Honouring the Magdalenes: ‘When you start talking, you open your mouth and it all comes out’

RTÉ’s ‘Coming Home’ looks back on 2018’s well-wishing event for Magdalene laundry survivors

Unshamed Magdalenes: among the women who met President Michael D Higgins last year were Rita Lawlor, from Raheny in Dublin, Sally Donohoe, from Ballymun in Dublin, and Catherine Mary O’Connor, from Julianstown, in Co Meath. Portraits by Cyril Byrne

Unshamed Magdalenes: among the women who met President Michael D Higgins last year were Rita Lawlor, from Raheny in Dublin, Sally Donohoe, from Ballymun in Dublin, and Catherine Mary O’Connor, from Julianstown, in Co Meath. Portraits by Cyril Byrne

 

The list of injustices faced by more than 10,000 women who were confined at one point to Magdalene laundries in Ireland is long and harrowing: the loss of liberty, separation from their babies, punishing labour, degradation and abuse, and, for some of the 1,600 women who died under the supervision of nuns, the final indignity of an unmarked grave.

Beside such tortures, their concealment may not seem quite as significant or so cruel. But, if anything, the walls of shame and silence that allowed for Magdalene laundries in the first place can be harder to break, prolonging the trauma of survivors.

“We were not permitted to talk,” remembers Deirdre Cadwell, who entered a laundry as a child so small that her first job was to sit in a basket passing out dirty sheets to women to clean. “You weren’t allowed to tell your story to anybody.”

Coming Home: Dublin Honours the Magdalenes (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 7pm) centres on a single, overwhelming moment last year, when Dawson Street swelled with well wishers to greet survivors who convened in the Mansion House.

“They were genuinely, genuinely supportive,” recalls Delia Hanney, with the mild disbelief of someone whose faith in people has been sorely tested before.

Through its swift 25 minutes the programme gathers many more stories. And as women share their experiences, you appreciate how much stigma had to be lifted to do so, how important it is to listen. The laundries can still have a brutal hold on the minds of their survivors, as when we see the resolute Cadwell making a return to the grounds of the institution she has not seen in almost 40 years.

“I can see the building, though it’s not here,” she says, as the certainty in her voice begins to shake. “I can see the bars on the windows.”

Panic finally takes hold and she turns back. “The fear is that someone is going to go out and see me.”

You can understand why Norah Casey, an ambassador for Justice for Magdalenes, should have found some heart-breaking, wary responses when she invited survivors to a ceremony in Dublin. “Some of them thought it was a trick to get them back in the laundries,” she says. Some fears never leave you.

Members of the public wait outside the Mansion House in Dublin to greet survivors of the Magdalene laundries. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public wait outside the Mansion House in Dublin to greet survivors of the Magdalene laundries. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The Government apology, delivered by Enda Kenny in 2013, was important, it is agreed, and Michael D Higgins’s invitation to the Áras an Uachtaráin still more affecting. But the quieter revolution, recommended among the measures of redress and recompense advised by Justice Quirke, was that the women should be able to meet each other, to talk.

We see such encounters – cautious, emotional, even celebratory – in different contexts: sharing their disbelief at the supportive crowds, dancing onstage with Philomena Begley, finally in unheard exchanges in a private setting. This, Justice for Magdalenes explains, was the Listening Exercise.

One woman barely knew how to begin. But, she says: “When you start talking about it, you just open your mouth and it all comes out.”

It helps, of course, to find fellow survivors who know your experience, and to realise that that a once cowed and subdued society was itself ready to hear. “We’re here,” says one woman outside the Mansion House. “We survived. And we’ll go on.”

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