On Tuesday a report by Martin McAleese may finally help to write the story of State involvement in the Magdalen institutions, a shameful chapter in Ireland’s history.
So much of the story about the
Magdalen laundries centres on names; on identities lost, abandoned or
Thousands of girls and young women went through their doors
during two centuries.
Each had her Christian name changed by the nuns,
her surname unused.
On her marriage to an English soldier after
she had fled Ireland, Margaret McCarthy changed her surname to that of
her husband, Frederick Permaul. By then she had already changed her
Christian name to Marina.
“When I came over I wanted to wash
Ireland clean away. It was like taking off dirty linen,” says the drily
humorous 69-year-old, in the sitting room of her home in Cricklewood,
north London, this week.
More than 50 years have passed, but the
feelings of fear, entrapment and “that all hope was lost” are as vivid
for Permaul as they were on the day she ended up in the Magdalen laundry
run by the Sisters of Mercy at 47 Forster Street in Galway, near the
city’s railway station.
Born in Ennis, Co Clare, to Martin and
Margaret McCarthy, she, like her five siblings, had her life overturned
after the death of her mother from TB and her father from “bronchial
Sent to live with an uncle, the six children soon ran
wild. “We were found wandering the streets, not going to school.
gardaí took matters to court. Our uncle said he couldn’t keep us. The
boys were taken to St Joseph’s in Salthill. My sister and I went to St
Anne’s at Lenaboy in Galway.”
Permaul lived there, not unhappily,
from the age of six until she was 13. “One Sunday morning I was going up
to the church for Mass. After 12 o’clock Mass the nun asked me to
change the flowers on the altar. As I changed them, Sr Bertmans came
down from the side door. She told me to leave what I was doing. I got a
strange feeling, a feeling of entrapment; I felt something was wrong. I
went to run out."
“Another nun came. The nuns grabbed me, and they
had a car waiting outside the chapel. The driver drove off. I was
shouting. You don’t expect nuns to do this. I didn’t know what was
happening. ‘Where are you taking me?’ I said. I started to cry,” says
Permaul, her voice trembling.
They arrived at a side door to the
laundry. “I always remember the green door. I knew I was in a Magdalen.
It was almost like a mental hospital, where only bad people went. It
was a taboo subject. We grew up knowing this,” she says.
others, Permaul speaks of the hunger for escape. “I prayed every night
to St Anthony, prayed that I would get out. I knew I was in there for
life, because there was no one to get me out. A girl died. I knew I had
to get out.”
Soon she began to plan for freedom, stealing a
cardigan from a laundry bag. But before she could take her plans
further, she was spotted by a nun from Lenaboy who had come to Forster
Street for a Christmas choir.
“A nun told me to clear out my locker.
Miss Broderick, a lay teacher, brought me back. Nobody told me anything.
You didn’t dare ask a question. I went back to Lenaboy. Nothing was
said; that was the strange bit.”
The seven months inside the Magdalen have left the deepest of scars.
made the same journey.
Some were unmarried mothers, deemed promiscuous
by the authorities.
More, perhaps most, were the daughters of such
women, or “considered a burden” by their families or the State, had been
sexually abused or had grown up in care.
Tuesday’s report by Senator Martin McAleese “should, for the first
time, enable us to speak with some authority about the numbers of women
who entered these institutions after 1900”, says Dr James Smith of
Boston College, who has spent years researching the Magdalens.
to the 1911 census, there were 1,094 women recorded at the 10 Magdalen
asylums that would continue to operate after Irish independence,” says
Maeve O’Rourke, who prepared a submission on the Magdalens for the
United Nations Commission on Torture in 2011.
“In 1956, the Irish
Catholic Directory and Almanac reported a capacity for 945 women at
these same institutions,” says O’Rourke, who is a trainee barrister in
London. She has spent many hours interviewing former inmates who now
live in London.
The Magdalens were excluded from the Residential
Institutions Redress Board. The State argued that it had never inspected
or regulated the laundries and therefore was not responsible for them.
Currington experienced the care of the Good Shepherds nuns in Co
Wexford. Born to Sarah O’Neill, an unmarried woman, she lived in the
county home in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, until she was three and then,
securely, with her aunt Anne in Monageer until she was five.
that point she was made a ward of court and sent to the children’s home
run by the Good Shepherds in New Ross. At the age of 16 she was sent to
work for a sister of one of the nuns at Killavullen, in north Co Cork,
where she served for nine months as a domestic.
Unhappy, she wrote
seeking permission to go back to New Ross, which was “‘the only base I
had”, says Currington, who now lives in Dunstable, in Bedfordshire. She
returned in time for the visit of John F Kennedy in 1963 – “His stooped
back, God help him.” Shortly afterwards, she met a friend with a child
on the street. “I asked her where her husband was. She said, ‘I am not
married.’ I told my friend that she was telling lies.
went to bed I met with one of the nuns. I told her that the girl was
pretending that the baby was hers. I remember her saying, ‘We were wrong
to leave you out of the school without telling you the facts of life.’ I
said, ‘The facts of life? What are you talking about?’ ”
weeks later, Currington found herself standing in the parlour of the
Good Shepherd convent at Sunday’s Well in Cork: “Four nuns stood around
me, saying, ‘What shall we call her?’ I kept saying, ‘I’m Mary.’ They
weren’t listening. ‘Oh, we’ll call her Geraldine,’ they said. I wasn’t
understanding at all; why are they changing my name? I was so confused,”
she says, sitting in the home of a friend, her cup of tea growing cold
on a table beside her.
The indignities began even before she saw
the laundry. “My hair was waist length and it was chopped up to my ears.
My clothes were taken off me and I was given rags, and I mean they were
rags.” Soon she ran into trouble after she and a friend enjoyed
themselves pushing each other in trolleys late one Friday evening, after
finally finishing mountains of laundry sent by the hotels, army
barracks and private homes of Cork city."
“Sr Mount Carmel was
horrified. We were sent to the office, and she said that we had left the
whole place down,” says Currington. She was sent to the sewing room
against her wishes, but she developed a lifetime love of the craft. I
knocked out beautiful work. We made all the vestments for the altar,
all the altar linen, all the altar boys’ gear, the banners for the
processions,” she says.
Four years on, when Currington was 22, she
planned her escape, along with another woman, who was two years older.
As in Permaul’s case, the first requirement was clothing.
my friend to get a couple of dresses. We daren’t escape in our own
clothes, because they would know straight away where we were from, and
from our haircuts,” she says.
“The side door to the sewing room
was left open, and there was a little alleyway, tree-lined. Every step
we took going out of those convent grounds, I was looking back to see if
anyone was watching us.” It was July 1967, “or perhaps August”.
they were down in Cork city centre, outside Winthrop Arcade. Her friend
went in to get money from the young men and boys playing the penny
machines. “We had no money. We didn’t know what money was.”
waiting, she was approached by a garda, “a big, tall guy. I was very
shy. I gave a wrong name. He asked if I was on my own.” Minutes later,
he had found her friend. “He told us we were going back to the place
that ‘you escaped from’. I could not believe it. The nuns alerted the
Garda any time people ran away.”
She spent two more years in
Sunday’s Well. Freedom came in the form of a Vincentian priest, Fr Tom
Bennett. “He didn’t like the nuns. He hated them for locking us up. He
used to campaign for me to be left out. He’d barge into her office and
leave the door open, so that I could hear. Sr Mount Carmel said,
‘Geraldine isn’t mature enough.’ ”
Currington’s release came
quickly, without notice. “I got up at 6am. I had my towel, toothpaste
and flannel. An auxiliary, Bernadette . . . told me to come and fix her
zip. I laid my towel on my bed. Once the door closed, she told me I was
leaving. I had such mixed emotions. What about all the people I had
known for six whole years? Suddenly I was plucked out, put on a train
and sent to Drogheda.”
She spent seven months working as a ward
maid at St John of God at Courtney Hill in Newry. “I decided I would be
free of the nuns if I went to England. I came to England on July 7th,
1969. My sister was waiting for me in Luton.”
more than a decade, Sally Mulready and Phyllis Murphy, who were both
reared in institutions but were not Magdalens, have worked with
institutional survivors in Britain.
More than 30 former Magdalens come
to their London meetings.
The Magdalens they found form only a
fraction of those living in Britain. The Irish Government ran
advertisements in the Irish Post and the Irish World when it was
promoting the Residential Institutions Redress Board.
“I said they
should advertise in the breaks in Coronation Street. Some of our people
won’t pay £1 for an Irish newspaper that talks only about all the happy
things that are going on,” says Murphy.
Funding is tight for the
London Irish Women’s Survivors Group.
Money comes from the Ireland Fund
of Great Britain and the St Stephen’s Green Trust, but nothing comes
from the Irish State.
“We had been running meetings on a monthly basis,
but we had to cut back.”
Britain brought freedom, if not
happiness, for many, says Murphy.
“So many are too ashamed to come out.
They would be ashamed for their families to know, especially if they are
married to Irishmen. They would feel, What kind of woman did I marry?
It didn’t really matter with British men, because they didn’t look down
on you, myself included. I always found Irishmen reacted [in a way that
implied],‘ I don’t want to know you.’ The look on their faces, as if you
were a piece of dirt.”
Despite their difficulties, the women
found are the lucky ones, says Maeve O’Rourke.
“Sometimes I met women
who reacted with surprise if they heard of others. ‘You mean there are
others here?’ they’d say. They genuinely felt they were the only ones
who had escaped.
“Their names were changed, they left without
warning, or escaped. People lost their best friends, often their only
friends. There is still a sense of longing for the people they had in
there. And sometimes there is guilt for the people that they left
With days to go until McAleese’s report, the former
Magdalen women wait expectantly. An apology is important to some, less
so to others; all demand payment for years of unpaid labour, as well as
pensions “even though the nuns never paid our stamps”.
what it brings. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to consider something else. If
they come up with the right thing then it will end,” says a former
inmate, who identifies herself by her Magdalen name of Brenda because
she does not want to embarrass the family of her Irish husband.
there is one demand: no repetition of the Residential Institutions
Redress Board, says Mulready.
“They don’t want to see lawyers being the
beneficiaries. They feel that they have told their story over and over,
and the nuns have records. They feel that the history is out
there. I believe that a lot of them would not be able to withstand a
rigorous system. It is up to the State to come up with a service that
protects their rights. What they don’t have is time,” says Mulready.
operating for 200 years, the last of the Magdalens closed in 1996. “A
lot of people did not shout. A lot of people knew. They say that they
didn’t want to get involved; they just thought they were ‘bad girls’.
people should read the report and care about what happened to a whole
generation of Irish women. Irish snobbery brought about a whole lot of
discrimination, particularly against poor people. It was so endemic that
Magdalen inquiry - What is Tuesday’s report?
The report on the Magdalen laundries is expected to be published on Tuesday. It will be presented to the Cabinet that morning.
has been prepared by a committee of officials from five Government
departments, chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, assisted by another
official from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
where an estimated 30,000 single mothers and other women were detained
between 1922 and 1996, were operated by four religious congregations.
Most of the women have since died. The last one, at Seán MacDermott
Street, in Dublin, closed in 1996.
On June 14th, 2011, Minister
for Justice Alan Shatter announced the Government was to set up the
committee to investigate the State’s role in the Magdalen laundries. The
previous week the four religious congregations concerned agreed to
co-operate with any such inquiry.
Shatter’s announcement followed a
lengthy campaign by the Justice for Magdalenes group and a report from
the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
The 10 laundries
were operated by the Sisters of Mercy (Galway and Dún Laoghaire, Co
Dublin), the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (Drumcondra and Seán
MacDermott Street, Dublin), the Sisters of Charity (Cork and Donnybrook,
Dublin 4) and the Good Shepherd Sisters (Limerick, Cork, Waterford and