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Dublin: 14 °C Friday 1 August, 2014

In their own words: Survivors’ accounts of life inside a Magdalene Laundry

The report published today includes a section devoted to survivors’ first-hand accounts of life in a Laundry.

A man looks at a burial plot for victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
A man looks at a burial plot for victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Image: Julien Behal/PA Wire

THE REPORT of the inter-departmental committee into the State’s role in Magdalene Laundries includes a section devoted to the first-hand accounts of survivors who spoke to the committee about their experiences.

Among those who gave oral evidence to the committee, and whose quotes appear below, are women represented by the Irish Women’s Survivor’s Network, Magdalene Survivors Together, Justice for Magdalenes, women who live in nursing homes under the care of the orders who ran their Laundries, and women who approached the inquiry alone.

The report acknowledges that there were “many other women who have not felt able to share their experience of the Magdalene Laundries with it, or indeed with anyone” – and respected the right

The report admits that the oral accounts presented to it are biased because of the passage of time, which meant that women admitted to Laundries in earlier decades were no longer around to share their experiences.

On sexual abuse

One woman told the committee that she had been the subject of sexual abuse by an auxiliary (a woman who had entered a Laundry and decided to remain there for life) during her time there, but said she was not aware of any other similar cases.

The committee did not hear any evidence from any other former residents about sexual abuse during their time in a Laundry, though some said they had been the victims of sexual abuse in other institutions or at the family home, before or after their admission.

On physical abuse

Many women said that while their treatment was rough, they were never subjected to physical abuse – pointing out that brutality they may have experienced in an industrial school was not matched in a Laundry.

No beatings, only working. Hardest work ever.
I might have been given out to, but I was never beaten.
I was never beaten and I never seen anyone beaten.
It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched myself by any nun and I never saw anyone touched and there was never a finger put on them. … Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will … we worked very hard there … But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after.
No, they never hit you in the laundry. They never hit me, but the nun looked down on me ‘cause I had no father.
I wasn’t beaten but they’d shake you. And we were hungry – bread and dripping.
In the industrial school it was weapons, it was desperate. It wasn’t the same in the Laundry and I never remember being hit with a weapon.

A small number of women did, however, say they had been physically punished.

Two ladies were standing there, not nuns but dressed in navy. I was left with those two. [The survivor then recounted being made to strip and stand on a stool, after which she was...] punched by one of them, one side to another. I was dizzy, I kept saying I’m dizzy. [...]

I had to line up with the rest of the Magdalenes for prayers, church, breakfast. A nun sitting on a high chair told the ‘three new penitents to say your name’. I saw they were bruised too. I never ever saw another one, just that one time, never anything.

Others described having their hair pulled and being hit with canes.

On psychological abuse

I remember a nun telling me that you came from an illegitimate mother. I suppose it was that you were no good and that’s why we were there.
In the car the nuns were saying I had the devil in me, shaking holy water and saying the rosary in the car.
The nuns were very nasty. They’d say, ‘Your father is a drunkard’ in front of everyone. It would degrade me. You know everyone knows your business.
They were very, very cruel verbally – ‘Your mother doesn’t want you, why do you think you’re here?’ and things like that.
They would make you walk in front of all the women in the refectory and lie on the ground and kiss the floor.

On the working environment

I was about 14 years old. You would get up very early, the van men brought it in. You’d check the customer of the dirty laundry, mark it and put it in baskets. You’d pack it in bags and collect them. We had to leave the room when the van men came. It was repetition all the time.
[It was] very hard work. At about 8 o’clock you’d really drop. You’d be soaking wet. I only think I loved the clothes horses, ‘cause it was warm in the drying room. [... All this time you were] never allowed talk.
It was very hard work in the Laundry. The roof was all glass, the heat was unbelievable. You couldn’t leave your station unless a bell went. In the workroom I was trained to sew, we made fantastic stuff for the outside – kids clothes, first communion clothes, priests vestments … there was a sale of work in November for three days and the public came in.
The only thing was I had appendicitis and asked [an unnamed nun] could I go to bed, and she wouldn’t let me.

There were conflicting reports from survivors as to whether some nuns had worked alongside the residents or not.

Contrary to some opinion, only one resident reported having their head shaven – explaining that this was because of lice – though many others who entered with long hair said their hair had been cut short, to a bob.

On communicating with the outside world

Your letters were checked and letters in were definitely checked.
They read them and they didn’t get out or in if they didn’t suit.
You could write once a month but the nun would read the letters [...] When you got letters they were open.
I tried to write a letter saying I wasn’t getting school and the nun said, ‘It can’t go’.
My father used to come to see me but the nun would be there all the time.
I never saw my mam. My aunt said the nuns told her I was quite happy there.

On when they would be released

There was never any communication to tell me the reason for anything. [...] No one ever spoke why I was there. In our heads all we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry.
There was never a reason given for anything, we never thought we’d see the outside of the world again. … While you were in Ireland they knew exactly what you were doing. You had to leave Ireland to escape them.
I thought I was there forever.
I don’t know why that happened. I learned later only women with illegitimate babies went there. I was a young virgin, I don’t know why I was put there.
I seen all these older people beside me, I used to cry myself to sleep.
It was devastating to hear that door locked and I was never ever to walk out. There was a big wall. I knew I was there for life. When that door was locked my life ended. I never moved on from there.

On being allowed to leave… or running away

I remember it clearly. … [named auxiliary] knew I was good at sewing and came and said ‘come and fix a zip’. She closed the door and said ‘come on, you’re going’. Leaving just like that, I had butterflies and bumblebees in my stomach. I made friends there, I was leaving my security, I was going out in the big world. I was given shitty clothes and shoes and a tiny brown suitcase and then taken to train by an auxiliary to [place].

A number of women said they were placed in live-in jobs after they left, but had no choice in these jobs.

I kept going to [named nun]. She would say ‘It’s a big bad world out there’ and I couldn’t [leave]. See I’m a quiet person. She was telling me you’re going to be a Child of Mary, I’d be going for my blue ribbon, this was going on for years. I had to sit on the stairs and go on hunger strike. It could go on for a week.
I ran out. I thumbed to get a lift.
We would roll the trollies to the van at the back of laundry. I told the van man, ‘I’m running away, I’m going to get in the van’. He said, ‘Oh no, not another one… I don’t know you’re there.’

In full: TheJournal.ie‘s coverage of the Magdalene Laundries report

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