Holy Blood by Cat and Éiméar McClay is the second digital residency of 2021 hosted by CCA Derry~Londonderry. Throughout the residency, Cat and Éiméar will create a digital sketchbook by sharing new and existing work including moving image, writing and digital renders inspired by their research into the legacy of Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes across Ireland; this will act as a stepping stone towards a longer video, which they hope to complete in the future.
The artists will publish excerpts of their research to help people both engage further with the themes behind the work and see the process behind it. Links to resources will be posted with each passing day, and a list of the duo's inspirations and references can be found here that will help contextualise the work and allow you to engage with the subject matter on a deeper level. Cat and Éiméar chose to begin their residency around the 25th anniversary of the closure of the last Magdalene Laundry on the island of Ireland. They were inspired by the concept of hauntology that refers to the return or persistence of elements from the past, like an ever present spirit. The title of the residency invokes the significance of blood in Catholic rituals and miracles over millennia, and alludes to the historical harm inflicted upon those that were institutionalised across the island.
**CW** References to incarceration, abuse, and discrimination against sex workers.
25 years ago today, on October 25th 1996, the last operational Magdalene Laundry in Ireland – Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin – closed its doors for the final time. To commemorate this occasion, we have chosen this day to begin our digital residency here with the CCA Derry~Londonderry.
Throughout the residency period, we will map out our research exploring the corrupt network of social institutions — Magdalene Laundries, mother and baby homes, etc. — run by the Catholic church in Ireland throughout the 20th century.
During the 1950s, one in 100 Irish citizens per capita were confined in one of the aforementioned institutions. In 1966, Ireland is thought to have had the highest rate of patients involuntarily confined in mental health facilities in the world. Once inside one of these institutions, they often became a kind of maze for those imprisoned. In this way, they became receptacles for those who failed to follow the strict moral codes of Irish society.
So far, we have focused primarily on the Magdalene Laundries, which were originally established as reformatory institutions for sex workers in an effort to curtail their prevalence in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. Despite the ostensible agenda of these institutions, the routes of entry for women varied greatly, with the vague and derogatory term ‘fallen women’ being used as a common label to justify their incarceration.
Renders: Initially, we began developing concept imagery by pairing shrines and ceremonial Catholic paraphernalia with typical horror tropes to create an ominous atmosphere reflective of the culture of fear and violence maintained at the laundries and mother and baby homes. In our research, we are interested in the allegorical use of horror to convey broader universal themes, such as the use of a vampire narrative in Tomas Alfredson’s, Let The Right One In (2008) to explore themes of alienation and attachment.
**CW** References to psychological abuse, misogyny, sexual abuse & trauma.
The highest number of religious miracles are reported in Ireland, the United States and Italy. Many of these miracles involve statues of the Virgin Mary crying either blood or a clear liquid, such as scented oil. The Virgin Mary traditionally functions as a symbol of suffering who weeps for the sins of the world.
Blood has been a central part of Catholic shrines and relics throughout history. For example, the blood of St Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, which is preserved as a relic in Naples Cathedral, is believed to return to a liquid state from a dried solid three times annually. On days when this miracle does not occur, the blood exists in a small, dried mass, which clings to the side of the sealed vial in which it is stored. As the Catholic church will not allow such holy vials to be opened, a thorough scientific investigation is impossible. The church maintains that divine intervention is the explanation, in spite of the fact that there have been no studies to verify this claim.
The Weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia
On the afternoon of February 2nd 1995, Fabio Gregori’s six-year-old daughter Jessica screams for her father:
“The Madonna is crying! There’s blood everywhere!”
Red liquid leaks from inside the stone. Within hours, news of the weeping spreads throughout the district. Thousands of strangers flock to witness the miracle, blocking the entrance to Gregori’s home and trampling his garden. He locks his doors and hides inside.
By late Sunday, February 5, the statue has wept 13 times.
A forensic scan reveals that the statue is solid.
Test renders for animation works in progress:
The ritual of washing in the laundries functioned symbolically as well as practically. According to the church, cleaning dirty sheets allowed the women to metaphorically scrub away their sins. The time they spent incarcerated in these institutions acted as a form of purgatorial punishment for their divergence from the doctrine of the Catholic church.
Residents were typically severely punished for expressing any form of sexuality, and it was common for those in charge to willfully keep them in the dark regarding such matters. As a result, they did not have the tools to deal with many of the situations they were exposed to. Children in the industrial schools – which were run by the Catholic church – never received adequate sex education. In fact, they were commonly fed misinformation by the nuns and priests charged with their care. Their subsequent lack of knowledge around sex left them vulnerable to abuse and manipulation; in turn, this would lead to pupils in the Industrial Schools going on to associate sex with shame and fear. People that became pregnant were treated poorly and made to feel ashamed of their actions, even if they didn’t fully understand what led them to become pregnant.
Selected quotes from the 2009 report published by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, commonly referred to as the Ryan Report, which investigated all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions for children, with particular focus on the Reformatory and Industrial Schools run by the Catholic Church. We have chosen these particular quotes, as they exemplify how young girls living in the Industrial Schools were taught to view their bodies and sexualities as abject and shameful.
After I had my period the nuns kept telling me “you can now have a baby if a man touches your hair”. So when this foster father began touching my hair I thought I was pregnant.
I was obviously growing up by now and I had quite big breasts. Sr ...X... would come up to me get hold of my breasts and squash them as hard as she could, she would then order me to “flatten them down and stop encouraging” it ... “flatten them down, flatten them”. She would scream at me. So I would just try and hold myself in ’til she left me alone. ... Then one day she got hold of me and told me she had got me a “roll on”, I thought I was going to get some nylons ...(stockings)... and felt very grown up. She said “this will help to keep you in”. ... When I put it ...(corset)... on she made me haul it up over my breasts to flatten them down, I could hardly breathe and I had to wear this over my breasts for months.
We didn’t know anything about getting a period. There was nothing about a period only, “if you sit beside a man you get pregnant”. I remember getting a period, I thought something was wrong with me. I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid, I thought “I’ll get into trouble”. There was no one to tell.
Bloodstain, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
**CW** References to slavery, incarceration, psychological & physical abuse, institutional & state corruption, misogyny, sexual abuse & trauma, neglect, isolation, extreme mental turmoil.
The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were residential, commercial and for-profit laundries run by four Irish orders of nuns. It is estimated that tens of thousands of girls and women were incarcerated in these institutions and forced to carry out unremunerated labour. Residents were subjected to extreme psychological and physical abuse. The Irish State was complicit in the imprisonment of women and girls in the laundries, and dealt commercially with their services without regulating them through inspections. Women were often referred to the laundries through the Irish Courts, which implies their function as a form of carceral punishment facilitated by the State.
The routes of entry to the laundries varied. Women and girls commonly incarcerated included those who were perceived as being ‘promiscuous’, individuals who were placed in the laundries by local health authorities following rejection by foster families after maintenance payments for their care stopped around the age of 16, unmarried mothers (including those from county and city homes), the daughters of unmarried mothers, patients who were transferred from psychiatric hospitals – either voluntarily (as a half-way house after being discharged from the hospital) – or as an alternative to long-term psychiatric care, residents (including some with developmental issues) who were referred by social services when they failed to secure alternative accommodation, individuals who were considered a burden on their families or the state in some capacity, victims of sexual abuse, and those who had grown up under State or Church care.
Many women were also sent to Magdalene Laundries during their period of supervision after leaving an Industrial School. None of these women were aware that they were subject to a period of supervision after leaving the schools, or that they were liable to recall during that period. There was much confusion experienced by those placed in the laundries, as they had no idea why they were there. This led to a constant fear of being reincarcerated for some unknown reason, even if they managed to escape. This fear pushed many past Magdalene inmates to leave Ireland.
Selected testimonies and reactions by former residents (from Justice for Magdalenes Ireland: Submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture) We have chosen these particular quotes, as we believe they give a good sense of the poor working conditions suffered by those incarcerated in the laundries:
In the Magdalene laundry it was a well-known fact that once you went in there you never came out. Because the locks – you couldn’t walk out, because all the locks would be on the doors. You couldn’t. Unless family of yours took you out. Say somebody claimed you, and took you out. Then that was the only way, or else you’d go out in a coffin, you know? You died there.
The more work that came in, the more money that was made. There were two girls in the sewing room hand smocking all day long, and I did all the putting the dresses together. I’d probably turn out about seven dresses a day. That was a hell of a lot of work, yes.
I mean we never asked about pay - we didn’t know that we were supposed to be paid to work, you know what I mean? We did not know.
The Magdalene Laundries, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
Stills from animation work in progress:
Click here for the report of of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (commonly referred to as the McAleese report).
**CW** References to slavery, physical & phsychological abuse, injury, neglect, medical neglect, trauma.
The labour in the Magdalene Laundries involved standing for long hours, constantly washing laundry in cold water, and using heavy irons for prolonged periods. Women suffered burns, cold water rash, varicose veins and scabies as a result of the conditions; many report a lack of pain medication or adequate medical care for serious injuries. A number of former residents assert that baths were only permitted once a month and menstrual hygiene was insufficiently provided for.
Infrequent bathing can cause a buildup of dead skin cells, dirt and sweat on the skin. This can trigger acne, and possibly exacerbate conditions like psoriasis, dermatitis and eczema. Poor hygiene can also cause an imbalance of good and bad bacteria on the skin, which increases the risk of skin infections.
Sketch of a laundry:
Sad afternoon; steaming linens; unbearable heat. The glass roof traps the sun, raising the temperature of the laundry until my hair is damp and stringy with sweat. All around, the floors float with water — soapy, often dirty — suffusing every surface with the scent of industrial laundry. Water weighs down my dress under the plastic flowers of my apron.
Everything operates according to a strict moral code. I am punished for anything and nothing at all. Anything can be justified in the name of God. You have a body, a soul, and an intelligence: there is no room left for any feelings. The internal and external doors of the building are locked. Blood-stained sheets come fresh from hospital wards to be scrubbed by hand.
Bathwater, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
Stills from animation works in progress:
**CW** References to death, incarceration, disrespectful burial, both state and institutional abuse and abortion.
Grave: a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin or dead body, typically marked by a stone or mound; an allusive term for death; a place where broken or discarded objects lie.
Over the years, multiple stories have emerged regarding the disrespectful burial of women and children incarcerated in mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries across Ireland. Related to this, in 2015, investigations into the mother and baby homes began following claims that hundreds of babies were buried in an unmarked grave at the site of a previous home in Tuam in Co. Galway.
Arguably, the inappropriate conditions under which these people were buried reflects the strong influence of the Catholic church over the legal and medical treatment of women and children in Ireland throughout history. Until the 1950s, it was common practice for Dublin maternity hospitals to arrange the burial of a stillborn child without consulting the parents. In Ireland, it was not possible to register stillbirths until 1995. Babies who died before baptism were not considered worthy of Catholic ceremony due to the common belief that they were bound to inhabit limbo (a liminal space between heaven and hell) and thus would not enter heaven at the time of their death. This harsh judgement was considered tacit and could not be refuted. Furthermore, although Ireland was not officially a theocracy, the strong ties between the state and the Catholic church removed the option of a respectful secular burial. In this way, it was mandatory for all death-related rituals to be Catholic.
Similar attitudes have affected the autonomy of Irish people assigned female at birth have had over their bodies across time. In 1983, Ireland held a referendum which added the 8th Amendment to their constitution. This new law compelled the state to ‘vindicate the right to life of the unborn’ and accorded equal status to the pregnant person and their unborn baby. On 25th May 2018, a referendum was held on the 8th Amendment, which overturned the ban on abortion by a two-thirds majority. As a result, in December 2018 the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act was passed. This law allows for abortion on request up to 12 weeks and at a later stage of gestation in the case of risk to health/life or severe foetal anomaly. However, in practice, this reform has not provided all of those seeking access to abortion services in contemporary Ireland with the tools to do so. Still, only one in 10 GP practices provide early medical abortions, while only half of maternity hospitals offer surgical care. Moreover, the geographical distribution of services is unevenly spread, with rural areas often left underserved. To access an abortion after 12 weeks in Ireland, two medical professionals must agree that there is a condition affecting the fetus that is likely to cause its death either before or within 28 days, and fear of both prosecution and media scandal strongly influence the decisions made by doctors in these cases. Furthermore, the current legislation permits doctors to act as ‘conscientious objectors’ i.e. to refuse to carry out abortions on moral grounds. This creates an atmosphere of judgement, which particularly affects pregnant people living in areas wherein abortion is not generally socially accepted.
Limbo, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
**CW** References to both state and institutional abuse and infant mortality.
Many survivors were angered when the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was published on 12 January 2021. The inquiry stated that no evidence was found that women were forced into the homes by either church or state authorities, and that sparse evidence was found of forcible adoptions. The oral testimonies of survivors dispute these findings. Further suspicion has been raised over the fact that audio recordings capturing personal accounts from witnesses for the report have been lost since its release. Some of the survivors who provided these testimonies claim to barely recognise their contributions in the final report. When questioned about the omission of the files, the inquiry responded that those who provided evidence in this way did so under the condition that the recordings would be destroyed afterwards. This assertion has been contested by those who were recorded.
Many former residents of Irish mother and baby homes dispute the use of the word “home” to describe such institutions. The warm connotations associated with “home” are regarded as inappropriate considering the harsh conditions suffered by those incarcerated. Many children born in these institutions were permanently separated from their mothers, whilst others struggled to reconnect with their birth parents until much later in life. Adoption was illegal in Ireland until 1954, years later than in the UK, where adoption was first legalised in 1926 (in England and Wales). Fear that Catholic children born out of wedlock would be given up for adoption to Protestant families contributed to Ireland’s relative position of liberal regression, as the church believed that legalising adoption would cause a decline in the Catholic population. The emphasis in the Mother and Baby Homes Commission Report on the legality of adoption across time has offended a number of survivors, as its exploration of the ways in which these laws have been mobilised against certain people is insufficient. Ireland’s adoption laws are compared favourably with those formerly instituted in countries like Australia, where the abusive nature of the legislation was more apparent on paper. In reality, most single Irish women who gave up their babies did so due to their social and financial circumstances. As pregnancy outside of marriage was such a taboo in Ireland during much of the 20th century, unmarried mothers were typically rejected by their families and therefore had no financial or familial aid to support them in raising a child. The government did little to mitigate these issues, as adoption was perceived as a source of social good in a society where pressure from peers, the church, and the state made single motherhood extremely difficult. The ability of the mother to properly consent to an adoption under such intense social and political pressure is inadequately questioned in the report. It is implied that the legality of adoption meant that it could not have involved abusive practices. Rather than functioning primarily as an explanation of past adoption practices, the laws are stated as an excuse for malpractice, ignoring the fact that abuse is so often facilitated by the law and state.
The ostensible aim of the homes was to encourage repentance and reform. It was believed that if the mothers spent time in isolation praying and working on domestic chores etc., the chance of them falling pregnant again would be reduced. As unmarried mothers were not welcome in many county hospitals, maternity units were installed in the mother and baby homes. However, the standard of care that babies born in these institutions received was often abysmally low. As a result, the rate of infant mortality in these homes was extraordinarily high, with a particular spike in the 1940s. In 1943, 75% of children were born at a home in Bessborough, Co. Cork died within the first year of their lives; 62% of children born in the Bethany home that same year also died.
Memory box, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
**CW** References to child and infant mortality, corpses and disrespectful burial.
A mother’s love for her baby, 2021, 3D-animated video, dimensions variable.
The animation that we are publishing today is inspired by a memorial item made by historian Catherine Corless, which currently hangs on a wall at the Tuam Mother and Baby home burial ground. The text subtitled over the video was written by Corless and is featured on a hand-written sign, which hangs as part of the shrine. Corless is an important political figure regarding current discussions of the homes, as her work precipitated much of the recent concern surrounding the poor conditions under which people lived in these institutions. Through her research into library, church and council office records, she discovered that 796 children died in the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961 but was unable to find the associated burial records. Corless learned that in the 1970s, two boys had uncovered a pile of children’s skeletons in a corner of the home’s garden, which led her to suspect that the bodies of some of the 796 children had been placed in a defunct septic tank situated there. Initially, she expected that the nuns, local clergy and police she contacted with this information would support her investigation, but they simply disregarded her concerns as belonging to the past. A relative of one of the deceased children, who found Corless’s work on social media, alerted a Dublin journalist to the possibility of the improper burials suggested by Corless. This story quickly gained international media coverage, provoking an inquiry into the events at Tuam by the Irish government. Following the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, it was confirmed that the bodies found in the mass grave on the grounds of the home dated from the time the home was in operation. Corless continues to campaign for the exhumation of the babies found in Tuam; these babies had been baptised, and canon law states that those who have been christened must be buried in a sanctified area. Despite this, the church and state continue to ignore her request. Children buried there are up to three years old and remain, at the time of writing, in the sewage facility. According to Corless, it is important that the bodies are exhumed before their remains disintegrate entirely.
Cat McClay and Éiméar McClay are Irish-born collaborative artists currently based in Glasgow. In 2020, they each graduated from Intermedia BA (Hons) at Edinburgh College of Art. Their practice considers ideas of queerness, abjection and patriarchal systems of power and oppression through an interdisciplinary body of work comprising video, 3D models, installation and digital collage. Studying contemporary queer and experimental literature has greatly influenced their respective writing practices. Following this research, they have developed their recent collaborative prose into narratives for moving image work. Currently, they structure their video work using a combination of animation, popular culture and cultural theory to challenge demarcations between high and low cultural material. This anti-hierarchical approach also attempts to make abstruse theoretical and philosophical ideas more accessible to a wider audience by demonstrating their material effects within everyday narratives. Their work often takes a critical approach: through appropriation and reinterpretation, they subvert the heterocentric narratives of popular cultural texts, including fairy tales and the Bible. An analysis of the mechanisms of power in Western society is central to this practice: they are interested in considering both how queer and marginalised bodies fit into capitalism and how they are excluded. Recently, their research has focused on the cultural, social and political influence of the Catholic church, particularly in Ireland. Through this study, they question the persistent link between the Irish state and the church. This is reinforced by their exploration of the potentiality of magic and witchcraft as queer and anti-capitalist symbols of resistance, through which they imagine a futurity predicated on a radical break from the dominant logic of late capitalism. They often harness eschatological imagery (disastrous weather, fire, etc.) to invoke the idea of end times associated with capitalism, and attendant premonitions of catastrophic or redemptive futures.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this work you can contact:
- For those in Northern Ireland: Nexus NI or Samaritans NI
- For those in the Republic of Ireland: Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), Justice for Magdalenes Research or Samaritans Ireland
- For those in the rest of the UK: Samaritans UK or Sex Worker Access and Resistance Movement (SWARM)