Mary’s story: The Magdalene laundry survivor who still lives there

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Mary Gaffney, who is now 74, has lived her entire life in institutions run OR OWNED by nuns

At the top of Shandon Street, where bells ring out across Cork city every day, a lane leads to the high black gates of St Vincent’s convent, with ornately wrought flowers around the bars. The imposing red-brick building, a former Magdalene laundry, stands on top of a hill overlooking the grounds surrounded by thick walls.

Mary Gaffney, a woman made to work within that laundry for decades, is still living there.

One of the last times I saw Gaffney in person was in late 2018 in the reception of St Vincent’s care centre, an extension to the right-hand side of the convent.With rollers in her hair and crimson-rimmed spectacles on, she was chatting to the receptionist when I arrived, a little woven pouch around her neck for her old Nokia phone, knitting one of the vibrant blankets she donates to cancer patients. One was draped over a nearby couch: a riot of yolk yellow, sherbet pink, baby blue and other bright colours.

In May, Gaffney’s cousin sent me a video of Mary sitting in the sun listening to music. On the phone shortly afterwards, Gaffney said the pandemic made her miss her trip to Lourdes, which she treasures, even though the food is “desperate”. But she is still knitting and keeping her spirits up.

Gaffney, now 74, has lived her entire life in institutions run by nuns. She is one of many Magdalene survivors who, although the laundries are closed, remain living in institutional settings.

Mary Gaffney
Mary Gaffney

The exact number in this situation is unknown – in 2013 the McAleese report said there were 58, but the Quirke report mentioned a figure of 117 –  and some have left institutional care or have died since. Their circumstances may have improved since the days of the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996: they no longer labour as they once did; some have been awarded retrospective compensation for their years of work; and a small number have moved out. But they are still there.

Independent living or a change from institutional settings is the hope for the women still on the grounds of former laundries but, with progress painfully slow, they remain uncertain and anxious about their futures. And they are not getting any younger.

Mary’s story

Mary Gaffney was born in 1945 in St Patrick’s on the Navan Road, Dublin, the largest mother and baby home in Ireland, run by the Daughters of Charity. “I never met my mother,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to see her.”

The young Mary was sent briefly to St Michael’s school in Glenmaroon, Dublin, for children with special needs, which was also run by the Daughters of Charity. She was never taught properly to read or write. While still a child, she was brought back by the nuns to St Patrick’s mother and baby home, and put to work minding babies in the wards.

Gaffney scrubbed floors and cleaned endlessly. Her only occasional breaks during childhood were when she was taken out for visits to a former classmate. The classmate’s mother said she knew Mary’s mother and tried to reconnect them. But this was forbidden. “They wouldn’t tell you nothing, girl.”

It was terrible, looking back now ... there were abuses, we did make mistakes

When Gaffney was in her early 20s, the Daughters of Charity sent her and a few other young women on a train to Cork. They were picked up at the station by a different order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, and put to work at the St Vincent’s laundry, Peacock Lane.

This laundry had been established by laymen in 1809 “for the protection and reformation of penitent females”. The Sisters of Charity took it over in 1845. In 1986 there were still about 60 women in the laundry.

An atmosphere of cruelty and control prevailed there. In late 2017 Sr Eilis Coe, a woman then in her late 70s, remembered being sent there as a novice nun. “It was terrible, looking back now,” she said. “There were abuses, we did make mistakes.”

She remembered women being called “penitents”, and baskets coming straight from hospital wards to be washed, covered in blood. Obedience was absolute. “You did what you were told,” she said. “Don’t speak out.”

“Slaved,” is how Mary Gaffney describes the life. “God, they were nasty enough, girl. I didn’t care for them when I was working with them. Hard work.” Gaffney worked in the laundry from 8am until late into the evening. In their free time, the girls would knit: a nun taught her how. The jumpers they made were sold in a shop.

A photograph believed to be of an unnamed Magdalene laundry. Provenance of photograph unknown
A photograph believed to be of an unnamed Magdalene laundry. Provenance of photograph unknown

Decades passed for Gaffney within the walls of the institution, forced to labour for free and providing income for the order. When the laundry closed, she remained.

In the late 1990s the Sisters of Charity traced Gaffney’s relatives because Mary was about to undergo surgery. Her aunt in Dublin opened the door to two religious sisters and was told she was in a convent in Cork.

Until then, Gaffney never knew she had a family. When her aunt came to Cork to visit her, “that was my first time to meet my family”. Gaffney can not forgive the nuns for keeping that information from her.

Gaffney’s mother, Dorothy, had gone to England after giving birth. It was all “hush hush”, says her cousin Mary Driver. When Driver learned where her cousin was, she went down to meet her, and has been visiting ever since.

The transfer

I first visited St Vincent’s care centre and met survivors of the laundry in early 2018, on the day of a memorial for more than 70 women who had died there while it was still a laundry under the charge of the Sisters of Charity. They were buried in a communal grave with a headstone in St Finbarr’s cemetery. Some of these were women Gaffney had worked with, and it had been organised by relatives of one of them.

The laundry ceased operating in 1991. It became known as the St Vincent’s Centre in 1994. From this time, the Sisters of Charity ran the centre as a setting for women with intellectual disabilities. (It is not clear that all residents would have fit this description; some may simply be victims of institutional life.)

The Sisters of Charity registered St Vincent’s Centre Ltd in 2014 and the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) conducted its first inspection of the institution that year. It inspected again in 2016 and 2017.

In March 2017 the Health Service Executive began to take charge of the centre as State inspections by Hiqa found major non-compliance with governance, fire safety, safeguarding residents and meeting their care needs. An allegation of abuse had not been reported or investigated. The takeover was due to “ongoing failure by St Vincent’s Centre Ltd to improve the quality of life for residents”, according to a Hiqa statement to The Irish Times.

Inspectors also reported “alleged financial irregularities, potentially involving resident finances”. More than one of the Sisters of Charity’s centres for people with intellectual disabilities has been taken over in recent years

After the HSE takeover, Gaffney no longer saw the nuns who had lived in the convent. By December 2017, after the HSE takeover, another inspection found clear governance systems in place and residents provided with information about advocacy services. However, the report also found residents were “very anxious in relation to the future of the centre”.

In a statement for this article, the HSE confirms it is still the temporary registered provider for St Vincent’s and “every effort is being made to resolve the legacy issues resulting from the withdrawal of the service provider”. The HSE is in a mediation process with the Sisters of Charity but the Cope Foundation has agreed to be the new service provider. The Sisters of Charity did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

In 2013, when the McAleese report – the result of an inquiry overseen by then senator Martin McAleese into State involvement in Magdalene laundries – was published, there were at least 58 former Magdalene laundry residents still living in the custody or care of religious orders in Ireland.

The money

For much of the 20th century, the Sisters of Charity received capitation payments and state grants to operate a network of institutions, including St Gerard’s mother and baby home in Dublin, and the notorious Madonna House in Blackrock.

The Sisters of Charity also arranged thousands of adoptions through St Patrick’s Guild, and admitted to providing false information to adopted people and mothers seeking information. The Sisters of Charity retain their charitable status and continue to receive public funding, receiving more than €3 million in funding from the State in 2018, according to the Charities Regulator.

In documents from the McAleese inquiry, the Reverend Mother of one convent stated that the unpaid labour that was the main source of income for the convents “could be considered therapeutic rather than gainful occupation”. The women in the laundries, described as “penitents”, were “precluded” from normal disability allowance, which some would have qualified for, and welfare. Instead public money went to the orders to maintain them within institutions.

When in around the 1970s the Magdalene laundries struggled to remain economically viable, the religious congregations requested that the State fund them to keep ageing women and women with disabilities in the institutions. Grants were approved for “elderly persons being maintained in these convents” while State authorities were still sending young women, described as “sub-normal” and “defectives” to works as “penitents”.

After a life in institutions they wanted their own space, their own place

In a letter to the Department of Health in the 1970s, the sister in charge of another Magdalene Laundry in Dublin said that the local health board was paying per week “in respect of 45 unemployable and mentally handicapped women”. She asked for a capitation grant so the “penitents” could “be regarded as being in care in a home for socially and morally handicapped women”.

Other laundries

Up to 2019 Magdalene survivors were resident at St Margaret’s nursing home, run by the Sisters of Charity near the grounds of the former laundry in Donnybrook. The Donnybrook laundry operated until 1992. After a process of decongregation began in 2007, the women at St Margaret’s said during listening exercises that they didn’t want their doors locked to suit staff and they didn’t want mealtimes controlled. They wanted their own homes.

“After a life in institutions they wanted their own space, their own place,” the report on the process stated. In 2019, when St Margaret’s closed, there were still 70 women “who had lived most or all of their lives in institutions”.

A view of the main building inside the former Magdalene laundry in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty
A view of the main building inside the former Magdalene laundry in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

In July 2020, the Department of Justice confirmed that applicants to the Magdalene scheme who were resident in St Margaret’s had been linked to the National Advocacy Service for People With Disabilities and some had since been transferred to other nursing homes.

In 2011, the HSE’s Time to Move On report outlined a national plan to end congregated settings by 2018, due to lack of privacy and dignity in institutional conditions. “From the mid-1800s onwards there was a view that the best way of providing support to people with disabilities was to care for them in residential institutions,” the report stated. Religious orders often ran these institutions.

In 2016, Inclusion Ireland highlighted that more people were dying in congregated settings in Ireland than were being transferred out.

The National Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities has supported survivors of the Magdalene Laundries with disabilities to make applications to the Restorative Justice Fund. The Department of Justice, which operates the redress scheme, recently asked the National Advocacy Service to provide support to recipients who may be moving from a residential setting, after concerns were raised about sudden closures of Sisters of Charity nursing homes and transfers amid the pandemic.

For years, Justice for Magdalenes Research has campaigned for all women still living in the custody or care of the religious orders to be provided with advocates under the Magdalen Restorative Justice Scheme. Advocates can support survivors to make independent decisions about their lives and connect them with services if they want to trace family or a child taken for adoption.

A number of Magdalene survivors were made wards of court when the Restorative Justice Scheme was established. The Department of Justice said it was “not possible to provide figures” of how many Magdalene survivors are currently wards of court.

In 2018, Mary Gaffney attended the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event with more than 200 other survivors. Justice for Magdalenes Research recently released a report on a listening exercise at the event, which starts and ends with the words of a woman still living on the grounds of a laundry.

What she has is her own money that she earned through sweat, blood and tears

Women living in Beechlawn nursing home, still run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, on the grounds of the High Park laundry in Dublin, were notably absent from the event, despite invitations being sent. The McAleese inquiry in 2013 found there were 20 Magdalene survivors at the Beechlawn facility, the youngest then only in her 50s.

Wendy Lyon, a solicitor who has acted on behalf of survivors, was in contact with a woman around the same age as Gaffney who never left the High Park Laundry and is now living in the Beechlawn facility. “She basically lived with the nuns her entire life,” Lyon says.

The woman felt controlled. As a ward of the court, an appointed “committee” was responsible for her, though she had relatives. Lyon doesn’t believe she “should ever have been made a ward”.

The first Magdalene redress payments were made by the State to survivors when the Sisters of Charity still ran St Vincent’s centre. The religious orders that ran the laundries did not contribute to that scheme.

Gaffney’s cousin says a will was written for her while the order was still in charge. “What she has is her own money that she earned through sweat, blood and tears,” Mary’s cousin says about the redress.

The most recent Hiqa inspection in 2019 suggested money was wrongly taken from residents while St Vincent’s was run by the Sisters of Charity, with “evidence that the current provider had addressed previously reported financial deficiencies and lodgments had been made to each resident’s personal bank account, to address the issue.”

A financial audit commissioned by the previous provider was not available to the HSE or inspectors. “A differential of a possible loss in interest that would have accrued to residents was being actively pursued by an advocacy service.”

‘Still here’

Mary Gaffney laboured for most of her life in the Peacock Lane laundry without pay. “Mary to this day would iron for Ireland,” her cousin says. ‘She’d sit in the wheelchair and iron all day. That’s all they were used to: scrubbing.”

God knows when we will get the houses

For Gaffney, reconnecting with her family after not knowing they existed made a huge difference in her life. When Gaffney learned that her mother died only a year before she was reunited with her family, it hardened her heart against the nuns. Her cousins gave Mary a photo of her mother, which she keeps now in her room, on the former laundry grounds.

Gaffney faces ongoing uncertainty about where she will be living. The inspection report stated there was now “good quality and safe service” for the 24 women at St Vincent’s. But residents “felt anxious and uncertain about their future”. Staff were also concerned about the future of the residents.

The Cope Foundation said in a statement: “Care will continue to be provided for the 24 residents at the St Vincent’s Centre site in the medium term, and there will be no disruption in service delivery. However, Cope Foundation is working to provide new homes for these residents to better suit their changing individual needs at the earliest opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Gaffney remains unsure. “God knows when we will get the houses. We don’t know where they will be,” she says. “We’re still here.”

Caelainn Hogan is a journalist and the author of Republic of Shame. This article was edited on Monday August 31st, 2020