'She wants to know why they detained her'


Campaigner Patricia McDonnell’s interest in the Magdalene issue is personal

Patricia McDonnell’s Magdalene advocacy committee is probably the oldest such group.

She set up the Magdalene Memorial Committee after reading a 1993 report about the exhumation of women buried near the High Park laundry in Drumcondra. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity were selling land to a developer and wanted the 133 remains removed to Glasnevin cemetery.

During the exhumation process 22 more unidentified remains were found.

The committee arranged for a seat to be placed in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green in memory of women who had been in the laundries. In 1996 then president Mary Robinson unveiled the seat, erected on a site arranged by then minister for arts and culture Michael D Higgins.

McDonnell has a personal reason for becoming involved in the Magdalene issue. Her sister-in-law “Mary” spent 20 years at the Sisters of Mercy Magdalene laundry in Dún Laoghaire. Mary is 89 and in a west of Ireland nursing home.

Mary came from a well-off farming background in Galway.In the late 1930s her parents died. Two of her brothers, who were 19 and 17 at the time, took over the farm, while she looked after the house. The smaller children were sent to relatives.

Mortal danger

The local priest told Mary’s brothers he felt she was in moral danger. He knew a nice family in Dublin where she would be safer. Mary’s brothers were not convinced but the priest and his housekeeper persuaded them.

The priest drove Mary to the Dún Laoghaire laundry and asked her brothers not to contact her, to allow her to settle in. Every time Mary’s brothers inquired, the priest warned them off contacting her. Over time they stopped asking.

When Mary’s younger brother – McDonnell’s husband – reached 17, he went in search of her.

He found Mary in the laundry in Dún Laoghaire. The first time he saw her, “beside a robust nun, she looked like someone from Belsen”. He threatened the nuns with legal action if Mary was not released. A time and date were set. When he arrived to pick up Mary, she was on her knees scrubbing a floor.

He asked a nun why this was the case. She replied: “Do you want us to have a riot? No one has ever left this place.”

In time Mary adjusted to life outside, her only query ever being how she could have been detained at the laundry at all.

In the late 1990s, McDonnell and her husband decided to inquire about Mary’s time at Dún Laoghaire. They contacted the Sisters of Mercy. “They denied the laundry existed,” McDonnell says, “even though it was there in Thom’s directory”.

She rang Joe Duffy and Liveline was inundated with calls from people confirming the laundry’s existence.

No records

Contacted again, the Sisters of Mercy said they had no records from the laundry. More recently, they supplied the McDonnells with a copy of an electoral register which proved Mary had been in the laundry between 1951 and 1959.

The Sisters of Mercy were unable to provide the McAleese committee with records for either of their two laundries, in Galway and Dún Laoghaire.

In 2002 and 2003, McDonnell sent letters to then minister for education Noel Dempsey asking how Mary could have been detained, and for so long. He assured her the laundry was a privately run institution over which the State had neither a supervisory nor regulatory role.

This, the McAleese report made clear, was untrue.

Where Mary is concerned, “compensation would mean nothing”, McDonnell says. “She just wants to know why they detained her.”