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Beginning to Feel a Sense of Peace

“We have seen culture, history and memory eradicated and displaced by a homogenous number of hotels and commercial office spaces, so we wanted to consider alternative ways of developing the city, paying particular care with sites like this, which are so loaded in memory and history.”

A decaying crucifix lies at the end of a corridor, surrounded by blood-red paint that has crumbled off the walls.

In one room, a chair gathers dust, waiting hopelessly for someone to sit on it.

Cobwebs cover the bodies of pigeons who died in this building, perhaps coming in for shelter and finding, like many of the women who were incarcerated here, that there is no escape.

This is the site of the Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott St, in Dublin’s northeast inner city and which, in 1996, was the last of these institutions to close its doors. It was opened by the Sisters of Charity, part of a network of institutions where over 11,000 so-called ‘fallen’ women – prostitutes, unmarried mothers, rape and sexual assault victims or sometimes just women who were considered too independent or flirtatious – were sent between 1922 and 1996. The women sent to these prisons were forced to do laundry for paying customers.

This building, just a stone’s throw from Dublin’s O’Connell St, has sat derelict for almost 30 years. It is a site of trauma, suffering and crime.

In 2018, Dublin City councillors backed a motion opposing the sale of the former site to a budget hotel chain. It followed a campaign by activists and academics, including Professor Katherine O’Donnell, UCD School of Philosophy, where she teaches on the history of ideas and feminist and gender theory.

“I was involved with Justice for Magdalenes since 2009, where we campaigned for a State apology to Magdalene survivors, and a redress scheme,” she says. “So, when the apology did come in 2013, we became Justice for Magdalenes Research, and this began a process of different research projects aimed at addressing the question of what would constitute justice for survivors.

“When the site went up for sale, it was clear that the potential buyer was not appropriate or suitable. This type of hotel was wrong for this part of Dublin and would have resulted in very few jobs in a part of the city that has been, historically, relatively neglected by politicians.”

After the sale was blocked, however, there were differing views on what should become of the building. Should it be demolished? Should it be left to sit vacant? Should it become a memorial site? Should it have a social purpose? Or, in the midst of a housing crisis, should it be used to provide homes?

These were questions, O’Donnell and her colleagues felt that needed the expertise of architects – but those architects had to be guided by what was best for survivors and for the local community.

So, over the course of three years, Katherine and her UCD colleague, Professor Hugh Campbell, Head of Subject for Architecture in the UCD School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, led a group of academics called the Open Heart City Collective, to work on the site’s redevelopment.

They worked in partnership with CoLab 81-7, a group of three emerging architecture offices. Together, these two groups took an academic approach to what to do with the site, and their work involved site investigations and surveys, feasibility studies and, most of all, extensive consultations with the local community, survivors, politicians and academics.

“We have seen culture, history and memory eradicated and displaced by a homogenous number of hotels and commercial office spaces, so we wanted to consider alternative ways of developing the city, paying particular care with sites like this, which are so loaded in memory and history.”

I was motivated by the idea of stopping the thoughtless destruction of the site, and preventing more thoughtless development

He worked with architecture students from both UCD and Queen’s University Belfast to meticulously record and analyse every detail of the site – including the dead pigeons.

“It was really important to consider what would guide how we move in and inhabit these spaces, and that question is one best resolved by architects,” Katherine says. Meanwhile, she facilitated discussions and consultations between CoLab 81-7 and all the stakeholders to explore the idea of creating a permanent memorial – or ‘site of conscience’ on Sean McDermott St.

“Although Covid-19 moved these consultations online, we carried out many of them, and CoLab’s work changed throughout the process to reflect the outcomes of these consultations,” she says.

“During these consultations, architects could show the range of possibilities for what is a relatively large site. There was an abundance of ideas and there was space to accommodate these ideas.”

Dublin City Council was keen for some social housing to occupy the site, but they also wanted an ongoing tenant, and a public-facing educational institution, where people could learn about the history of institutional abuse in Ireland, seemed a good fit.

Academic research can sometimes struggle to make a real-world impact, but this project has had a clear outcome.

After OHC members carried out the research and presented their findings to key members of the Cabinet, the Government announced in March 2002 that the site will become a National Centre for Research and Remembrance, including a small memorial garden on the site, a museum and exhibition space, an archive of records related to institutional trauma, community facilities, social housing and an educational and early-learning facility. Whereas once women who had babies were imprisoned on this site, and those children often abandoned, neglected or adopted out, the site will now be a place that embraces and supports women and children.

The redeveloped site is intended to benefit the local community and to be a national institution of global significance. Martin Fraser, the former Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach and now Irish Ambassador to the UK, is heading up the project, with various different Government departments, the National Museum, the National Archives, the Office of Public Works and others.

“Working on this, with people who have a long history of campaigning, has been fulfilling and humbling,” says Hugh. “There was a real feeling of mission and care.”

For O’Donnell, the project will have many legacies, but among them is that the past has been diligently recorded. “The visual records cannot be denied,” she says. “We were moved by the care and attention that educators, students, locals and survivors gave to the site and those that lived there. Through that loving, thoughtful care, we could see almost an alchemical transformation and – slowly – began to feel a sense of peace coming through.”

Professor Katherine O’Donnell and Professor Hugh Campbell were in conversation with Peter McGuire (BA 2002, MLitt 2007), a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Irish Times and to Noteworthy, the investigations unit at

Featured Researcher:

Professor Katherine O’Donnell