality and to displace men’s ambivalence about sex.”[x] Relevant newspaper articles have been published, along with films, documentaries, and, as noted by Jo Thor, a song by Joni Mitchell. Also of relevance to my research is the Report to the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.[xi] Thus the reading is likely to be intense and I am sure, informative. However, my real task lies ahead, in climbing over brick walls and iron spikes to research the story from a personal family history perspective where no records remain. Nevertheless, the story, albeit one that connects to national and international narratives about Irish women, women’s sexuality and the battle for its control by church and state, is an important one for the family. The history research I need to undertake to support this project, already in its infancy, may lead to the reinstatement of a woman who has been abandoned and forgotten by two generations, back into the family. She is the origin of the direction my work will lead me in the future. The relevance of the discovery of this family secret to my current PhD project cannot be understated because I am now gaining a much better understanding of the culture and pressures brought to bear on the women in Ireland, as well as in the other countries already mentioned.

Why write about what is essentially my next project for the Four Nations History Network at this time, instead of writing about my current PhD project? I refer to historical novelist, Hilary Mantel:

Facts are strong, but they are not stable. Soon you find your sources are riddled with contradiction, and that even when the facts are agreed, their meaning often isn’t. At this stage, you will want to seek out the earliest evidence you can get. If your story tracks real events, you will spend a lot of time sifting versions, checking discrepancies, assessing the status of evidence: always asking, who is telling me this, and why does he want me to believe it? The contradictions can be fertile. If you can locate the area of doubt, that’s where you go to work. You may well consult original documents, and you will tramp over the ground, and visit the libraries, and allow your hand to hover over a document and imagine the hand that first wrote it.[xii]

As a writer, I lament the paucity of personal material or facts. This presents a rather formidable brick wall for my work, but I will nevertheless undertake as much rigorous research as I can. Ultimately, I will write a work of historical fiction to tell a story. As a historical novelist, I would like to move on from debates about the relationship between historical fiction and history where there is a hierarchical ordering, to a discourse about how we might all work together to uncover ‘history’, even and especially, ‘painful’ history. Because the project is in its infancy, time will allow me to take a more objective approach to the work which will unquestionably involve many emotional highs and lows. These, themselves can be brick walls and iron spikes.

Writing this post also allows the opportunity to raise for discussion the issue of how we write history, partly because I find myself working at a nexus point between history and historical fiction. I want to challenge and to unsettle the notion of an ‘approved’ narrative that explains our past. The family secret has unsettled any notion I had about my past so it is essential that I construct a way in which I can give the woman who remained a secret for two generations in our family a place and a voice. Not her voice; it cannot be raised from beneath an iron cross to tell her story. But I can at least write her story from the outside.

The history of the Magdalenes is slowly being written and I agree with Thor’s argument that “…they should not be treated as uniform institutions.” Learning and writing about ‘history’ is important because it means different things to different people. Mantel has said she views writing historical fiction as “an act of mourning”, because it is a way of trying to retrieve the past, which of course we are not able to do (Mantel, 2017: Huntington Conference).[xiii] For me, Mantel’s words find a resonance, but there can be meeting points between history and historical fiction especially where there are no archival documents or family photos and diaries. My overall strategy for the project will be one where the research is driven by my creative-writing practice:

“…a creative arts-based methodology that focuses on the production of work and its consideration in context (practice) as a research method and research in which creative practice is clearly at the centre.” (Harper, Webb and Brien, 2011: 186, in Brien and McAllister (2016:4).[xiv]

More research on the impact on the individual of national and international narratives such as the ‘Magdalene narrative’ is needed but as a writer, I am trying to retrieve my great-aunt’s story. The individual stories are the stories that flesh out the people involved in history. In this case, it is only through historical fiction that I can achieve the aim of writing a story for her. However, to focus only on Ireland would be to further segregate the woman whose story I am trying to uncover. While taking a broader view, such as a four nations approach, might be limited by some of those brick walls and iron spikes, it offers one way of connecting narratives, so that a better understanding might be apprehended. This notion is not as silly as it might first appear, as the family history involved in my self-appointed project involves Britain, America, Canada and Australia. My family is not exceptional in having family secrets, but by bringing them out into the open without causing harm and hurt needs careful thought. I recognise that there will be no panoptic approach that will suit everyone or meet their requirements. Ultimately, I take refuge and comfort in writing from my own family history as I begin this next project, researching what was considered to be a shameful narrative which had to be hidden.


[i] National Assistance Debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th December 1954. Retrieved from

[ii] Houses of the Oireachtas. Dáil Éireann Debate. (1954). Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Employment Permits in Six Counties. Wednesday, 1 December 1954. Vol. 147. No. 9. Retrieved from

[iii] Houses of the Oireachtas. Dáil Éireann Debate (1954). Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Passenger Train Accommodation.Wednesday, 1 December 1954.Vol. 147. No. 9. Retrieved from

[iv]Thor, J. (2017). “Let’s not forget the Scottish and English Magdalene Establishments.” Four Nations History Network, October 2, 2017.

[v] Ferriter, D. (2005). The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. London: Profile Books Ltd.

[vi] Luddy, M. (2007). Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luddy, M. (1997). “Abandoned Women and Bad Characters: Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Ireland.” Women’s History Review. 1997: Vol.6, No. 4.

[vii] Smith, J.L. (2007). Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, Indiana.

[viii] McCarthy, R. L. (2010) Origins of the Magdalene Laundries: An Analytical History. McFarland and Company Inc: Jefferson, North Carolina.

[ix] Clough, M. (2017). Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality. Oxon OX 14 4RN: Routledge.

[x] Clough, M. (2017).Writing and Research Blog. Retrieved from

[xi] Dáil Éireann. (2013). Report to the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries. Retrieved from (

[xii] Mantel, H. (2017) “Can these bones live? On writing historic fiction.” BBC Reith Lectures 2017, part four. BBC Radio 4. Jul 6. Retrieved from

[xiii] Mantel, H. (2017). “Plenary Lecture. Hilary Mantel, in conversation with Mary Robertson.” Fictive Histories, Historical Fictions Conference. The Huntington. May 13 2017. Retrieved from

[xiv] Brien, D.L. and McAllister, M. (2016). “Becoming Authentic Multidisciplinary or Interdisciplinary Researchers: Methodological Practices and Outcomes.” TEXT Special Issue 34: “Writing and Illustrating Interdisciplinary Research.” eds Simon Dwyer, Rachel Franks, Monica Galassi and Kirsten Thorpe. Retrieved from,-274,213

Following a career in financial management in the private sector, and as a financial analyst with the Public Service in Canberra, Olga Walker is now a PhD Candidate with the University of Canberra. She graduated with a BA Arts (Community, Culture and Environment), and has undertaken the following postgraduate studies: Grad. Cert. (Public Sector Management); Grad. Dip. Arts (English); Grad Dip Arts (Research); and an MA (English).

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