Justice for daughters of the laundries
Marina Permaul, who survived living in Magdalen laundries. photographs: joanne obrien
Mary Currington, who survived living in Magdalen laundries. photographs: joanne o'brien
On Tuesday a report by Martin McAleese may finally help to write the story of State involvement in the Magdalen institutions, a shameful chapter in Ireland’s history
So much of the story about the Magdalen laundries centres on names; on identities lost, abandoned or forgotten. Thousands of girls and young women went through their doors during two centuries. Each had her Christian name changed by the nuns, her surname unused.
On her marriage to an English soldier after she had fled Ireland, Margaret McCarthy changed her surname to that of her husband, Frederick Permaul. By then she had already changed her Christian name to Marina.
“When I came over I wanted to wash Ireland clean away. It was like taking off dirty linen,” says the drily humorous 69-year-old, in the sitting room of her home in Cricklewood, north London, this week.
More than 50 years have passed, but the feelings of fear, entrapment and “that all hope was lost” are as vivid for Permaul as they were on the day she ended up in the Magdalen laundry run by the Sisters of Mercy at 47 Forster Street in Galway, near the city’s railway station.
Born in Ennis, Co Clare, to Martin and Margaret McCarthy, she, like her five siblings, had her life overturned after the death of her mother from TB and her father from “bronchial problems”.
Sent to live with an uncle, the six children soon ran wild. “We were found wandering the streets, not going to school. The gardaí took matters to court. Our uncle said he couldn’t keep us. The boys were taken to St Joseph’s in Salthill. My sister and I went to St Anne’s at Lenaboy in Galway.”
Permaul lived there, not unhappily, from the age of six until she was 13. “One Sunday morning I was going up to the church for Mass. After 12 o’clock Mass the nun asked me to change the flowers on the altar. As I changed them, Sr Bertmans came down from the side door. She told me to leave what I was doing. I got a strange feeling, a feeling of entrapment; I felt something was wrong. I went to run out.
“Another nun came. The nuns grabbed me, and they had a car waiting outside the chapel. The driver drove off. I was shouting. You don’t expect nuns to do this. I didn’t know what was happening. ‘Where are you taking me?’ I said. I started to cry,” says Permaul, her voice trembling.
They arrived at a side door to the laundrey. “I always remember the green door. I knew I was in a Magdalen. It was almost like a mental hospital, where only bad people went. It was a taboo subject. We grew up knowing this,” she says.
Like others, Permaul speaks of the hunger for escape. “I prayed every night to St Anthony, prayed that I would get out. I knew I was in there for life, because there was no one to get me out. A girl died. I knew I had to get out.”
Soon she began to plan for freedom, stealing a cardigan from a laundry bag. But before she could take her plans further, she was spotted by a nun from Lenaboy who had come to Forster Street for a Christmas choir. “A nun told me to clear out my locker. Miss Broderick, a lay teacher, brought me back. Nobody told me anything. You didn’t dare ask a question. I went back to Lenaboy. Nothing was said; that was the strange bit.”
The seven months inside the Magdalen have left the deepest of scars.
Thousands made the same journey. Some were unmarried mothers, deemed promiscuous by the authorities. More, perhaps most, were the daughters of such women, or “considered a burden” by their families or the State, had been sexually abused or had grown up in care.
Next Tuesday’s report by Senator Martin McAleese “should, for the first time, enable us to speak with some authority about the numbers of women who entered these institutions after 1900”, says Dr James Smith of Boston College, who has spent years researching the Magdalens.
“According to the 1911 census, there were 1,094 women recorded at the 10 Magdalen asylums that would continue to operate after Irish independence,” says Maeve O’Rourke, who prepared a submission on the Magdalens for the United Nations Commission on Torture in 2011.
“In 1956, the Irish Catholic Directory and Almanac reported a capacity for 945 women at these same institutions,” says O’Rourke, who is a trainee barrister in London. She has spent many hours interviewing former inmates who now live in London.
The Magdalens were excluded from the Residential Institutions Redress Board. The State argued that it had never inspected or regulated the laundries and therefore was not responsible for them.
Mary Currington experienced the care of the Good Shepherds nuns in Co Wexford. Born to Sarah O’Neill, an unmarried woman, she lived in the county home in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, until she was three and then, securely, with her aunt Anne in Monageer until she was five.