LAST DAYS OF A LAUNDRY

 

A controversial chapter of Dublin life will end next month with the closure of what's believed to be the last of the capital's convent laundries, that belonging to the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Sean Mac Dermott Street. At the height of its productivity 150 women worked in this laundry. Today 40 women are in residence at the convent, the eldest of them 79. They will all remain living there after the laundry closes on October 25th.

Approximately 40 per cent of the women who came here in the past were single women who became pregnant and were rejected by their families, says the Reverend Mother, Sister Lucy Bruton.

"What we tried to do, in some cases successfully, was to provide money and protection for women in need. Of course we failed, we made mistakes. One of my greatest regrets is that we continued with the status quo rather than pioneering change. If a woman came in today with her daughter I'd tell her to get lost. I'm not saying I'd refuse to take the girl but I'd indicate to the mother that you don't hide people away," Sister Lucy says.

For 30 years, the Sisters have avoided the term Magdalen Laundry. Magdalen means a public sinner. I'd be very wary who I'd call a sinner," Sister Lucy says. "The term makes my gorge rise. In their young lives, these women were thrown aside by their families and by society. They feel it is so unfair to keep throwing that back at them."

The building, known to generations of Dubliners as the Gloucester Street laundry, is to be sold several parties are interested, and the nuns would like it to be used for some social service.

First impressions of the laundry building are of austerity of a large, grim interior with high ceilings. The pounding, steam driven machinery adds to the Victorian atmosphere. These days many of the women there are old and frail, their duties now described as occupational therapy. The laundry does the washing for nearby Mountjoy Prison and the prisoner clothing is collected once a day.

OF the women there, nine have no known relatives. The relatives of some other women residents, though known, rarely if ever come to see them. Sister Lucy says she regularly telephones some families but they still won't come to take the women out.

A few years ago one woman was not even told by relatives when her mother died, Sister Lucy says. The family delayed telling her because, they didn't want her at the funeral.

The decision in 1993 by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity to sell off a graveyard in Drumcondra to pay debts put the spotlight firmly on this forgotten, aspect of Irish life the convent laundries. The bodies of 133 women who had worked in the High Park convent laundry were disinterred, cremated and reburied in Glasnevin cemetery.

From the early 19th century until the middle of this century, thousands of Irish women were condemned to a life of servitude and confinement, with the knowledge, coercion and approval of family, Catholic church and State. The reasons varied from prostitution to being orphaned or deemed socially inadequate, to giving birth outside marriage or alcoholism.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Sean Mac Dermott Street laundry and residential home would take in over 100 women a year. "This was at a time before the dole, social security and unmarried mothers allowances were available," Sister Lucy says. "It was a time before families realised that even if a daughter had let them down they didn't have to hide her away."

WHEN the convent laundries were founded in the middle of the last century the impulse was charitable and caring. The women were regarded as being in moral danger. At that time many single pregnant women had to choose between emigration, begging, prostitution and incarceration.

In the early days, the women coming in were prostitutes. But as time went on it became obvious that the penitentiaries were used as places to remove from society unmanageable women and those who became pregnant outside marriage," says historian Dr Frances Finnegan, who spent 12 years researching the lives of abandoned women in the 19th century. They were admitted after the birth of the infant and never saw the child again. They were the outcasts of a society which wanted to have them hidden from view. Possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes."

In certain cases, brothers and sisters of the "laundry girls" never knew where they had gone to after they disappeared.

The nuns maintain they met a need for a certain number of people. "You could say that if the sisters had been more enlightened in the 1920s they'd have made different decisions," she adds. "They might not have tried as hard to hold onto the women who came here. There was a hierarchical attitude on the part of the nuns and in society generally them and us and we know better. Even so, a lot more women left than stayed. Many of the women didn't have a hope in hell without us. The alternative in many cases was to go on the streets. Girls have gone on the streets and been murdered. I've seen it happen. It might have happened a lot more if it hadn't been for the convent. You can't judge those times by the standards of today. The Order came to Dublin in 1853, shortly after the Famine. What was the alternative for many women then but the streets?"

A number of mildly mentally handicapped women came to the nuns when their mothers died and there was no one else to care for them. Some of the mentally handicapped women had babies as a result of being sexually exploited. In the view of the nuns these women were in danger and could not have been allowed out. "Others went and were free to go.

A woman in her twenties with a mild mental handicap was admitted as recently as last year.

IN the days before the welfare state, the laundry was a way of generating much needed income. Seven men work in the laundry now and do the hard washing part of the work. The women mostly do "cylinder work"

pressing sheets, pillowcases and towels. Attempts are being made to find other types of "industrial therapy" work for them when the laundry closes.

I'm not saying we run a paradise here,"

Sister Lucy says. "If you had a group living in the Blackrock Clinic you would still find someone who was disaffected." The nuns attitude was maternal", she says. Girls came up to Dublin from residential homes and orphanages. They were vulnerable girls with no families. They might have beef 18 or 20. We would try to persuade them to stay until they were older."

Finding jobs outside the convent for the women was often difficult. Currently one of the women has an IQ of 48, another has behavioural difficulties. In the past, only domestic jobs, in hospitals or people's homes were available. "In the houses, the attitude was that if the girl had had a baby, she was fair game Sister Lucy says. "They would bet careful of their sons and wary of giving her a job. That's a fact. In people's homes they were badly paid and exploited. If the girls fought with the woman of the house, they would be out of a job and a home. At least in the hospitals, they could get a job and a place to live. In the 1970s though, contract cleaning came in at the hospitals and that all stopped."

In the laundry's early years there was no State support. In later years the women, received an old age pension goes to the convent for board and lodgings.

In addition the Eastern Health Board pays the women £22.50 per week none of this EHB money goes to the house, says Sister Lucy. For holidays the women are taken to places like Skerries and Greystones.

The religious Orders helped these women, when nobody else would. The cruelty was often due to the actions of individuals in the Order. Both the families and the religious were reflecting the ethos of the times, attitudes which persisted until fairly recently and have still not totally gone," says Margaret Dromey, co-author of the book Mothers Alone?

The women's babies were usually adopted, though the nuns were not involved with the adoptions, according to Sister Lucy. "We never had anything to do with the babies. They were adopted or fostered and we often didn't know where they were."

Sister Lucy, who has been in religious life for 41 years, believes it is easy to look back and talk about unenlightenment. "Hospitals were grim places in those days too. Patients got a raw deal and nurses were treated like dirt. Prisoners in jail suffered too. It annoys me when people assume that things in 1926 could be the same as in 1996."