The truth about the Magdalene laundries was hiding in plain sight
From the archive: The public was superficially informed about what was going on behind closed doors
One of the narratives that surrounds the contemporary discourse on Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes is that the public knew but didn’t know. It’s a piece of cognitive dissonance that perhaps is more broadly explained by the idea that people were aware of these places, yet it was hard to discern what was unacceptable in a theocratic society and culture so laden with institutionalisation generally, and the oppression of women.
An article published in the newspaper on Tuesday, October 1st, 1968, illustrates how the public – at least superficially – was being informed about the practices of these institutions. A feature on High Park Magdalene laundry in Drumcondra in Dublin appeared in the newspaper, written by Renagh Holohan, under the headline High Park: Laundry with a Difference. “High Park is a laundry that gives off emotional rather than any other kind of steam,” the article began, “It doesn’t look like a laundry and its setting isn’t a conventional industrial one. But it is for its highly efficient service that it has become known to north city Dubliners.”
The article detailed how the young women living there were charged £3 a week to stay at the High Park hostel, which included two meals a day. At the time of the article’s publication, 16 young women had passed through the hostel, “fully rehabilitated and leading normal lives, living with specially selected families outside”.
“There are very serious problems in Dublin if we could only get our hands on them,” Sr Theresa told the newspaper, “Girls arriving up here from the country with no money and nowhere to go. They’re found rambling around and they’re referred to us. Sensible and nice girls go to the gardaí and they send them here; others come through the Legion of Mary social workers . . . Many are barely literate when they arrive and we just do what we can with them. The results are good but it’s not easy. They need an awful lot of help; they’re so insecure.
“Some have no family and many have no family ties of any sort. A few come from very good homes but they have, perhaps, got into trouble and are sent here by their parents for safety. If they have a family, we try to sort things out and send them back; but as a rule they haven’t got one.”
The main building in the complex was called St Mary’s. While the rest of the article was relatively sunny, interviewing only the nuns working there and none of the young women, the starkness of life in the laundry was described, “The girls in St Mary’s don’t pay anything for their keep but the nuns, apart from giving them pocket money and cigarettes, don’t pay for the girls’ work they do in the laundry. The laundry is run on a wholly commercial basis. A manager and several men are employed.
“The girls who do most work are those who have been there for a considerable length of time; these are unlikely to be rehabilitated sufficiently to leave the home.”
Some 133 bodies were exhumed from the laundry graveyard, and the bodies of an additional 22 women were then discovered
The image accompanying the article showed a group of young women from behind walking over a small bridge, with a nun waiting at the other end beside a gate. Some survivors of the laundry have spoken about being given new names by the nuns, the harsh conditions there, compulsory dawn mass attendance, psychological abuse, and small meal portions.
In 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold a site at High Park to a property developer for £1.5 million. Some 133 bodies were exhumed from the laundry graveyard, and the bodies of an additional 22 women were then discovered. Only 75 death certificates existed for the initial 133 women, “even though it is a criminal offence in this State to fail to register a death which occurs on one’s premises”, a report in The Irish Times in 2003 read.
Mary Raftery wrote about the additional bodies being discovered in her Irish Times column. The Department of the Environment issued “no trace” forms for 34 of the women. In 2006, another part of the site was sold for €55 million.
The article ends with the nuns’ intentions for the future, “the nuns at High Park would like to build a new hostel and a new training centre. They are hoping to divide St Mary’s into smaller apartments so that the girls, who may never know any other home, can have a more comfortable environment.”