Galway’s shame comes under the spotlight in US premiere of play

Lifestyle – Judy Murphy travelled to Denver in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies to see a production of ‘Stained Glass at Samhain’

It’s a long way from Galway to Denver, Colorado – 4,310 miles to be precise but that distance narrowed significantly last week as the University of Colorado Denver staged the American premiere of Galway writer Patricia Burke Brogan’s play, Stained Glass at Samhain. 

Audiences in America’s Rocky Mountains region got a glimpse into Ireland’s infamous Magdalen laundries thanks to this production, which was accompanied by a series of talks and information evenings on these institutions, which destroyed the lives of thousands of innocent Irish women.

Patricia Burke Brogan is best known for the groundbreaking play, Eclipsed, which was first produced in 1992 here in Galway and which had a major role in highlighting the terrible wrongs done to women in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries.

In recent times, there has been huge coverage of these religious run institutions, but in 1992, little was known about them. Eclipsed, by Patricia, a former novice in Galway’s Mercy convent, helped change that. It has been translated into many languages from French to Japanese, and been performed all over the world, with a new production scheduled for Peru next year. It premiered in New York in 1999 when it was staged by the Irish Repertory Theatre, a production described by the New York Times as a ‘sad but quietly charming play’.

Stained Glass at Samhain, which premiered at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre in 2002, deals with the same subject but from the point of view of an elderly, compassionate nun. This nun, Sr Luke returns from the dead to visit the site of a former convent and laundry during the Celtic feast of Samhain as the buildings are being demolished to make way for the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. She shares her life story with the audience via a series of monologues while also interacting with the church authorities, the penitent women and the young, progressive convent chaplain.

The US premiere of Stained Glass at Samhain was performed last week by students at University of Denver Colorado, under the direction of Dr Eileen Kearney, an authority on women in Irish theatre. Eileen did her PhD on the Waterford born playwright Teresa Deevy, who had six of her works staged at the Abbey Theatre in the 1930s, before a more conservative regime at the national theatre broke its links with her. Deevy is now an almost forgotten name in Irish theatre.

Given both Eileen’s Christian and surname, it’s no surprise to learn that the New York-born director and drama lecturer has strong Irish links – to Mayo and Cork – and is familiar with the traditions of the Catholic Church. Eileen was taught by Catholic nuns, she explained, and that experience was a help in directing Stained Glass, as her early education gave her an insight into how they operated.

For  more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.