"For Those Whose Story It Is...": Ann O'Farrell Gives Voice to Irish History

Aug 11, 2015

When Ann O’Farrell first entered the workplace, she was a drama therapist, a theater set and costume designer and helped run a children’s theater in Ireland. 

But things have changed, and it took O’Farrell moving to Florida for her to start writing about the country in which she grew up.  Her work with children has now inspired two books of historical fiction, including Nora’s Children, and the latest, Roisin’s Song.

O'Farrell introduces readers to a different kind of Ireland - one from the early to mid-twentieth century. O'Farrell's novels are inspired by stories she herself heard growing up in Ireland, such as the Madgalene laundries.

On her walk to school as a child every day, O'Farrell would pass a large 5-story building with shadowy figures inside and white smoke billowing from the top. She later learned that very building she ran past every morning out of terror was one of the most notorious of the Magdalene laundries. She let this memory slip past her until she saw photographs of it in the newspaper years later, prompting her to research the laundries.

"In the particular place I have written about (which was surrounded by very large grounds), some of the grounds were sold to a contractor. When he expedited those grounds for building, he found remains of young women," O'Farrell explains. "There were no headstones, there were no markers, there was no record of there being graves there and this is when things began to unravel."  

After this discovery, the truths of laundries became more public. "Fallen" women from all walks of life, from shamed to poor and daughters from families too large to take care of them, worked in the laundries as less than indentured servants. An estimated 30,000 women were confined and worked in these prison-like asylums run by Catholic nuns. They were physically, spiritually, and emotionally abused.

Ireland's Magdalen laundries were quietly supported by the state, and operated by religious communities for more than two hundred years. The last of the laundries didn't close until 1996, and the Irish government issued a formal apology in 2013.

This injustice and dark history of the asylums moved O'Farrell to write Roisin's Song and give the many women who suffered a voice.

"I felt I had to write that story for people who couldn't or hadn't written that story," says O'Farrell.

O'Farrell will speak about her writing and the interesting lessons she learned about Irish history through her research in the cultural village at Irish Fest later this week.