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  • Materials and Memory:Archaeology and Heritage as Tools of Transitional Justice at a Former Magdalen Laundry
  • Laura McAtackney (bio)

This article argues that refocusing the current emphasis on archaeology in planning laws, and its potential in creating cultural heritage, can play an important role in applying the principles of transitional justice to the legacy of Irish institutional abuse. Whereas transitional justice is frequently invoked in the immediate aftermath of conflict or as part of a decolonializing process, its principles can be applied to major societal traumas. In the context of South Africa, Lucas Lixinski has argued that cultural heritage has real potential in advancing transitional societies' need for social justice. Yet despite its formative role in creating and maintaining narratives of belonging, heritage is frequently overlooked in the transitional-justice process. Lixinski suggests that the significance of heritage lies in its ability "to write and rewrite history," an argument that has resonances in contemporary Ireland as we reconsider what we think constitutes "heritage" and how it reflects the changing understandings of the nation.1

With Irish society at a transitional moment in the aftermath of decades of institutional abuse, we should reconsider the place of heritage in our understandings of nation and identity. This article explores how cultural heritage might be created from the material remnants of institutions and inserted into the national memory; it offers a case study based in contemporary archaeological practices and heritage approaches. Initially, it presents the role of archaeology in the planning process—a form of planning consultancy that [End Page 223] locates, investigates, and mitigates archaeological remains—and will argue for the potential to expand its remit in exceptional cases such as this. The article will present ways to rethink how we do this type of archaeology to include the voices of survivors and facilitate the transition of selected materials as cultural heritage and tools of transitional justice.

The Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry (1837–1992)

A traditional archaeological approach to the site of the former Magdalen laundry in Donnybrook is based on the concept of the "polluter pays," which places a legal obligation on the owner or developer to mitigate the impacts of construction on the "environment" (within the Irish planning process, this includes archaeology). This principle governs much archaeological work in the Global North and is embedded in the legal frameworks regulating Irish planning by which archaeologists focus on locating, excavating, and recording historic subterranean material and standing structures. Owing to an unsuccessful planning application to redevelop the site of the laundry in 2016–17, I was introduced to the material remains of that institution and advocated a more people-based approach to its "archaeological" recording.2

The laundry has been long associated with its current location. Transferred to the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1833, it was subsequently relocated to its present site in 1837. Given the archaeological and historical evidence of late medieval buildings in the vicinity, Dublin City Council rejected the initial planning application and recommended ascertaining the age of the oldest parts of structure. Furthermore, the social history of the site as a Magdalen laundry led the city archaeologist to note the "potential for burials being uncovered."3 (Undoubtedly, this decision was influenced by the number of recent scandals regarding unconsecrated burials of institutionalized women and children, including the infamous case of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home at Tuam, Co. Galway.)4 In the [End Page 224] aftermath of the failed 2017 Donnybrook planning application, the developers took two routes to deal with archaeological issues in the planning process. First, they commissioned geophysical specialists to locate disturbances below ground that might signify potential burials. Subsequently, all noted disturbances were excavated, but no burials were located.5 They also contracted architectural historians to produce a report confirming the age of the standing structures abutting the road.6While these reports were being completed, I was contacted by the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) to consult with the current owners regarding contemporary archaeology's best practices for the site. I was eager to advise on how to meaningfully interpret the legal obligations placed on the owners to archaeologically assess the Donnybrook site as...


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pp. 223-246
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