Tag Archives: Ireland

Review – Distant Relations: Portraiture and Genre Painting in 19th Century Cork, by Maureen Considine, August 2014

An exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery, Distant Relations: Portraiture and Genre Painting in 19th Century Cork,presents a view of Victorian Cork which is highly relevant to the contemporary issue of our nation’s treatment of women and girls. “Victorian values on moral regulation affected the lives of women most particularly. Women were expected to behave according to a lady-like ideal and to be the ‘angel of the house’, figure of probity, goodness and civic responsibility.” Though historic, the exhibition offers the opportunity for feminist analysis of primary source material from a society which created the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. 

Peter Murray’s curatorial decision to display three panels of handmade lace samples alongside  high art portrait paintings of local women is significant because academic art theory is concerned with categorisation and separation of craft and art, with painting at the pinnacle and crafts at the base. Mastery of the technique of lace-making required study, patience and hours of practice. Irish lace was and still is revered for its intricate design and highly accomplished rendering. Murray’s decision creates a direct link between the lace and the content of the paintings, featuring local women dressed modestly in heavy black gowns with lace collars (and at times cuffs and bonnets) providing subtle and reserved decoration to the severe clothing. The centrality of the lace samples provide an entry point, and an anchor, for viewing the exhibition as a whole.

James Butler Brennan, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1860, Irish School, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 cm

The exhibition essay and supporting archival material inform us that Cork School of Art Headmaster “James Brennan was at the forefront of developing lace-making as a craft that could be practiced by women”. This was an approved form of women’s work which provided income and at times, economic independence to the craftswomen. A cabinet containing archival photographs of women in lace-making classes and a pattern book sends the viewers mind into narrative mode, thinking about the lives of the lace-makers. Adjacent to the cabinet A Portrait of a Monk (Edward Sheil, 1834-1869) connects the methodical craft of fine lace-work as one that has parallels to monastic life and activity. The gallery’s web archive informs us that “an important branch class of the School of Art, which was held in Convent of the Poor Clares, Kenmare, concentrated on teaching nuns and students the art of lace-making”.

Archival photograph: Cork School of Art, Lace-making Class, Crawford Art Gallery

Pondering the promise of economic independence through lace-making, the earning power of a skilled crafts-woman and the idea of monastic life – the story of Esther Harrington, a talented needleworker, comes to mind. Esther’s 70 years of labour and confinement, in the the Cork Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry, went unpaid and unrecognised. Institutionalised at the age of five following the death of her mother,  Esther was forcibly retained thereafter despite family attempts to bring her home. Her time in the laundry began in the early 1900’s. By that time the Order had totally absorbed the ethos of penitence as salvation for fallen ‘children’ who the ‘Mother’ must endeavour to save through enforcing a regime of punishing work and life-long confinement. Esther had committed no crime but she would have been subject to the ‘moral regulation’ of the Sisters and convinced that she was of little value in spite of the economic benefits she brought to the Order.

Institutions like the Good Shepherd Laundries were established in the 1800’s (initially by lay-persons) in order to facilitate ‘rescue work’ of so-called ‘fallen’ women, particularly prostitutes, in the hope that through training these women could choose other work and a different lifestyle. This aim proved unrealistic when it became clear, to the ‘fallen’ women, a life in the institution was far worse a fate than the lives they were currently leading. In this era of increasing concern over the moral regulation of the masses, Cork was a notorious British Military Garrison city with associated social ills such as prostitution and alcohol abuse. The controversial 1864 Act “for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases at Certain Naval and Military Stations” was designed to protect military Officers from contracting venereal disease from the prostitutes whose services they engaged. An 1866 amendment meant that these women were legally required to submit to periodical gynecological examinations, and if found to be infected they were confined to a Certified Hospital for up to six months. Women who displayed no symptoms were released with a de-facto endorsement of cleanliness and they subsequently referred to themselves, subversively, as the ‘Queen’s Women’ and her majesty’s Officers could continue to avail of their services free from the threat of venereal disease. ‘Cork prostitutes were commonly recruited from the ranks of low dressmakers and servants’, training in lace-making was not an option within their reach. It was because of these women’s lack of options that many ended up in the Good Shepherd Laundry. It was this low status which often prevented criticism of how the women were treated by the Religious who the State left unsupervised.

The the works in the exhibition through a feminist lens. Patriarchal societies largely place the onus for the moral regulation of society on women. While the military officer’s consumption of women in prostitution was seen as a social ill, respectable middle and upper class men could consume the female form through the socially acceptable fine arts. Whilst the portraits of Cork-based women-of-status depict them as reserved and emphasising modesty, the contemporaneous religious paintings show women in states of passion, pain and ecstasy. The Magdalen (copy after Carlo Dolci, 1616-1686) is a representation of an incredibly beautiful, young, repentant Mary Magdalene clutching her breast and gazing open-mouthed towards the heavens. The expression of such emotion is idealised, and often sexualised, in such painted representations whilst simultaneously being denied to the real women of the time.

Follower of Carlo Dolci (Florence 1616-1686), The Magdalen, oil on canvas 72 x 54cm (28 3/8 x 21 1/4in).


Other works selected for Distant Relations show the varying contexts into which the female figure was placed. A sculptural representation of Spring (Edward Ambrose, 1814-1890) as a diminutive and erotic female places women in the role of sexual object. The nude figure appears to be scattering flowers which she holds above her head and balances on her hip whilst standing, improbably, at a strange angle with her body contorted in a flattering pose. A strategically placed cloth hangs from her belted waist, covering her pubis but emphasising her nudity. The representation is about a third the size of a real human female which underscores its purpose as a mere object.


Central to the exhibition is an allegorical painting, Portrait of Mabel Arnott, by Jeannie Ashton Hackett (1876-1905). The painting depicts a prepubescent girl in an elaborate dress. She holds lilac and laburnum flowers, symbolising early love and danger respectively. The painting is rich with luscious tones and sensuous flowing lines of composition. The child’s cheeks are flushed and she appears to be aware of the gaze, which she innocently returns. Though the artist is female, it is the male gaze that is engaged here to affirm the threat of sexual desire and ‘justification for the gendered separation of public and private spheres’. The painting would have served as a lesson or warning, which Victorian moralists would have understood and enforced.

Jeannie Ashton Hackett, Portrait of Mabel Arnott, c. 1898, Irish School, Oil on canvas, 101 x 85cm


Perhaps the nearby sculpture of, A Girl Caressing a Child, (James Heffernan, 1785-1874) was also intended as a moralistic lesson, a warning on young motherhood. This could explain the inexplicably bared breast of the pubescent girl, perhaps she had been nursing the child. Otherwise the breast is exposed simply for the viewer’s pleasure in a society the actively suppressed female sexuality. The girl is not given status as ‘mother’ in the title and something about her pose – the raised knee, sad face and tenderness in gesture – implies a narrative of a parting embrace. Through contemporary eyes, aware of our nation’s treatment of mothers, one can experience profound sorrow in viewing this work.

James Heffernan, A Girl Caressing a Child, c. 1820, Irish School, Plaster, 99.0 x 42.0 x 58.0cm


Following a diagonal path away from this work, another sculpture, Sleeping Child (Thomas Kirk 1781-1845), continues with this theme of maternal separation. The life like rendering of the the figure is sentimental, engaging mind with the thought of a newborn baby; full of life, innocence and our projected hopes. However the materiality of the marble establishes an unsettling dichotomy of entombment or death in the depiction of this iconic symbol of new life and the recent grim discover at Tuam lingers in memory. The stone child is the a memento-mori of a baby; perhaps the sculptor’s services were engaged by a bereaved family or it was intended as a wider comment on high child mortality rates at the time, or maybe the artist simply had the dubious opportunity to study an infant’s corpse.

Thomas Kirk, Sleeping Child, 1818, Irish School , Marble, 25 x 43 x 23 cm


Ireland’s institutions of Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes crossed the island’s divide of Catholic and Protestant social practices. When we look to understand the past many of us now see the Irish Catholic Church’s role in the the repression of sexuality and the shaming of women as central to the treatment of women historically and contemporaneously. Many of us have been taught to view the Protestant Church as opposite or othered in terms of an Irish Catholic upbringing but both Church’s values are Christian and it was Christian values that shaped Victorian moralism. Both Churches undoubtedly assimilated the Victorian belief that an individual’s misfortune was her own fault and for the nuns this justified their treatment of women internees as appropriate to their perceived crime. For Catholic women the crime was characterised by a focus on impurity and sin. Protestant-run (and often evangelical) homes held primarily Protestant born women who were viewed as having failed to exercise personal restraint. The perceived failings of Catholic and Protestant women sent to institutions originates in the Victorian value-based system of moral regulation and its particularly unequal focus on the role and position of women within such a society. The exclusion of Protestant run homes from recent, and future, inquiries does not serve the interests of justice. The sectarian differences of the institutions are largely irrelevant when one considers that all of these women suffered; confinement, forced labour, torture and separation from their family members.

The exhibition has now ended

Update – Reclaiming the Mass Grave of inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundry and Industrial School.

An Bord Pleanala have granted permission for the redevelopment of the site and our objections and observations regarding the women’s grave and active memorialisation (in the Bakehouse interpretive centre) have been upheld. Condition 5 of planning has guaranteed consultation with survivors.

The information bellow is out of date –  2018 updates coming soon

August 2014

I have sent a formal / official request to assess the possibility of leasing lands on Sunday’s Well to a management company – (to be established) in order to create a Memorial Garden and access to graves of those buried adjacent to the site of the former Good Shepherd Convent, Laundry and Orphanage. The Management Company will include survivors, their family members and specific experts. I personally guarantee that every effort will be made to ensure the project is fully participatory with survivors. I am waiting until I have some kind of formal approval before I call public meetings because I do not want to burden or disappoint anyone.

An adapted version of the report that I sent to Corporate Affairs Cork City Council follows. Trigger warning – content, especially photographs may be upsetting to survivors and supporters


Our motivation is to gain access to the graves of persons who lived and died in the Good Shepherd institutions.

Description of Site
The site includes the area known as ‘the gym’ and the walled in graveyard adjacent to ‘the gym’.
Currently ‘the gym site’ has no access, except via the steep embankment (about 20ft long) behind the College View housing estate (there is now a wall built at this point)

The grave(s) cannot be accessed at all due to the high, 8-20ft, walls and locked gates which surround it.

At least 30 women are buried in the mass grave (but records show evidence of more burials) and there is a second unmarked plot on site.

The walled-in graveyard includes trees and one mass grave. The smaller structure marked as a grave in the image has since been identified as the remnants of a greenhouse)

The headstone on the grave has been broken and the grave left untended

The area is land-locked, surrounded by; the Gaol, private housing & lands, the National School, the Good Shepherd site and the Community Centre on Strawberry Hill.


The site is 30-40 ft above the women’s Gaol with a low wall acting as the only barrier to protect people from falling the distance to the Gaol – this wall has collapsed in some areas.

Access can be created via the community centre could be made and this would be relatively flat and accessible.

Boundary between Community Centre, private property and ‘the gym’ site to be established (I am checking with Land Registry) – this boundary will be crucial in terms of access.

An elevated ‘walk’ runs along the back of the site including the graveyard and ‘the gym’, behind which there is a low wall leading to the embankment.

I have included this link to an album of photographs of the area (trigger warning)

The site does not include the Good Shepherd Convent lands which are NAMA owned. (these lands are now owned by Moneda and planning permission for redevelopment has been approved)

Current status of the site: The lands are held in Cork City Council Titles and the site is leased to the Gaol management as part of the heritage site.

Access via Blarney Street and Surrounding Areas Community Centre/ Association is desirable as the centre’s lands are at a similar elevation to ‘the gym’, to which it is adjacent. The community centre management and National School principal are in general agreement with my proposal and have indicated a desire to co-operate with the project. We are going to hold talks in September when the school returns to full working hours. The school management are looking into creating an outdoor kindergarten but have assured me that they will not stand in the way of a Memorial Garden. The Cork City Gaol Trustees are supportive of the project in principle but many safety and security issues need to be addressed.

Our main goal is to gain access to the graves on the proposed site. It is our hope that the creation of a Memorial Garden at this site will be highly beneficial to our society, survivors, survivor families and the tourism sector. A Memorial Park (concept changed to Survivors Community Garden, 2017) would be a generous and powerful gesture of reconciliation to laundry and orphanage survivors. It would also make for an incredibly beautiful park with clear vistas of Cork, located in a tranquil area. There are many such graves around the country and Cork City Council are well placed to pioneer this model of these sites as historic memorials.

It would be very important to our group to design the park in collaboration with survivors and with practical input from relevant council authorities for health and safety requirements.

I have attached a google earth map showing the area(s) Print

Proposal: Memorial Park/Garden at the Magdalene Women’s Grave

This proposal have been buried in Committee in Cork City Council for about 1 year. We have had support from Cllr Ted Tynan and former Cllr John Kelleher. We now have a petition for the newly elected Council


I remain hopeful that the new council will approve the plan in principal and then we can move to the next stage – funding.

Proposal to Cork City Council: To create a Memorial Park/Garden at the Magdalene women’s grave and the are known as ‘the Gym’.  (sent August 2014)

memorialGarden copyGroup: Our group comprises of several survivors of the Good Shepard Magdalene Laundry and orphanage, family members of women buried in the grave, supporters and Maureen Considine, visual artist and writer. This project was born out of the frustration of many Magdalene Survivors who have not been able to visit the Magdalene Grave which is located behind Cork City Gaol and adjacent to the site of the former Good Shepard Convent, Laundry and orphanage. The area known as ‘the gym’ is adjacent to the grave and is directly behind the Cork City Gaol. Currently the gym site can only be accessed via the steep embankment behind the College View housing estate and the grave cannot be accessed at all due to the high walls and locked gates surrounding it.


Current status of the lands: The lands are held in Cork City Council Titles (confirmed be Ger Horgan, Property Department, Cork City Council). The lands of the grave and the gym are elevated high above the old Gaol. The area is land-locked, surrounded by the Gaol, private housing, private lands, a national school, the Good Shepard site and a community centre. (see attached satellite photograph)


The grave lies inside 8-20ft high stone walls. The three gateways, into the garden, have been secured with heavy duty metal fencing and barbed-wire skirts the high walls. The headstone on the grave has been broken by vandals and the grave in left untended.


We have identified two possible future access points to the ‘gym’ and grave. The first would be via Cork City Gaol. A ramp or staircase would have to be built at the rear of the Gaol site to facilitate access. One positive aspect combining the site with the Gaol is that the Magdalene story could officially become part of our collective history. The second option is via the lands of Blarney Street and Surrounding Areas Community Centre/association which includes a scouts club. This access point is at a similar elevation, and is adjacent, to the ‘gym’. The community centre staff or users could possibly become guardians of the Memorial Park or assist in the planning and installation stages. It is our hope, and intention, that the creation of a Magdalene Women’s Memorial Garden at this site will be highly beneficial to society as a historic site, in a beautiful location. A Memorial Park would be a generous and powerful gesture of reconciliation to Magdalene Survivors. It would also make for an incredibly beautiful park with clear vistas of Cork, located in a tranquil area. There are many such graves around the country and Cork City Council are well placed to pioneer this model of these sites as historic memorials. It would be very important to our group to design the park ourselves with practical input from relevant council authorities.





Child Beauty Pageants in Ireland

by Maureen Considine: published in the Cork Independent in November 2013

In December 2010 French Vogue published a series of highly-sexualised and adultified photographs of a 10-year-old girl, Thylane Loubry Blondeau. On the cover the child was lying on a bed of leopard print cushions wearing a gold lamé dress with a plunging v-neckline, large gold jewellery and high stilettos. This 10 year old girl was covered in fake tan and make-up designed to make her to look like an adult. French Vogue claimed the concept was one of girls innocently playing dress up. The French people were not fooled by attempts to justify these images and the public outrage about this and the popularity of child beauty pageants led to calls for legislation to protect children from adultification and sexualisation.

In September 2013 the French government passed legislation banning child pageants and imposing penalties of up to 30,000euro and two years jail time for those who defy the ban. Also in September, the Irish public rallied against the idea of a ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ style pageants being held in Dublin. The public outrage led to the Bracken Court Hotel cancelling the event booking with the organisers Universal Royalty. The cocky company owner Annette Hill was unperturbed and she told Irish Independent reporters “Anybody who thinks the pageant isn’t going ahead would want to look up the name and research Annette Hill”.

Ms Hill does have a lot of experience with managing controversial child beauty pageants and, behind the scenes, she had Universal Royalty staff searching for a new venue. The pageant did go ahead, in a bar called Corrigan’s Kitchen, in Co. Monaghan. During the contest Ms Hill admitted that the details of the venue were kept secret and the pageant was tactically rushed in order to combat any attempt to organise a protest. Contestants, aged from 18 months to 14 years, wore fake tan, makeup, heels, ballgowns and inappropriate costumes. A six-year-old girl danced, in a bikini, to the track ‘Feeling Hot Hot Hot’. Ms Hill declared the pageant a success and has since announced plans to hold a Christmas-themed contest in Cork on the 14 of December.

Again secrecy surrounds the venue and I am concerned that, in spite of public outcry, this event will go ahead in a Cork venue and the public will only learn of the pageant in the aftermath. Whilst the demand for child pageants is small in Ireland we still need to be vigilant to protect girls and our society from the normalisation of the objectification of girls. The entrants to these pageants apparently cross all classes of society but we need to be mindful that children who are entered in these contests are amongst our most vulnerable due to poor parenting. It is a parent’s duty to protect their child, to make decisions in the best interest of the child’s well-being but some parents are evidently unaware, or in denial, as to the damage caused to self-esteem and self-image of objectified girls.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout is calling for, and receiving, political support for legislation banning child beauty pageants in Ireland and I welcome this measure. However no legislation will be in place to prevent the Cork Christmas-themed event next month. Therefore, I am calling on all venue owners in Cork City and County to publicly pledge to never host such an event. I also ask the each and every person, who knows that these events are harmful, to take the time to sign the online petition called ‘Protect girls, refuse to host Child Pageants’ which is a commitment to boycott any venue that hosts this event. Most business owners and managers will be responsible but this petition is targeted at the ones who are only to happy to profit from the harmful sexualisation of girls.


Update: A battle won but many more to fight!

The Christmas-themed (December 14th) child pageant was cancelled! Presumably because they could not find a host venue. However there are rumours of another pageant event in Ireland in March 2014 and the pageant organisers’ website has Ireland scheduled for 20 September 2014.


Seanad Éireann Private Members Business – Wednesday 5 March 2014

watch here – http://www.oireachtas.ie/viewdoc.asp?DocID=25538&&CatID=129