Breandán Mac Suibhne writes: It is the saddest return to school in Irish drama. In Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, the narrator, Michael, looking back from a time long after the action on stage, recalls how, in autumn 1936, he learned that two of his aunts, Agnes and Rose, had secretly left the family home in Donegal: “on my first day back at school, when we came into the kitchen for breakfast, there was a note propped up against the milk jug: ‘We are gone for good. This is best for all. Do not try to find us.’ It was written in Agnes’s resolute hand.”
Michael proceeds to explain that the family had tried to find them, as had the police and the neighbours, “who had a huge network of relatives all over England and America” ‑ “But they had vanished without trace.” And then, he says, twenty-five years after their departure, meaning sometime between August 1961 and August 1962, he had finally tracked them down in London: “Agnes was dead and Rose was dying in a hospice for the destitute in Southwark. The scraps of information I gathered about their lives during those missing years were too sparse to be coherent. They had moved about a lot. They had worked as cleaning women in public toilets, in factories, in the Underground. Then, when Rose could no longer get work, Agnes tried to support them both ‑ but couldn’t. From then on, I gathered, they gave up. They took to drink; slept in parks, in doorways, on the Thames Embankment. Then Agnes died of exposure. And two days after I found Rose in that grim hospice ‑ she didn’t recognize me, of course ‑ she died in her sleep.”
Critics have described Lughnasa as Friel’s “most autobiographical play”. For sure, the central characters in the play ‑ five sisters and a brother, a priest home from the missions—are, more or less, based on his mother, four aunts and an uncle from Glenties, Co Donegal. The uncle’s name, Jack, is different from that of Friel’s uncle, Barney, but the female characters have the same Christian names as his mother, Christina, and aunts, Kate, Maggie (also known, in life, as Peg), Agnes and Rose. Mundy, their surname in the play, is a variant of MacLoone, the surname of the actual family.
Still, the play remains a work of fiction ‑ not everything that happens on stage actually happened. Michael, the narrator, who is taken to represent Friel, was born out of wedlock; Friel was not. And the young Friel could not have come downstairs to find a note from two runaway aunts on his first day back at school in 1936 ‑ because in that year he returned to school in Co Tyrone, not in his mother’s homeplace in Donegal.
Yet Brian Friel did have two aunts, Rose and Agnes MacLoone, who left for London in the 1930s. And what became of them? Did they really experience the drink-addled destitution described by Michael in the play?
Scraps of information, in Michael’s phrase, can be put together. The year of their departure is unclear. But it was likely in the mid- to late 1930s, when both women were in their mid-forties ‑ too old, if truth be told, to leave west Donegal for London. And older too than they are represented in the play. There, Rose, who is portrayed as “simple”, is the younger one, aged thirty-two, and Agnes, thirty-five. In reality, if they did in fact leave in August 1936; Rose, born in November 1889, would have been forty-six going on forty-seven and Agnes, born in July 1891, would have just turned forty-five.
History first gets a fix on the MacLoones in London in September 1939, when, the National Register ‑ a census compiled to facilitate mobilisation for the war ‑ shows them working and living at the Warwick Club on St George’s Square in Pimlico, Westminster, west London. Agnes was a kitchen maid and Rose a pantry maid, both likely attired in the black dress, white bonnet and apron that was everywhere the uniform of England’s female domestics, a disproportionate number of them Irish.
The Warwick had begun as a residence for female students, clerical workers, and professionals. By the 1930s, however, it was drawing an older clientele. With breakfast and dinner mandatory, it had the air of a retirement home rather than a hotel.
Kate Bosse, a young refugee from Nazi Germany, who lived there for a few months in 1937, paid thirty-five shillings a week for a small room and food. “In the evening after supper,” she remembered, “the old women and the men who were more or less invalids would sit around the fire in the [main] room socialising: knitting, talking now and again about the parts of the Empire, where they had spent most of their lives ‑ Africa or New Guinea or India.”
War came and the West End of London took a battering. Pimlico is adjacent to Westminster, where iconic public buildings presented propaganda targets to the Luftwaffe. There were also targets of strategic importance in the surrounding area, notably Battersea Power Station, Victoria Station, and major rail bridges on the Thames.
The MacLoones’ experience in the war years is unclear; they may have remained for part of it at the Warwick Club. But doubtless, the war, for them, would have meant ration books and sirens and air raid shelters. At the war’s end, in 1945, they were still in Pimlico, at 14 Lillington Street, apparently a house divided into flats; the other four occupants of the house were male. It was a short street that had been hit twice in the Blitz. By 1948, they were at 137 Vauxhall Bridge Road, a boarding house or a house divided into flats, and, then, in 1949-50, they moved to 26 Cambridge Street, sharing a substantial house with a couple, William and Edith Von Arx, presumably in a self-contained flat.
They were still at that address in 1960. But there had been some shifts and changes. The Von Arxes had moved next door, to no 24, and no 26 was then the home of William’s father, Otto, who kept boarders.
The MacLoones moved a bit in the 1940s, then, but they had stayed in Pimlico, and the 1950s, as regards residence, were stable. And in contrast to Kate, Maggie, and Christina in the play, the MacLoones’ siblings knew ‑ or at least came to know ‑ that they were in London; they had not “vanished without trace”. When their brother Barney died in Glenties in 1950, they were listed among the “chief mourners”, with London given as their residence; they did not, it seems, return from England for the funerals. Likewise, in 1952, when their sister Kate died, “Rose and Agnes MacLoone (London)” were listed in funeral notices.
As late as 1960, with the women still living on Cambridge Street, Agnes, then aged sixty-eight, was still working as a canteen assistant; Rose, then seventy, would have been entitled to a state pension, but may still have been employed as a “domestic worker”.
They had survived, they had made lives for themselves in London; they were not destitute. Then, in 1960, things suddenly came undone. Agnes underwent surgery in Westminster Hospital for cancer of the oesophagus, which involved the replacement of the tube between the mouth and stomach with a loop of the small bowel; she subsequently developed post-operative bronchopneumonia and died on May 9th, 1960.
Rose was now alone. Agnes had made a will in the late 1940s, when they lived on Vauxhall Bridge Road: Rose received £174 15s 7d. But notwithstanding that bequest, by 1961 she was in Newington Lodge, on Westmoreland Road, Southwark. Erected as a workhouse in 1850 it had been rebranded as the Newington Lodge Public Assistance Institution when the workhouse system was abolished in 1929, and, latterly, it had become a dumping ground for homeless women and children.
Homelessness had become a major problem in London by the late 1950s, and Newington Lodge came under severe pressure. Overcrowded and poorly managed, the place became increasingly dirty and, in 1959-60, there were outbreaks of dysentery. In the course of 1960-61, it became a focus of public controversy. Indeed, in December 1961, this “Heartbreak House” featured in a report in Time magazine on Britain’s housing crisis. Described as “a grim, high-walled pile of sooty red brick”, it was then home to “266 women and children from 72 fragmented families”. Rose MacLoone was among those women.
In January 1962, a month after the article in Time, Mary Cecil, a middle class woman who became homeless when divorcing her husband, wrote about her experience in Newington Lodge for the New Statesman. “It is not only the workhouse building and stark interiors that draw you back into Dickens,” she wrote, “but the faces of both warders and inmates.” After an initial interrogation on admission, a nurse issued Cecil and each of her three children ‑ “two in a pram, and one dragging behind” ‑ with a knife, fork, tablespoon and teaspoon, and a warning: “If you lose ’em, you don’t get no more.”
She and her three children were assigned a cubicle, with two narrow beds and a cot; the only other article of furniture was a battered chest of drawers: “The inch-deep mattresses and the pillows might have been filled with sand.” There was no ruder awakening, she wrote, than their first morning there: “A bell clangs, nurses bang on doors and shout, and from a low rumbling and whining, there mounts a steady crescendo of subhuman sounds reaching deafening proportions in the dining hall.”
They queued for “grey porridge and greasy kippers” and then carried their dishes to sinks where they washed themselves. The corridor to the sinks, which ran between the sleeping quarters, was slopped with food: “Volunteers swept up, but even cleaning operations here induced nausea, whether caused by the dirty brooms, the type of filth they were sweeping, the straggled-haired women behind them or simply the bare, battered, bleak background.” They dumped the leftovers in great bins ‑ that later that day were “brimming with an indescribable glutinous mess” ‑ and, taking care not to lose their precious cutlery, washed the plates in hot water with no soap powder.
On returning to their cubicle, a nurse told them to clear stuff off the dressing table and window sill ‑ the children’s effort at homemaking ‑ and then to leave the area for the duration of the day. The choice then was to wander the streets or sit in a desolate common room – “some broken and bashed-about chairs; no radio, telly, or tinny piano, not even a proper window”. They chose the common room: “It was like a communal cell,” she thought, “a painting by Hogarth.” Here, women competed with gruesome histories: “If one announced her husband had slit her up you-know-where with the carver, another had been rushed to hospital for a blood transfusion, and the next had been on the danger list for weeks … their children or themselves when children ‑ had been brutally raped (mine had only been taught to masturbate an elderly man).” And they talked incessantly of eviction and how to beat the housing racket. By the time Cecil and her children got back to their cubicle, the building and its inhabitants no longer sounded a “cacophonous discord”: “I was part of it and one of them. This, then, must be despair.”
“Newington Lodge,” her article finished, “is a sadness no one could ever forget.”
Mary Cecil and her children had been in family quarters ‑ the situation of elderly women, like Rose MacLoone, would have been bleaker, surrounded by the decrepit and demented as well as the destitute. Doubtless Rose, like Mary Cecil, ate the same “grey porridge and greasy kippers”, heard the bell clang in the morning and the nurses banging on the doors, and sat, as Cecil sat in a different section of the establishment, in a communal cell of a common room. And perhaps she too, in little time, became part of it and one of them.
Rose MacLoone died of a cerebral thrombosis, a stroke, on June 17th, 1962; she had developed generalised atherosclerosis, a thickening and stiffening of the arteries, meaning she had probably experienced chest pain or difficulty walking over the previous few years.
A stroke is a sudden thing: it had not sent her to Newington Lodge ‑ it released her from it. Hence, a question remains about Rose’s departure from her home of ten years on Cambridge Street. Agnes, as the wage-earner, may have been the lessee. As a pensioner, it is possible Rose could no longer afford the lease. The accommodation may have been unnecessarily large for a single woman, and, besides, it may have been lonely for Rose without Agnes. Or she may have suffered some other physical, mental or financial crisis. The admission book to Newington Lodge is now held in an archive closed due to Covid; it may hold the answer.
And so “those missing years” ‑ the late thirties through the early sixties ‑ come into view, not with sharp resolution but with a certain clarity. Yet the reasons for Rose’s departure from Cambridge Street, like the reasons for her departure, with Agnes, from Glenties, are blurred.
There is one final irony. Little over a year before Rose MacLoone arrived in Newington Lodge in 1961, journalist Jeremy Sandford had taken an interest in the place. A family living a few doors down the street from him had been evicted, and he discovered that, unable to find any other accommodation, the wife and children had resorted to the Southwark institution.
Sandford visited it, in 1959, and he found “a scene of horror, all the worse for the fact that no one knew about it” ‑ hundreds of women and children “stacked into an old workhouse”, with an atmosphere of “hopelessness and helplessness” hanging over it, and husbands only allowed to visit their wives and children for a couple of hours each night.
The journalist resolved to expose it. In April 1960, the BBC Home Service broadcast his Homeless Families, a short documentary in which people who had accepted accommodation in public shelters, including women surreptitiously recorded at Newington Lodge, told their own stories. The effect was “absolutely nil”. Sandford blamed the medium: “I had the impression, as so often when working for radio, of shouting something very important down a deep well.”
But there was an additional problem: “Real people,” he observed, “are often inarticulate, especially when disaster hits them.” Frustrated with radio documentary, he turned to TV drama. In 1966, the BBC screened his sensational Cathy Come Home in its celebrated series The Wednesday Play (1964-70). Director Ken Loach filmed it in a documentary style; it unfolds both as a “story” and a “report”. And with some scenes improvised and others filmed with hidden cameras and involving unwitting passers-by, it blurred the actual and the illusory.
Loach used Newington Lodge ‑ that cacophonous, lonely house of the homeless ‑ as the location for a scene at the end of the play. Rose MacLoone’s world had been dramatised long before Dancing at Lughnasa.
A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Sunday Independent on September 6th, 2020. Breandán Mac Suibhne is the director of Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Image: Newington Lodge Public Assistance Institution