State must confront Magdalene tragedy


OPINION:A UN committee has said the alleged abuse in the laundries should be investigated but the State continues to pass the buck

HALFWAY THROUGH a screening of Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sistersthat October day in 2002, it did not seem such a good idea to have brought Mary Norris and Sarah Williams along. Mary in particular just wept and wept. “The reality was even worse,” she said.

But they did not leave the cinema. Leaving was not something either woman was used to. It certainly was not an option back then when they were in Magdalene laundries. There, where the only option was to pray and slave in that brave new Ireland, where body was bruised to pleasure soul.

Mary Norris was born in Kerry in 1933, the eldest of eight children. Her father died, leaving a young wife with two boys and six girls aged between six months and 12 years. They coped. Then a man began visiting their house, occasionally staying at night.

A garda and a man from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) took the children away. It was decreed that the woman of the house was an unfit mother. “Everyone was screaming” Mary recalled. The children were brought to court and committed to “a place of safety” by a judge. That was a Killarney orphanage in Mary’s case. She “cried hysterically”. A Sr Laurence was not impressed. “I don’t know what you are crying for. Your mother’s a tramp, an evil woman, and I hope you don’t turn out like her,” she said.

Mary’s time there was misery, with bed wettings and beatings and no education except for Christian doctrine. At 16 she got a job as a servant to a retired schoolteacher in Tralee. One evening she sneaked out to a film, but was seen. The ISPCC man brought her back to the Killarney orphanage.

Sr Laurence wasn’t surprised. “I knew you were a tramp. I knew you’d turn out like this,” she said, and dispatched her to a local doctor. He examined Mary intimately, and told a woman sent with her: “I don’t know what’s wrong with the nuns. This young woman is intact.” Mary didn’t know what he was talking about.

Despite the positive verdict, Mary was despatched to the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry in Cork city. Her name was changed to “Myra”. She was stripped and her bra was replaced with buttoned-down calico, which flattened her breasts. Her hair was cut and she was given a grey dress, boots and a white cap. They brought her to the sewing room where she sat “among these old women, crying and making scapulars”.

No talking was allowed, just the rosary, over and over again. They got up at 6am, went to Mass, had breakfast, began working in the laundry at 8am, broke for lunch at 12.30pm, resumed at 1pm, and finished at 6pm.

They had an hour’s recreation until 7pm, when, in theory, they could talk, but “particular friendships” were forbidden. Few of the estimated 130 women there were unmarried mothers. Most were from orphanages.

Sarah Williams’s mother became pregnant while working for a professional man. Sarah was born in 1937 at Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and raised by her grandfather. As a teenager she went to Dublin and got a job in a B&B.

One day she was brought to a building where she was met by a nun, who showed her to a bare room with a bed and bucket. The nun locked the door from the outside and Sarah cried all night.

Next morning, an elderly woman came to her room with a dress, cap, stockings, boots, and a number. “You’re 100 and don’t you forget it,” the old woman said.

As long as she was there she was “100”. She was brought downstairs to the laundry, where about 40 women were folding sheets. A nun was walking up and down praying and singing hymns.

Sarah whispered to one girl: “What’s this place?” The girl said she couldn’t talk. Later she whispered: “It’s a convent. Irish Sisters of Charity, Donnybrook. For penitents.” It was very strict. Any misdemeanour was met with “a belt of the keys” every nun carried.

Sarah was later sent to the Irish Sisters of Charity Magdalene laundry in Cork. There they washed laundry from hospitals and factories. She was suicidal at times. In her 20s she was allowed out to live with an aunt who had not known she was in a Magdalene laundry. Her mother was dead, but Sarah found out the nuns in Donnybrook had been told when she was dying. They never told her.

That October day in 2002, as both women left the screening of The Magdalene Sisters, Mary remarked: “Maybe now, Irish people will begin to believe.” And she continued: “Wasn’t Our Lady lucky? If she was in Ireland she’d have been put in a Magdalene laundry and Jesus would have been adopted!”

The Irish people may believe, but nothing else has happened. Since then we’ve had another film, Steven O’Riordan’s The Forgotten Maggies. Back in 1998 there was the Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate. But little has since changed for these women.

Most are now elderly. Many are still highly institutionalised and, apart from a few, they shun publicity, still in fear of stigma. Their remaining number is uncertain, but it’s believed to be in the low hundreds at most. They had been held in about 10 laundries operated by four religious congregations across the State.

The last one closed on October 25th, 1996. It was located at Seán McDermott Street in Dublin, named after the executed 1916 leader.

After 1922, Magdalene laundries were operated in the Republic by the Sisters of Mercy (at Galway and Dún Laoghaire); the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (at Drumcondra and Seán MacDermott Street), the Sisters of Charity (at Donnybrook and Cork), and the Good Shepherd Sisters (at Limerick, Cork, Waterford and New Ross). All four congregations are members of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (Cori).

The indefatigable Justice for Magdalenes group met Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady regarding the laundries in June 2010. He recommended they write to Sr Marianne O’Connor, director general of Cori. They did, but she refused to meet them.

The group has written to the four religious congregations concerned on four separate occasions. None has ever responded. It wrote to Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and received a two-line acknowledgement.

Last November the Irish Human Rights Commission, responding to a submission by the group, concluded there was evidence the State failed to protect women in the laundries and recommended “a statutory mechanism be established to investigate the matters advanced by JFM [Justice for Magdalenes] and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted”.

Last month, the group made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Yesterday, the committee too recommended that the State carry out a statutory investigation of allegations of torture and inhumane treatment of women in the laundries. It went further to state that the State should prosecute and punish the perpetrators of the alleged abuse in appropriate cases, and provide redress and compensation to the victims.

Whatever about the church, the State cannot go on passing the buck on this tragic issue. It has a moral responsibility to the surviving women.

At the very least, it must apologise to them and allow them some financial consolation in these their latter years.

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