Rite & Reason: Death of an inspirational Magdalene survivor

One humble woman helped spark a successful political campaign for redress

Building reportedly used as a Magdelene Laundry on Seán McDermott Street: many levels of Irish society, including the State, failed women who were kept in such places. Photograph: Eric Luke

Building reportedly used as a Magdelene Laundry on Seán McDermott Street: many levels of Irish society, including the State, failed women who were kept in such places. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

I have told her story in the past but even in death she would want to remain anonymous. She leaves an important legacy. Her childhood was sad. Her mother died when she was seven. Her father later remarried. The children of the first marriage were neglected, stigmatised and unwelcome.

At 14, her father left her at the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross, Co Wexford. Barely a teenager, she worked for nearly five years cleaning society’s dirty laundry. She was denied her right to an education. She was punished for insolence and her hair forcibly cut.

She was sent at 19 to work in a Dublin hospital, also run by nuns. She fled to England. But London was not far enough away. She travelled to Boston, where she worked for most of her life. She never married.

Having rekindled her faith in the Catholic Church, she still demurred when the Good Shepherd congregation offered to meet her in 2010. She keenly felt the stigma attached to her past. She protected her family’s reputation at all cost.

Earlier, in October 2008, I answered my office phone to her, her voice halting as she introduced herself. She had read my book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containments. She was shocked someone knew her story. She asked for help.

Denied redress

Some time earlier she had applied to the Residential Institutions Redress Board for help, but Magdalene Laundries were not covered by it. Friends appealed the decision. Again, she was denied.

In 2010, we applied for a pension on her behalf. She received no wages in the laundry and no “stamps” were paid for her. She fell below the full pension threshold. After bankers’ fees, she received $7.11 a week.

The State apology by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February 2013 transformed her life. A cloud evaporated, a shadow disappeared. She applied to the Magdalene restorative justice scheme.

She took immense pleasure from her monthly pension thereafter – financially independent for the first time in her life, she enjoyed doing small things for others, no longer living a constrained existence. Unfortunately, her health was already in decline. Enjoyment was shortlived.

With her compensation lump sum, she visited Ireland in September 2014. She travelled first-class due to her deteriorating back – a singular indulgence. Pain was now constant but she “offered it up for poor souls less fortunate”.

She toured Leinster House and lunched in the Dáil restaurant, guest of her indefatigable advocate Maureen O’Sullivan, TD. She was thrilled!

She also visited her mother’s grave. The balance of her lump sum was set aside to pay for cremation and the repatriation of her ashes to that same grave – she often worried about being able to pay for a “decent and respectable” burial.

Final resting place

In hindsight, I now appreciate this concern was about being buried with her mother.

She refused to be defined by her years in the laundry. Loving people surrounded her and she loved them in return – as friend, aunt, grand-mother by proxy. One family, in particular, stepped up in 2010 when unexpectedly she faced homelessness. They moved her from Boston to the mid-west; they paid for an apartment, utilities and more.

For all the ways family, nuns and the State had failed her, and Irish society colluded in that failure, the flipside of her story speaks to the love, friendship and generosity she enjoyed in later life. 

Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) also mourns her passing. Colleagues acknowledge her as “the heart behind so much of our work” and “the spark that set off the political campaign”. Of course, she would never make such claims for herself.

And yet, the apology finally came. Approximately 500 women now benefit from the redress scheme. If JFMR contributed to bringing these events to pass, this woman inspired our involvement. That too is part of her legacy.

Her final months were marked by illness. She was entitled to healthcare benefits as part of the restorative justice scheme. She waived her legal rights, expecting those entitlements would be forthcoming. She identified a supplementary health insurance policy to bridge out-of-pocket expenses under the US Medicare system.

A number of civil servants made this happen for US-based survivors. In the end, she ran out of time. The Health Service Executive contacted the family on February 15th, four days short of the three-year anniversary of An Taoiseach’s apology. She died on March 3rd last.

James M Smith is associate professor in the English department at Boston College. Author of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007), he is a member of JFM Research

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