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Column: 'How we survived, I'll never know' - a Magdalene survivor's story

Today marks a year since a UN committee criticised the State’s failure to protect women and girls confined to Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Here a survivor of one institution shares her harrowing story and her frustrations.

File photo
File photo
Image: Petr David Josek/AP/Press Association Images

TODAY MARKS ONE year since a UN Committee Against Torture recommended that an independent inquiry should be conducted into the infamous Magdalene Laundries which operated in Ireland from 1922 to 1996.

The committee said it was “gravely concerned” by the failure of the State to protect women and girls who were “involuntarily confined” to the institutions and recommended that former residents get redress and have the right to compensation and rehabilitation.

One year on and survivors groups have complained of the delays in providing this assistance, criticising the government for a lack of a response to their concerns. Here, one survivor of a disputed Magdalene Laundry in Dublin shares her experience…

My name is Kathleen Legg (nee English) and I was born on 7 October 1935 in Lisvernane, Co Tipperary. For the first 11 years of my life my grandmother brought me up as my mother refused to have anything to do with me. Needless to say I’m a child from the period in Ireland where having a baby out of wedlock was completely forbidden and frowned upon.

My beloved grandmother died when I was 11 and from the ages of 11 to 14 I basically looked after myself. My life in Lisvernane was of a very poor quality but nobody could have prepared me for what was to come.

At the age of 14 my mother took me to Dublin. I remember her carrying me on her back as we walked through the fields from Lisvernane to Dublin. My mother and I were led to believe that I would get a better education in Dublin at a convent run by the Sisters of Charity but this would never to be the case.

I remember arriving at the convent in Stanhope Street in Dublin. I was brought into a room, stripped naked and given a uniform. I was never again to see my own clothes and for the next four years and I would never see a classroom. St. Mary’s Stanhope Street Training Centre was being portrayed as a convent to further girls in their education.

This was simply not the case.

For the next four years I would scrub, polish and clean every inch of that building, working long hours in the laundry. I had my name changed and I was known as number 27. This was an institution, which generated enormous amounts of wealth, and all the time I was there I had little to very basic food. In fact it was dismal and how we survived I’ll never know. I was constantly hungry and on the verge of starving.

The Nuns treated me and indeed others in there as slaves. They gave to the world a false sense of what was being done. So much so that they even sent out school reports saying how well I did in class and how great I was at cooking, housewifery and other such subjects. I never attended a class. I never even met the mother superior. I never saw a clock, book or newspapers when I was there.

Every morning you would awake to the sound of a bell. You operated like a robot and you did not dare question a nun. We bathed once a week and I remember the lice from our hair used to float around the top of the water  so if you were one of the last to get washed it was horrific.

‘Robbed of my life and the life I could have given to others’

There was no privacy, no care, no love or support in there. The nuns controlled your every movement and they hated it if you took ill, as this meant you were holding up the work that had to be done. We did laundry for all the big hotels, hospitals, companies and other individuals. It was hard tenuous work, which involved heavy lifting.

I was told years later that due to the heavy lifting I did in there this impeded me having my own children. The Nuns robbed me of my life and the life I could have given to others.

Yet, I have never received an apology from them or indeed the State for the child slave labour I and other girls carried out in there, all in the name of religion and charity.

In recent years I have been told that this place was not a Magdalene Laundry. I don’t believe this because I was there. I shared a dormitory with the girls in there, I worked in the laundry morning, noon and night, almost 365 days of the year.

I’m nearly 80 and all my life I have fought for justice. St Mary’s Stanhope Street has been excluded from the official investigation being carried out by Dr Martin McAleese as apparently it was not an official Magdalene Laundry*.

How do they know that it was not? Were they there? Did they do the work that I did? Did they see me attend a class? Do they know something, which I and the other girls didn’t know? I’m asking Minister Shatter to extend the remit of the work being done by the interdepartmental committee because I, along with other women who were in Stanhope Street, know and believe that it was an official Magdalene Laundry.

The same system was run by a different group of nuns in High Park Drumcondra, Dublin 9. This institution is being investigated. This institution was also called a Training Centre for Girls. What is the difference between my story and the women from this institution? I believe there is no difference.

Steven O’ Riordan and the Group Magdalene Survivors Together have done everything in their power to help me. They listened when nobody cared and helped when no one else would.

I hear, see and read a lot of articles on the Magdalene Laundries and all I wish for is to be one day recognised for the injustice that happened to me.

*The Department of Justice said in a statement: “St Mary’s Stanhope Street and St Mary’s Summerhill were training schools for girls.  There is no evidence to suggest that they were Magdalene institutions.”

Read: Justice Minister to write to Magdalene survivors after criticism of State’s response

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