There’s nothing quite like the bright lights of Obamaplaza on the road to Limerick from Dublin. It’s shiny, warm glow and astonishingly wide range of Obama souvenirs and trinkets always heralds that the journey is nearly over. On the way home from gigs in the Belltable in the past it has frequently been the provider of supermacs and road trip snacks for hungry actors. Last Thursday was no different, as we pulled in to its majestic car park on our research trip to Limerick City.
The trip was to show the team that I am working on my new play ‘Displace’ with some of the places that inspired the story. So at 9am I picked up dramaturg Pamela McQueen, director Sarah Baxter, movement director Bryan Burroughs and producer Clara Purcell in Dublin and we set off.
As a relatively new driver, most of my attention went on making sure I didn’t go up any one-way streets the wrong way while in the city, but once we were out on the road it was great to get to chat about theatre, the Belltable residency and some of the people I have met as part of my research.
The play is about a fictional Magdalene laundry building in Limerick that has been turned in to a modern day Direct Provision centre for asylum seekers while they wait for their application to be processed. This process can take years, and asylum seekers are left in a system where they are not allowed to work, not allowed to cook their own food, and given €21.60 a week. The price of two supermac meals in Obamaplaza, or a couple of keyrings with I heart Ireland on them.
When we reached Limerick, our first port of call was the Limerick School of Art and Design, what used to be the old Good Shepherd Laundry. It was amazing to see the building that I had read so much about transformed into a completely different setting, but with so much of the old laundry aesthetic still evident.
You can tell what parts of the building were the nuns’ quarters and what were the parts for the women incarcerated
there by the difference in design – some corridors have parquet wood on the floors and walls, while other areas are covered in old 1950s lino.
The team couldn’t believe how much of it was still there. The windows high up in the walls in some of the old laundry rooms meant that if you were one of the women working there you weren’t even allowed to look out. Given no indication of how long you would be there, cut off from the world, much like the people left in the modern day direct provision system.
We went in to the exhibition gallery, which used to be the old chapel in the grounds of the laundry. Here, the women would be brought in for Mass and seated on one side of the building while the children from the orphanage would sit in another part. There are accounts of the women craning to catch a glimpse of their child that had been taken from them and put in the orphanage, while the mothers worked only a short distance away in the steaming heat of the laundry. It was very affecting to be in the silence of that room, with its ornate marble and gold mosaic on the walls, and think of the suffering that those women were put through. It’s haunting.
Next we visited Marketa in Belltable before a very delicious lunch in Hook and Ladder – Bryan said he became a regular there when he was in Angela’s Ashes the Musical, and we can see why! Lovely food and a very nice atmosphere, we’ll definitely be heading back there for sure :-).
After lunch we visited a friend of mine in one of the direct provision centres in Limerick. I won’t say which one as I want to be sure nothing happens because of it – this is all part of the system, of keeping people separated and afraid of what can happen if you cause ‘trouble’. It’s shocking to visit these centres though, many of them are old religious buildings that have repurposed to house asylum seekers, out in the middle of nowhere and with extremely limited transport in to the city. If you get the bus in to town, it leaves at 9:30am and you won’t be able to go back until the return bus at 5:30pm. That’s a fecking long wait.
Some of the centres have an air of Stepford about them, with everything looking nice but something not quite right at the same time. The ones with children have playrooms for example, but the toys aren’t used and frequently the door in to the room is locked. There are no children to be seen, a strange feeling in a centre that supposedly houses 70 little ones.
In another centre that I went to, I was the first person to sign the visitors book in 2018. Two people had signed in last year, and five in 2016. How are people supposed to integrate in to the community, one of the things they look for when assessing applications, if you are purposely cut off from that community – placed in a big vacant building miles away from the nearest town?
We saw the canteen in this DP centre, the noticeboards of signs saying the rules, and the laundry where half the machines don’t work; the depressed atmosphere of waiting is palpable. The car ride home was very different from the journey down. Everyone was very moved and affected by what we had seen. There was far less chat, it seemed trivial after it somehow. We are determined to try to bring some of what we saw to the stage, to share it with a wider community.
I’ve finished my second draft of the script of ‘Displace’, and am all fired up to start work on the next draft for the reading in the Belltable on 20th June, which marks World Refugee Day. I’ve never done a reading of a work in progress before, so it will be interesting to see what new ideas are sparked by it, as well as being just a wee bit terrifying! But it’s good to push your comfort zone sometimes, and the warm glow of Obamaplaza will always be there for the supermacs afterwards :-).
Katie O’Kelly, Belltable Artist in Residence 2018