'The hunger was awful . . . the humiliation terrible'
Maureen Sullivan of Magdalene Survivors Together says an apology "should acknowledge the wrongdoing" photograph: dara macdónaill
Survivors speak about their experiences and explain why a full apology is so important
“Eileen” doesn’t want to use her real name, even still. Describing the McAleese report as “wonderful”, she says: “We were nothings. The Government will now certainly have to give an apology and say it was completely wrong.”
She was in the Magdalene laundry at New Ross for three years. Hers was a comfortable family in the midlands. Then, in the 1950s, her father died. Her mother was very religious and 12-year-old Eileen was difficult. She wouldn’t go to school.
Her mother was friendly with a nun who said she knew about a good school in New Ross and recommended Eileen be sent there. Eileen’s mother was told, “don’t go near her. Give her a chance [to settle in]”.
Eileen has no happy memories of New Ross, where days began at 6am with bread, dripping and porridge as nuns supervised “from a pedestal”.
“It was impossible to get to know anyone,”she says.
She found the silence hard and spoke sometimes. Then she was “made get down on my knees and ask God for forgiveness for talking and disobedience”. She was never belted, “just poked” by the nuns.
She tried to run away once but was caught. Her hair was “cut to the bone” and she was told “you won’t be going anywhere anymore”. It was “a concentration camp . . . the hunger was awful . . . the humiliation was terrible”. She used cry at night in bed and asked “What did I do?” And she began to wet the bed. They made her wear a sheet on her back and walk up and down as punishment. She got out at 16 following a visit by her sister.
Years later, when her mother was dying, she said to Eileen “I didn’t know what was down there.” It was her way of asking for forgiveness, Eileen believes.
Maureen Sullivan was also in the New Ross laundry. She was from a poorer family and there was abuse in the home. She confided in a nun. “She sent for my mother and told her about this school in New Ross where I’d get a good education.” When she arrived Maureen asked a nun where were the classrooms. “She laughed.” There was no schooling, just the laundry every day, from 6am to about 9pm, with cleaning duties in the evening and at weekends. They made rosary beads and Aran jumpers in the evenings. She was 12 when she arrived in the early 1960s, and so young she was hidden in a tunnel “under the church” when inspectors arrived. Once, when she was 14, she was forgotten about in the tunnel and left there. She became hysterical. “It took days to get over it.”
After that she was moved to another laundry in Athy, which was smaller but “the very same . . . cold, callous”. Again it was “no talk, no friends”.
She “often got a box [blow]” from the nuns, particularly when she didn’t respond to the name they gave her, Frances.
About seven years ago Maureen and Steven O’Riordan set up Magdalene Survivors Together. There has been “a great response from the public” since the report was published, she says. But “an apology is so important. It should acknowledge the wrongdoing. We were treated like slaves. We shouldn’t have to ask.”