‘I never spoke to anybody like this. Our voices are heard today’

President apologises at Áras reception to women who worked in laundries

President Higgins has hosted a special reception for women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries. Hundreds of Magdalene women are taking part in an historic two-day event in Dublin by the Dublin Honours Magdalenes group. Video: Bryan O'Brien

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As the intercity train pulls into Heuston Station, Dublin, from Cork just before noon, and the women - once prisoners in Magdalene laundries - begin to disembark, the media are kept well back.

Many of the women are wearing purple stickers, signalling that they are not to be filmed, photographed, or even approached. Before making the 20km journey to the Citywest Hotel by bus, one of them, Josie Keane from Cork, says a few words.

She was put in a Magdalene laundry in Co Limerick when she was 15. “I came from an orphanage before,” she says. “It tore me apart. I’d nightmares and everything since the day I left it. I’m always thinking I’m back there again.”

Keane says her three years in the laundry still affect her to this day. “I’m very untrustworthy of people,” she says. “I was put in there without my consent. It wasn’t my fault.”

A little later, at the Citywest Hotel where a reception is being held for the women, many are standing out the front, some smoking cigarettes. Two can be overheard nearby, deep in animated conversation about the laundries.

Patricia O’Connor (62), from Limerick but living in Cork, says she is happy to talk. “Just a little bit,” she cautions. O’Connor was in an orphanage from the age of one until she was 16. She was sent to work in a laundry during that period.

She describes the train journey from Cork to Dublin with all of the other women in the carriage. “People are nervous and anxious,” she says. “Some of them are very sad. If you say hello to them, they’re putting their hands up,” she says, holding her hand up to her face and turning her head away.

But then she says something you might not expect: “A woman played the ukulele and said we should sing a few songs. There were four of us sitting on the seat. I sang the Fields of Athenry. Then they sang Molly Malone, being in Dublin.”

Many of the other passengers joined in and clapped their hands, she says. “They tipped us on the shoulder when we came out,” she goes on. “And I never had confidence in my life because we were made stay silent from when we were children.

“I’ve still a fear of crowds at times. I’d still feel a shame and that I’m not the same as other people. I’m coming on a lot now. I couldn’t speak or mix with people. I’d be in a crowd and I might just walk away because I’d feel bad.”

As the interview concludes, O’Connor is walking away and says: “I hope I did alright. I never spoke to anybody like this before. Our voices are heard today.”

A couple of moments later, she reappears with another woman in tow. Ann Ryan from Cork also wants to talk. She spent more than a year in the laundry at Sunday’s Well in Cork.

“I was put away when I was nearly 17,” she says. “We had to work all day. We were fed slops. We had our hair cut. Our names were changed. We were in big dormitories. We’d to wear special uniforms. We were never outside the walls.”

Looking back on her life since, she says she has had two broken marriages. “Yeah,” she sighs, “I’m on my own now all the time. There was a lot took from my life. I could never understand why I was put in. Otherwise, I’m fine. I was working until I was 65 and I’m 70 now in July. Life has to go on. That was Ireland. Isn’t it still Ireland?”

Mary Smyth (66) says she was locked up in Sunday’s Well “in case I got pregnant by a boy”. Her mother, Eileen Smyth, was incarcerated in the Peacock Lane laundry in Cork. “I never saw my mother’s face,” she says. “I never knew what she looked like.”

Smyth can remember her first day in Sunday’s Well. “I had met a boy in Mallow who I got to like,” she says. “They realised I was going out with this boy so I ended up in Sunday’s Well. It was just horrific. I had a small case. It was all I had in the world. When I went into that big red building everything was taken off me.”

A couple of hours later, as eight buses carrying 230 of the women pull up in the forecourt of Áras an Uachtaráin, many of the women begin waving at the assembled media from the windows.

Businesswoman Norah Casey, who was involved in organising the events to honour the women, remarks on how they had once been shielded from view but now had the roads closed and a Garda escort to take them to the Phoenix Park.

A little later, President Michael D Higgins strolls around the back gardens of the Áras, meeting the women and embracing them. A number want photographs with him. “May I have an autograph?” asks one. “We’ll get you an autograph later,” says Higgins.

Another tells him he can put his arm around her if he likes, before quipping that she’s only had “the one sip of wine”. Another, walking away, proudly remarks: “That’s my first time meeting someone famous.”

In his speech to the women some time later, Higgins delivers a powerful apology for their having been “profoundly failed by the State”.

“You were also failed by a society that actively colluded in your incarceration and treatment or chose to look the other way, averted their gaze, as vulnerable girls and women were subjected to further abuse and degradation. Ireland failed you.”

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