A few minutes' walk across central Dublin from the GPO, shrine to Irish freedom, stands a monument to a very different side of our history – although maybe not for long. The old Gloucester Street laundry, the last of the infamous Magdalene laundries to shut its doors, will soon, if the city council has its way, be demolished and replaced by a budget hotel and a student residence.
Founded in the 19th century, the Gloucester Street laundry was one of about a dozen such businesses run by Catholic nuns and staffed by unpaid inmates – mostly orphan girls or young women who had become pregnant outside marriage or whose families could not or would not support them – who were given to the nuns to hide them away.
Owned most recently by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Gloucester Street laundry usually had about 100 workers at any one time. It took in its last new inmate – transferred from a psychiatric hospital – as recently as 1995, then closed the following year.
The Magdalene women endured many of the same hardships as the inmates of the brutal church-run industrial schools, for delinquent or unwanted children, and the mother-and-baby homes, where unmarried pregnant women were warehoused until their children were born (and then often taken for adoption). Poor nutrition and hygiene, cold and damp lodgings and little or no medical supervision were the norm.
The work in those walled-off institutions was backbreaking and often required handling dangerous chemicals. Mortality rates were high. Of those who died, many were buried in communal graves, sometimes unmarked and unrecorded. In the 1990s, for example, builders redeveloping part of the former High Park laundry in north Dublin discovered the bodies of 155 women in a mass grave on the site. A third of them had been buried without death certificates. A few are still unknown.
Catherine Corless, the dogged local historian, made global headlines in 2014 when she published evidence that 796 infants had died between 1925 and 1961 at a mother-and-baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. Remains of some were found in what appeared to be a septic tank.
Rocked by such scandals, and by revelations of clerical sexual abuse, the Catholic Church has lost much of its former authority. Laundries, industrial schools, and mother-and-baby homes have all disappeared, and the Gloucester Street laundry is now one of the last physical reminders of this gulag archipelago. It is also, as it happens, among the final relics of a very different, yet complementary, secret Irish history, a parallel system for controlling and exploiting inconvenient lives.
The back gate of the Gloucester Street laundry, where the delivery vans once came and went, is on Railway Street, formerly called Mecklenburg Street. In 1904 Mecklenburg Street was a terrace of grand but fading Georgian houses, and it was here that James Joyce set the "nighttown" section of his novel Ulysses, a phantasmagoric visit to a brothel run by "a massive whoremistress" called Bella Cohen.
She was a historical figure. And Mecklenburg Street was the heart of the square mile of brothels, speakeasies and slums that took its informal name, Monto, from Montgomery Street, the next street over. It was here, when the South was still part of the United Kingdom, and when Dublin was a major garrison town of the British Empire, that authorities tolerated, even encouraged, what was often described as the biggest red-light district in Europe.
Monto was a last resort for runaways, widows and abandoned wives. Madams like Bella Cohen controlled them with violence and money, keeping them in debt to pay for clothes and lodgings. As they left their prime teen years, and lost their health and their looks, the women passed from “flash houses” for the wealthy to the cheap “shilling houses” and then to the alleys. Those who became pregnant were dumped on the street.
In 1921, when the British army withdrew from the South following the War of Independence, Monto lost a big chunk of its customer base. The new, overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Free State fell under the social control of the bishops, and prostitution was driven underground. On March 12th, 1925, police raided Monto and closed down what remained, aided by volunteers from the Legion of Mary relief agency.
Since then almost all the old Monto buildings have been demolished and replaced with public housing or private developments. According to a local historian, Terry Fagan, who does walking tours of the old Monto, the Gloucester Street site is among a handful of buildings left from that era. Even the street names have mostly been changed – Gloucester Street is now Seán MacDermott Street, named after Seán Mac Diarmada, hero of the 1916 Rising.
Although poverty has been greatly reduced, the area remains relatively deprived, the centre of a heroin epidemic that exploded in Dublin in the 1970s. Addicts and dealers haunt corners and squares where prostitutes once waited for customers. Today the Monto area has faded into folklore, along with the names and lives of its women. One half-remembered streetwalker, Lily of the Lamplight, used to sing to herself under the streetlight where she waited for customers. Long after she was gone, her name passed, by some strange osmosis, into the English version of a wartime German love song, Lili Marlene.
The faces and names of the Magdalene women are also slipping away from us.* Few are still alive. How should they be remembered? Gary Gannon, a city councillor who represents the area, has started a campaign for the Gloucester Street site to be established as a permanent memorial to the Magdalene women. "This is going to go," he says, standing on the former Mecklenburg Street, by the grim, grey wall of the derelict laundry, "and in 40 or 50 years, how do you explain what existed here, where everyone could see it?"
Samantha Long's birth mother, Margaret Bullen, was born in a mental institution and later, at the age of 16, transferred to the Gloucester Street laundry. While in the laundry's supposed care Bullen was raped, and at 19 she gave birth to Long and her twin sister. The newborns were taken from her and adopted.
Too institutionalised to care for herself after a life of confinement, Bullen died in a church-run home in 2003, at the age of 51. Long, who tracked her mother down before she died, says she is not opposed to a hotel on part of the site – “people need jobs” – but she wants a memorial too, something “more than a plaque on the wall”.
Mary Merritt, who is 86 and now lives in England, is one of the last surviving inmates of the Gloucester Street laundry, albeit having spent only a week there, on a temporary transfer from the High Park laundry. Taken at birth from a mother she could never trace, Merritt, too, was raped while an inmate. She had run away from High Park and sought help at the nearby palace of the archbishop of Dublin. There, in a side room, she was raped by a priest. Forcibly returned by police to the laundry, she later gave birth to a daughter, herself then placed in an orphanage. Merritt's voice breaks at the memory.
“The nuns used to have a little garden for themselves there, to the side of Seán McDermott Street,” she says. “They should have a little garden of remembrance there. They should knock the old laundry and convent to the ground and have some little flats for the women who are left, or their children if they had them. But not a hotel. Definitely not a hotel.” – New York Times
*This article was amended on January 17th, 2018