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'Burn it to the ground': What should be done with Magdalene laundry buildings?

A group of survivors and their families gathered at the back of a Dublin Magdalene laundry today to share their stories.

DSC_0320 The entrance to the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene laundry. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha for TheJournal.ie

I tried to get out of the [Magdalene laundry] for 14 years – now you won’t let me in.

Mary Merritt was sent to a Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street after refusing to work at High Park laundry, Drumcondra. On the day she arrived, she still refused to work, and was sent to another laundry in Donnybrook. She refused to work again and was sent back to the first laundry.

In total, she spent 14 years in High Park. When she was released at the age of 31, she had to have all her teeth taken out and she discovered she was blind in one eye.

“I’d never seen a toothbrush,” she said. During her time there, she says she had no access to proper healthcare, doctors, education, or basic life skills – let alone her right to freedom.

Today, she and other survivors gathered outside the last Magdalene laundry to be closed on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin city, to share their stories and ask the government to include the last survivors’ opinions on what should be done with the institutions that represent a tragic failure in our State’s short history.

DSC_0333 Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha for TheJournal.ie

While the survivors walked towards the front of the building, a metal gate next to the entrance opened to let a car through and some survivors got a glimpse of the heart of the institution that incarcerated them years before. It’s a part of the building that cannot be seen from the street, and a part that many of the survivors wouldn’t have seen in a long, long time.

After a while, a builder asks them to move on from the private property, located between the laundry and the neighbouring building.

We should tell them why we’re here, someone suggests.

Three women, many stories

“When I was a young teen, I was asked by a doctor did I want a break away from home, to a place with girls my own age and carry on with my schooling away from my own problems they were experiencing at home,” Magdalene survivor Lindsay Ryan told the crowd gathered today.

“Well I jumped at it, imagining visions of a St Trinian’s type place – and landing myself in High Park.”

“I went from living at home to barred windows, heavy work, inadequate meals, little medical intervention and no lessons and life skills.

I lived with the ever-present fear of being sent here, to Sean McDermott Street, and never getting out – as one nun used to tell me almost every single night.

DSC_0335 Lindsay Ryan looks at old parts of the Magdalene laundry institution. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha for TheJournal.ie

“My [institutionalisation] was my downfall,” Mary Merritt says. She was 17 when she first entered the laundries in 1947.

“We got little or no food, we were praying all the time, we never knew when it was our birthdays, we never knew when it was Christmas, we weren’t allowed speak to one another, to make friends.

If you did anything wrong you were put into The Hole, and you got your hair cut to the bone. I had mine done because I was very much a rebel.

“We had no bathrooms, we had nothing in those laundries. How we survived today, I don’t know.”

A daughter of a Magdalene victim, Angie, told the story of how she was brought to meet her mother by her grandmother when she was 16 years old.

“I didn’t know I was coming to see my mother.”

“She came down the steps, she just sat down, my mother never spoke. I didn’t know it was my mother until I came back out round the buildings and I said to my gran: ‘Who’s that woman?’

And she said ‘That was your mother’.
And all my mother was doing was crying… She was like a zombie, she never spoke, she looked just unbelievable. I was so scared.

She found her mother later after trawling through the laundries’ paperwork, matching dates and names (her mother was called Regina in the Magdalene paperwork, even though her Christian name was Mary).

Her mother, who was first put into the laundry in 1951 and remained there for 14 years, died aged 60 of a lung tumour that doctors said was caused by repeated exposure to chemicals used in the laundries.

DSC_0337 Two Magdalene survivors, Mary and Angie, stand outside the entrance to the former Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha via TheJournal.ie

At the moment, the towering three-story building once run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity is owned by Dublin City Council and is up for sale.

But as former survivors of the laundries pass away, there’s a feeling that their contribution to what should be done with the former houses of abuse should be documented before it’s too late.

Lindsay says that she thinks places like the Sean McDermott laundry should be turned into a type of garden, but at the same time, she’d hope that some of the building would be preserved to remind people of what happened there.

“Bear in mind, a person who was adopted might want to return to the place where their mother was kept.”

Why not set a national date aside in the calendar to remember those who have died, and those who are still bearing the scars, both physically and mentally?

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Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

A history of neglect

A woman in Direct Provision, Ellie, also spoke about the care the Irish State has provided for her, and asked if these types of institutions were simply “in the State’s blood”.

“If we don’t act now,” she told a crowd of survivors, families, and activists, “there will be another institution” in another few years.

Lindsay wonders if the Irish State has learned at all from the disastrous reputation it has with State care: “You only have to look at Tusla. You only have to look at Direct Provision”.

After the speeches, Angie takes Mary by the arm, and they walk along the road together.

“She’s like my mother,” Angie says. “Whatever she wants done with the Magdalene building, that’s what I want.”

So what does Mary want?

“Burn it to the ground,” she says, fired up from the speech she gave earlier.

Her husband of 50 years, Bill, reminds her that one idea caught her eye on what should be done.

“When Mary gave a three-hour speech to the UN in Geneva about what happened to her, there was a beautiful garden which pumped water around – you could have that here. You could have a statue of an ordinary woman, no church, at the front,” he says.

When asked what he makes of the stories he’s heard from his wife over the years, he says:

“They were like prisoners of war.”

Read: UN criticises government for failure to prosecute abuse perpetrators in Magdalene Laundries

Read: Gone for good: Last Magdalene laundry to be converted into houses and sold

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