The last of the Magdalenes: 'The nuns took my childhood'

Now just 40, ‘Jenny’ was one of the last generation to live in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

A former resident outside the laundry at Sean McDermott Street, where there are  posies and a bouquet left at the door in memory of women who spent their lives inside. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

A former resident outside the laundry at Sean McDermott Street, where there are posies and a bouquet left at the door in memory of women who spent their lives inside. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

“It was Friday. I knew I was going. I had chickened out a few times.” For weeks Jenny had watched and noted, with a stubby pencil she found, the times the breadman called at the front door of the Magdalene laundry for his money.

She used apples and oranges to bribe others so she could be within hearing when the bell rang. “It was now. Mother Pi [the senior nun] was at the door. She was ready to shut it. I shoved the door with my hand, and I kind of pushed her – she didn’t go flying or anything. And I was out the door.

“I had images of a nun coming after me down the road. But I was young and I could run. I was halfway up Grace Park Road before I stopped running. I had not looked back.”

It was 1993, and Jenny was not yet 15. She was making a break for freedom from the Sean McDermott Street Magdalen laundry where she lived at the time. She didn’t look back.

Horror years

Her time there and in other institutions had been “horror years”, she says. “The nuns took my childhood.”

Today she is just 40 – unusually young for a former Magdalen resident – and has had a lifetime of trauma. She is, nevertheless, bright, self-aware and upbeat.

We’re outside the imposing green doors of the now long-closed laundry on Sean McDermott Street, the same doors she escaped from 25 years ago. There are posies and a bouquet left at the door in memory of women who spent their lives inside.

Jenny’s time there was short, but she shudders as we walk away. “I felt for a moment that the doors were going to open and Mother Pi was going to pull me back inside.”

That day she escaped, Jenny found herself running towards High Park in Drumcondra, another Magdalen laundry where she had lived, because it was a familiar place. She had been running for 3km when she stopped and collected her thoughts.

Now she turned back, towards the city centre. She was wearing “horrible granny trouser things” that she had been given in the laundry and knew she would stand out. In the Ilac shopping centre on Parnell Street, she stole a pair of jeans and a top.

Knowing no one, and having no contact with her father, she stayed in town that night, sleeping in St Stephen’s Green.

The next day she went to Dublin Port and bought a day ticket to Holyhead with two bank notes she had stolen from the nuns’ office before she left.

Still terrified someone would catch her, in Holyhead she boarded the first train she could, which took her to London. “I had no plan . . . I didn’t know what London was back then.”

The next stage of her life was about to begin.

The beginning

Jenny grew up in Tallaght, the middle of three girls. In the late 1980s, aged nine or 10, she was sent to St Anne’s Reformatory for Girls in Kilmacud, Dublin 14, the first of three institutions she would live in.

She still doesn’t really know why she was sent there. Her mother was sick – dying, though Jenny didn’t know that at the time. “I was a bit naughty. I did a bit of shoplifting but I really don’t think I was as bold as it was made out. Looking back maybe I was a bit troublesome. But not enough to be f**ked off somewhere, banished from the house forever.”

Our own home was like a little institution

As a child, Jenny’s own mother had lived in Goldenbridge, the industrial school for girls in Dublin 8. “She never thought evil was out there; she thought the nuns looked after her.”

The former St Mary’s Convent High Park and grotto, off Grace Park Road, Drumcondra, Dublin.
The former St Mary’s Convent High Park and grotto, off Grace Park Road, Drumcondra, Dublin.

Institutional life had never left her mother and life was extremely regimented in their own home. Jenny wasn’t allowed to visit other people’s houses, had the same dinner every day, tea and toast at exactly 6pm, and went to bed at 7.30. “You weren’t allowed to move in your bed. That sounds absurd. It was like she could hear you. Our own home was like a little institution.”

Jenny’s mother was still in touch with the Daughters of Charity, and one day a nun came to take her away.

Jenny still doesn’t know what her late mother’s long-term plan for her was. “I wasn’t told I was going anywhere . . . I think it was my mam’s way of teaching me a lesson.”

Her mother packed her case, with three sets of clothes and a doll, but it was intercepted along the way: “the doll I never saw again”.

Despite this, in Kilmacud Jenny was happier than she had been at home. She learned English, Maths, History and Geography in the morning, and in the afternoons they learned to type: a room full of small girls typing away. By the time she left, Jenny had 125 words a minute.

She eventually went home, but one day she came home from school, and the same nun was in the house again.

“I got put into another car,” she says, and was brought to An Grianán, a small area for teenagers within High Park Magdalen laundry in Drumcondra. “I had this notion I’d go home, but it didn’t happen.”

Mother’s death

Her mother died in 1990 when Jenny was 12, and her older sister went into care. Their younger sister remained at home and was raised by their father.

Jenny went home for a few days when her mother died, then her father sent her back to High Park, without discussion. “My father isn’t one for saying anything.”

High Park was a big imposing building up a long drive behind big gates off Grace Park Road. “It was frightening.” It was 1989, she was 11, the youngest of up to a dozen there.

The front door and hallway of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
The front door and hallway of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Seán McDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

There was a routine: classes, chores and praying. Washing was allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Often, if someone asked a question, or to wash outside of the set times, they were punished.

Jenny asked a lot of questions. “Why was I here, why are the doors locked, why can’t we go home, can I wash?”

She had no idea they were in a laundry. “We were upstairs in a huge building, in our own little bubble.” Only by accident did she become aware there were others living there.

One chore was to bring a bucket of food slops out to two pigs outside, going down a back stairs. “The first time I did slops I was absolutely horrified. There were old people, 50, 60, 70 year olds, what I’d describe as mad” – she makes a rocking back and forth motion – “at the end of the stairs.”

“They were always there. They frightened the b****x out of me. There must have been hundreds of old people there, scattered. I would run down the stairs and f**k the slops over the pigs, to run back and get the door shut.

“I had no idea who they were and never asked. Years later I realised there was a laundry, with those old people who had been working there a long, long time.”

They wore “old people’s clothes”, like “inner-city, Mrs Brown style”.

She recalls the senior nun saying, “You’ll end up next door should you don’t stop sinning and behave yourself.”

They saw the old people in the church too, where “normal” people from the area also went to Mass.

Disappearances

Children would vanish suddenly. One disappeared in the middle of the night. It was said she had gone to “Waterford”, another laundry. Others, Jenny heard later, went to Vincent’s, a psychiatric hospital in Fairview.

Jenny recalls a nun pulling a 14-year-old girl out of the sitting room by the ear. She later heard the girl was pregnant (Jenny doesn’t know how; there was barely any contact with males) and was “shipped off to Donnybrook” and the baby adopted.

But there were happier departures: one girl passed a civil service exam and the nuns got her a bedsit.

The highlight of her time there was when Sinéad O’Connor, who had lived in An Grianán in the 1980s, phoned one night (“Sr Margaret tore us out of the bed to say hello”). Not being exposed to music, Jenny had no idea who Sinéad O’Connor was, but all the children went to her concert in the Point. “It was the only time there was ever a buzz in the place.”

Back then I wouldn’t have known what emotion was

Jenny hated An Grianán and kept running away, slipping out when older girls went for groceries. The police would bring her back. “I wanted to go home. We weren’t allowed to cry or laugh. There was no emotion in that place. Though back then I wouldn’t have known what emotion was.”

Jenny was never physically assaulted. “I wish they had given me a clatter, the emotion takes a lot longer to heal than beating the s**t out of you.”

Running away

One time she ran all the way home from Drumcondra to Tallaght. “My da kept me for a week or so. Then a lady came to the door and I got brought back to High Park.”

The woman was a social worker, and Jenny said she didn’t want to stay. “She told me nobody wanted me at home anyway, but there was nowhere else for me.”

One day in High Park, a nun called Jenny out of class and took her out by car. “She said I was bold, I was uncontrollable, the devil had me.” She was being moved to Sean McDermott Street.

At 13 she was by far the youngest person in the laundry. “They were all ancient.”

She slept in a separate unit. There were eight swings in the grounds, mysteriously, as no one ever used them. “No one spoke to one another, they’d nod heads as if to say hello.”

Some of the women were in their 30s or so; older ones, over 60, gave the impression of being there a long time.

“I asked why was I here, and the nun told me to be quiet. I was very stick-up-for-myself,” Jenny says with pride. “Obviously, the reason I ended up down there.”

She was put to work in the laundry, pressing. “There was a huge silver yoke, with these rolls, like giant rolls of tinfoil without the tinfoil.” She worked with Philomena and Jackie – “old women, late 50s or 60” – feeding white sheets into this roller all day.

“Philomena and Jackie looked after me. They made me sugar sandwiches. They never talked about personal stuff. I didn’t know how long they had been there, it could have been 20 or 30 years. I was only a kid, maybe they were sheltering me. I’d have jumped off the roof if I thought I’d be there that long.”

At 13 or 14, Jenny got on with her day. Doing the sheets was exciting first, but she quickly hated it. “I never saw a nun hit anyone. But their day-to-day life was kind of abuse.

“People didn’t talk,” Jenny says. She describes institutionalised people, and childish behaviour by the adult women – “sister, so and so has just said something”. One woman, unkindly known as “Monkey”, appeared to have serious mental health issues. “I presume that’s how she ended up in there.

“You had to ask to go to the toilet. They were filthy, they stank. The very old people had bags and cases they held on to for dear life, and kept within their sight. Some of them didn’t work at all, but just roamed the place chatting away to themselves.”

Twice she asked when she was going, and was told she’d never go unless she learned “not so speak unless I was spoken to. I never saw anyone leave.”

Outside world

After her escape, she encountered another kind of horror. “The nuns were b****xes and c***s but London on your own . . . The convent was a breeze compared to living homeless in London.”

Getting off the train at Euston she walked for six or seven hours, fascinated, going into supermarkets, opening packages to eat. “The first night, when it got dark I was scared. I was in what I later learned was Trafalgar Square.”

Three older homeless teenagers, two boys and a girl, approached her. “I said I had escaped from Ireland.” She stayed on the streets with them for six weeks. “By the grace of God I didn’t touch any of their drugs. I can be easily led sometimes.

“When you’re homeless you move from one person to the other. You’d be begging. I prostituted in London for a while. I have no shame saying that. On my fifth night I had linked up with a girl; she was 17, and that’s how she survived. She said, close your eyes.”

This was Jenny’s introduction to sex. “I realised you got more money the more you did. London was a big, badder world. The men were horrible. Sometimes I didn’t have to do . . . Some people wanted to talk and they’d see how young you were.”

Jenny was on the very edge of life when she came into contact with homeless charity Centrepoint. “I owe my life to Centrepoint,” she says. They got her transition housing in Shepherd’s Bush, a keyworker, counselling. “They got me back on my feet. [They], I don’t want to use the word, normalised me.”

I was pining for love and affection, a father figure

After two years she moved north, to Manchester and started again. At 18 she married a 45-year-old man she had met 11 weeks earlier, a doorman who rescued her from an assault. “There was nothing whirlwind about it,” she says wryly. “I think I was pining for love and affection, a father figure.”

They had children together and broke up because he was an alcoholic. Later it emerged he was a paedophile, she says.

Return to Dublin

One morning she packed a suitcase and decided, 13 years after leaving Ireland, to return. In Dublin, she was drawn, ironically, to live close to Sean McDermott Street.

After what she describes as a breakdown, Jenny married again. That, too, broke down.

Today, after years of therapy her life is calmer. She and her children live in a small town in rural Ireland. She still finds friendship difficult.

She doesn’t have a good relationship with her father. For years she asked him why she was sent away. “He doesn’t answer. He says ‘that was all your mam’s doing’.”

Trying to understand why it happened to her “could eat me up for the rest of my life, and it did eat me up for years. I fought with my older sister, and had a difficult relationship with my younger sister.” Only recently have they come to an understanding.

I didn’t have love growing up and I don’t want any child to feel how I felt

Jenny has overcompensated with her own children: “They know they’re loved. But I have raised spoiled and, to a certain extent, ungrateful brats. It’s not the right way either. I have made them monsters because I didn’t have love growing up and I don’t want any child to feel how I felt.”

The Sean McDermott Street Magdalen laundry closed in 1996, the last of the laundries in Ireland.

Today, Jenny says: “I hate all nuns. They rile me up. But the convent isn’t all my life, and it was the most normal and safest part of my life, until the past four years.

“These institutions are closed but the knock-on effects are onto the next generation.”

Hundreds of Magdalene Laundries survivors will be honoured by the City of Dublin at the Mansion House on June 5th and 6th.

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