Theatre review: “Since Maggie went away” by J. Nolan

“Since Maggie went away” is written by writer-journalist Jacqueline Nolan. The play is based on personal experiences and recently uncovered family history. Being familiar with press reports on its topic and having recently read “The Baby Thief”(see “Thief”), I attended an impressive performance.

The play concentrates on abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and victims of such abuse within one family. Such abuse was not limited to Ireland. It occurred in many countries.

You may be familiar with films, books, newspaper reports about such abuse or what happened in Ireland. You may have seen films like “The Magdalene Sisters” or read about recent discoveries at the Bon Secours Home in Ireland.

Ms Nolan wrote articles about Irish and Dutch abuse victims. What she did not know at the time was, that her mother was one of the victims. This family secret was revealed when Ms Nolan’s elder brother managed to trace his mother.

MaggieNolan wrote her play combining information she gathered as a journalist and as relative of two victims. For both mother and child were abused. The inflicted abuse now affects all other family members in one way or another. For privacy reasons, some details like names have been changed, but what the play shows are actual events and experiences.

The resulting play lasts about 70 minutes. Ms Nolan is continually on stage, as she performs all roles – an impressive tour de force. The play starts with Maggie, who is clearly a bubbling, lovely young woman. She works as a cook, but it is her day off and she tries on new clothes. When the shop assistant asks what name to put on the bill, Maggie blurts out “Bernadette … Christ Almighty, why did I say that at all?”

It is the name the nuns forced upon Maggie. The nuns register the unmarried pregnant girls under new names, anonymizing them, taking away their true identity, dehumanizing and more or less demonizing them.

The play switches fast between various characters, time, place, identities, memories, emotions. This is taxing for any actor or actress. It must be draining, if one actually re-enacts one’s own or one’s family member’s drama. At the flip of a hat, the actress changes from one to the next character, scene, emotions.

Charlie’s body language and speech show his terrible traumas. In a later scene, he admits the television is not on practically 24/7, as entertainment. Over half a century later, he still has nightmares.

In a next scenes, his daughter mentions, the abuse of one boy Charlie witnessed and described, is not what it seemed. Charlie sometimes needs to use another identity to describe horrors inflicted upon himself – to protect himself from this reality.

Fortunately, this play is not one haunting horror show. There are plenty moments, when the audience laughs heartily. For instance when a saucy Maggie compares the Christmas turkey to her baby’s father, or when she is kneading bread.

After the whirling performance, the audience was granted five minutes to get a drink. Then the majority filed back into the small theatre. For this evening, the performance was followed by a 45-minute-long panel discussion between the actress and writer-journalist, a representative from the local Roman Catholic church, the audience – and a mediator who should have been replaced by a more professional one.

As is so often the case when an audience or readers get a chance to listen to and discuss with an author or performer: 45 minutes could have become hours and hours. It was that fascinating. It was also interesting to hear comments and reactions from someone who formed part of the panel as a private person, as well as being a Roman Catholic priest.

Ms Nolan had the chance to give more background information. She mentioned an inquiry started early in 2015. As she later informed me “… the inquiry … is a Commission of Inquiry into all nine mother-and-baby homes in Ireland. The government launched it at the beginning of the year in response to the uproar following the discovery of bodies in a septic tank at the Bon Secours Home in Galway in June 2014; but the inquiry covers all the homes, including the one where my mother was, Castlepollard. The one in Cork, Bessborough, has particularly high mortality rates. Besides the high mortality rates – regularly due to malnutrition – the terms include burial practices, abuse of mothers (including forced labour), illegal adoptions, child trafficking and secret vaccine trials in the 1960s.”

It was very upsetting to hear that Ms Nolan’s brother, like many other torture victims, is physically maimed. Most of his abuse-experiences are actually too horrid to describe or use in a play or book. It undoubtedly took and continuous to take out a heavy toll on him, his life, his dearest.

It was truly upsetting to hear, that Ms Nolan’s mother starved herself to death, when she learned her hopes of her Charlie being adopted by a loving and caring family had never come true. She died before mother and son had a chance to meet again. These experiences are incorporated in the play.

Quite upsetting were reactions from some in the audience during this discussion. There are still people totally convinced, victims of such gross abuse have no right to take an organisation, an institution, perpetrators to court. It is apparently still not deemed right by some, to demand compensation, acknowledgement, to ask for a loud and clear “Sorry”.

But is not such an attitude of forgive and forget, sweep it all under the carpet, let sleeping dogs lie, the exact attitude which enabled and continues to enable this kind of abuse throughout the world?

Another member in the audience quite rightly compared what happened to unmarried, pregnant women and their children in Ireland to what happened to people during World War II. This greatly angered one Irish person in the audience. After watching the play, having read accounts of similar abuse, as well as hearing more about Ms Nolan’s family history – and with a few of my family members having been in camps or terrorized during WWII – I must admit, this comparison is not wide off the mark.

Ms Nolan quite rightly mentioned, that nowadays, when we remember war victims, names are often read from a list. Immediately, I thought about how many of the mothers and babies who did not survive “care” at homes like the Bon Secours’ lie in anonymous graves, never received a name, were registered under new names, were treated as if they were lesser human beings. As is so often the case when one comes across real evil: if one is lucky, there are bones but no name, no story, no voice, no acknowledgement.

Ms Nolan ended this moving evening by reciting from Seamus Heany’s “The Cure at Troy”.

This play certainly sends you home with an awful lot of things to ponder. This play followed by a similar discussion will give you food for thoughts for weeks. Ms Nolan mentioned she intends to organise future performances of “Since Maggie went away” – depending on funds raised.

For helping raise money for future performances, here is the Facebook page and donations will be more than welcome.
If you get the chance to attend a future performance: buy a ticket! Watch the play!

Youtube introduction to “Since Maggie went away”.
Guardian Comments Emer O’Toole “Galway’s Mass Graves”
Guardian Jenny Kleeman and Helen Pidd: “Catholic Church continues to quietly pay out compensation to victims of alleged sex abuse at Catholic schools in Britain while refusing to accept liability.”

“Since Maggie Went Away”
Written and performed by Jacqueline Nolan, directed by Lora Mander.
Light Design Vasilis Apostolatos
Produced by Ballydam Theatre in collaboration with Orange Tea Theatre (Amsterdam)

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