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a life stolen

"Nobody told us she had died" - the story of Margaret Bullen, who spent her entire life in a Magdalene Laundry

Margaret Bullen died in 2003 aged just 50 from a disease possibly linked to her exposure to industrial-strength chemicals in the Laundries where she had lived.

mag Margaret Bullen RTÉ RTÉ

She had died in July. Nobody had told us. We found out in October.

THE FASCINATING AND tragic story of a mother who spent her life in a series of Magdalene Laundries will be told this evening.

RTÉ’s Liveline Callback will tell the story of Margaret Bullen, a mother-of-three who spent her entire life in state institutions such as the infamous Laundries.

Samantha Long was 29 years old and seven months pregnant in October 2003 when she listened to an edition of Liveline on RTÉ Radio in which a woman was decrying the fact that one of her good friends had died and been buried in a communal grave by the nuns at her laundry.

And then she heard the woman’s name. Margaret Bullen. Her mother, who she had first met just eight years previously. Who met her and her twin sister in the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street carrying an empty handbag because she owned nothing to put in it.

“When we were just two weeks old, Margaret was sent back to work,” Samantha says today, five years after first sharing her story with 

etta sam Margaret's twin daughters RTÉ RTÉ

She and her twin sister Etta were just seven weeks old in 1972 when Margaret came to visit them at the St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin where they had been born and found them gone. They wouldn’t see her again until 1995.

“When we finally traced her and went to meet her, we didn’t know how to be. Were we supposed to love her, like her?” says Samantha.

We didn’t know how to handle it. Then we saw her. She was wearing a polyester dress. I couldn’t believe she was 42. She looked so much older. Her face was one that had lived through hard work.

When Margaret died in July 2003, the day before her 51st birthday, of Goodpasture Syndrome – a disease sometimes caused by exposure to industrial-strength chemicals like those used in the laundries – her daughters hadn’t spoken to her in some time.

She had died in July. Nobody had told us.

MB (l to r) Etta, Margaret, and Samantha RTÉ RTÉ

The nuns in question said they had tried to reach out to Margaret’s family, and had then deferred to gardaí who they presumed had made contact. No attempt to follow up was made.

After Samantha heard Margaret’s friend on the radio, Etta phoned the show herself.

“Everyone in the country was listening to that,” says Samantha.

The death of Margaret Bullen and its discussion on the national airwaves was one of the key factors that led to the establishment of Justice for Magdalenes Research.

When the subject of redress for survivors became a possibility, Samantha and her sister began to tell their mother’s story: “We wanted to make sure that those who were still alive got some money.”

EK Enda Kenny apologising to the Magdalene residents, Dáil Éireann, 19 February 2013 RTÉ RTÉ

So we collaborated to tell Margaret’s story on her behalf.

The publication of the McAleese Report into the Laundries led to an official State apology to the victims, made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February 2013.

“When that was all over I just felt so happy for Margaret,” says Samantha.

I felt like she was finally at peace.

Liveline: Callback will air at 8.30pm on RTÉ One. 

A life unlived: 35 years of slavery in a Magdalene Laundry

Read: This I can carry – Irish exhibit shows the meagre possessions refugees hold following a harrowing journey

Read: ‘Don’t open your door’ – things have just gotten very, very real for illegal Irish in the US

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