Dublin, February, 2022
It’s late afternoon, blustery. There are clouds overhead. Doors are closed, the pavements are quiet. The building comes up on my right, grey and brown and dominating. Window after window after window. Count the numbers it takes up on Sean McDermott Street Lower: 69 to 72. It used to be even larger, before the fire in 2006, before Dublin City Council officials started talking health and safety concerns, before they demolished the sewing room and the packing room, tore down almost all of the ironing room and most of the laundry building. To find what’s left of the laundry I have to walk around the back, onto Railway Street, where I photograph the portion of the wall that still stands, a white cross embedded into it. I record the six windows with the bars across them. Through one of the windows, I can see the remnants of an extractor fan. If I look a bit further, past the rubble and the nettles, I can see the circles on the concrete floor where the washing vats once stood. There are no photographs of the interior of the laundry building taken during the hundred years or more of its operation, nor are there any from the decade it lay unused before the fire. Really, there are only a handful of photographs from inside any of the Laundries, which began in the mid-18th century as refuges for ‘fallen’ women, but which became increasingly more punitive after political independence in 1922, when a faltering, insecure State fused with the Irish Catholic church to turn women’s sexuality into a sin for which they might end up atoning their entire lives. There’s that staged image you can find on an internet search, taken inside an unidentified laundry in the early 1900s, the one where a nun and four unsmiling girls stare at the camera. There’s another photograph from sometime in the 1940s, in another unnamed laundry, in which more unsmiling women and girls stand in a cluster underneath the fluorescent lights, two of them holding up a neatly-folded sheet. There’s Father Jack Delaney’s film footage, taken when he was chaplain to the Laundry on Gloucester Street, which is what Sean McDermott Street was called until the 1930s. Father Delaney didn’t get to film inside the laundry building either, although he did bring his camera behind the convent’s high walls. He filmed the women in the small convent garden, giggling, nudging each other, playing catch by the fountain. He filmed them dancing and acting as part of the annual concert. Everyone is smiling in Father Delaney’s film, but this is a performance for the camera. The 10,000 women and girls (a conservative estimate) who were forcibly sent to reside in Ireland’s ten Magdalene Laundries between 1922 and 1996, when the last institution closed, washed the community’s clothes and sheets ten hours a day, six days a week, without pay. The dirty laundry symbolised the stain on their souls; the ‘penitents’, as the women were termed, were to render themselves morally spotless by scrubbing clean any trace of deviant behaviour, which often – but not always – involved sexual activity outside of marriage. The penal quality of the environment was also essential. The women’s names were changed when they went inside the institution. Their hair was cut short. They were dressed in a shapeless smocked uniform. The nuns have always said the women were not imprisoned, yet they were not allowed to leave. Maybe the sisters wanted to shield the Magdalene women from society’s prejudices, as the religious have claimed. But the Laundries were also money-making entities, so perhaps the nuns were also interested in holding onto their slave workforce. They were not interested in the wellbeing of that workforce. The women were cold; they were poorly fed; they were under constant fear of harsh punishment. They were scorned, ignored, beaten and brutalised. They believed they would die inside the Laundries, and many did, although the exact number is hard to quantify. The Irish State suggests there were around 900 deaths; campaigners argue it could be almost double. The documentary evidence is sparse, like almost everything to do with the Laundries, What we do have are the testimonies. The women from the Magdalene Laundries have begun to speak, finally, of their memories.
The question is whether we are willing to hear.
When I was a child, I prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. I can still recite the incantation, drummed into us by nuns in their black habits. At school, we bowed our heads, repeated the lines: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Mary’s image, too, infused my childhood. She looked down from walls. Each May, she was held aloft on a bed of purple and yellow flowers, and paraded through town centres. I remember her on Mass Cards, pink-cheeked in blue and white. I remember her in churches, inside those dramatic, Renaissance-style paintings, kneeling before the angel, arms crossed at her chest. She was a stained-glass window, the crowned Queen of Heaven, her headdress radiating flames of fire. She was a Rosary Bead, a Miraculous Medal. She was the carved, agonised Pieta, cradling the dead body of her only son. She was both virgin and mother; she had never had sex, but she had given birth. She was beautiful, but not even sensual, definitely not sexual.
I knew about Mary Magdalene too, but she was different. She was a reformed harlot, and even if I had no real idea what that meant, I knew enough to understand she had been saved in the nick of time. Jesus had had mercy on her, cleansed her of the seven demons, allowed her to weep at the base of his cross. This other Mary was in the ether, but she wasn’t everywhere. I learned about her in those key scenes from the Bible, the flash of her washing the feet of Christ with her tears, there among the small huddle of women at Jesus’s empty tomb. She was pictured in one or two of the Stations of the Cross, her head sometimes encircled with a halo. I knew, too, there was something about her hair. There must have been a lot of it, because hadn’t she used it to dry Jesus’s feet after she had cleaned them? Still, her image was not all around, and even if it had been, it would have told another story, a mixed-up kind of story: that of the prostitute-sinner-penitent, eyes cast to heaven, desperate for forgiveness; yet so often, too, an erotic figure, all flowing red tresses, unclothed or partially-covered, a lush, voluptuous beauty, surely a temptress. In Christian art, the Magdalene has often been painted naked and humiliated in a barren landscape. Viewers get to see her nude, and she gets to be punished for this, so everyone knows their place. She is portrayed fully-robed after her repentance, but living as a hermit, reflecting on her sinful past, as well as the Lord’s compassion.
By the time I had stumbled out of childhood into the revolt of adolescence I would have sworn blind I had peeled off these layers of Catholic culture. I had long stopped going to Sunday Mass, held more socially-liberal views than many of my peers, took as my role models the urban, working, sexually-confident women I saw in the pages of Cosmopolitan UK. I did not think about Holy Mary, or Mary Magdalene, or if I did, I would have dismissed them as relics of a fast-receding theocratic order, with no bearing on my existence. I was wrong. Religious shame had soaked my blood; I could not wring it clear. Still, for many years, I believed I was cleansed of it, an assumption that also bred a convenient scorn. I didn’t know about the women doing the washing behind the high walls and steel gates, but if I had, would I have found a way to distance myself from their condition, reassuring myself I was different, and their lot could not just as easily have been bestowed on me?
The first time society even passingly acknowledged the Magdalene women was in 1996, and only then after a three-year campaign by the advocacy group, the Magdalene Memorial Committee (MMC). The MMC had formed in 1993, after the Sisters of Charity, a religious order that was selling a plot of land at High Park, North Dublin, exhumed a communal grave of 133 women. The MMC, concerned that Magdalene women had been concealed in death as they had been in life, pressured the State, and finally received permission for a small plaque to be affixed to a bench in St Stephen’s Green, in Dublin. On 26 April 1996, a cluster of people gathered in the public park for the unveiling of the memorial, which is a small, copper-coloured sheet, set on a metal plate. It has no names on it, nor are there faces. The sheet reads: ‘To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and the children born to some members of those communities – reflect here upon their lives.’ In April 1996, around 40 women were in residence inside the Sean McDermott Street Laundry, which wound up its commercial operations in October of that year, becoming the last of the Irish Magdalene Laundries to close. Some of the women were elderly, in their 80s; others were still in their 40s. Living only half an hour’s walk from St Stephen’s Green, they had been relegated to a blurred, historical past.
On a frosty, foggy December morning, many months after my first excursion to Sean McDermott Street, I went to visit the bench with the plaque. The grass was wet and white-tipped, and a boy in a fur hat scattered crumbs for a cluster of fat seagulls nearby. I must have passed this seat a hundred times during the years I walked through the park on my way to my old job in the newspaper office. Until now, I had never paused to notice it. I sat on the seat, stared across at a low fountain, watched it spray mist against the flat grey winter sky.
In the newly-formed Irish Free State, the number of women and girls being sent to the laundry on Gloucester Street is increasing. They are also getting younger. They are aged 14, 12, 9. Nor are they any longer exclusively prostitutes, as women in previous decades were, when the refuges were established. The ‘penitents’ now include unmarried mothers, especially those with more than one child. They call these women second offenders. Others are women who have been raped. Some are the victims of incest, or maybe there has been physical violence in the home. Regardless, the shame is theirs. Some have a disability or are mentally ill. More shame. Some are from sprawling, poor families deemed unable to cope. (Everyone inside the laundry is poor, except for the nuns.) Some are too pretty, too flirtatious, too knowing. They need to learn self-control. Some come from the lock hospitals, where they treat venereal disease. Others are petty criminals, too young for jail, considered too immoral for a remand home. The most luckless of the luckless are transferred directly from the Industrial Schools, the State’s brutal version of children’s care homes. The Religious ran those too, so if you didn’t find your way out by the time you reached 16, 17, they sent you across to the next place, moved you from one convent to the other, put you immediately to work at the laundry, standing at the machines morning to night. The nuns have this free labour to rely on, which gives them an edge over their commercial competitors, but the Sisters of Charity have also been busy improving the building’s facilities. It’s important the laundry turns a profit. Already in 1901, the nuns had revamped the laundry room so it now includes three large brass washers, two hydro extractors, as well as large vats for hot and cold water. They use zinc troughs for boiling soap and making steam; there is a machine for starching collars, and a copper boiler for making the starch. The room has a large air fan in the centre. It also has an airing closet and a drying closet. The sisters had been delighted with these enhancements, and continue to upgrade their equipment on a regular basis. Over the years, a splendid new brass double washer is installed. A large, new, steam mangle. With their new machines and their forced labour, the sisters assure excellent quality – the smallest order is punctually attended to – at the lowest cost. They siphon clients from the private contractors, and these contractors complain to government it is not a fair fight. But the government is sending its own laundry to the nuns and sees and hears nothing. And so, from the top down, Dublin society sends its washing to the nuns on Gloucester Street. The laundry’s clients include local businesses and families. They include prisons, hospitals, schools. They include banks and department stores. They include the defence forces, the Chief State Solicitor’s Office, the Office of Public Works, the Land Commission, the Ordnance Survey and numerous government departments. These patrons are exacting and the nuns know it. Their customers are liable to take their business elsewhere over a missing sock, the misplacement of a handkerchief, and the sisters are thus intent on running a tight, efficient enterprise. The laundry’s packing room and its sorting room are arranged side by side. Both have large, rolling doors that lead directly to the van shed, which opens out onto Gloucester Lane.
At one point, the Mother Superior had put pressure on Dublin’s elected councillors to repair this laneway, to make it more suitable for traffic, and they had duly done so. For good measure, the councillors had also boarded up some derelict houses in the vicinity, demonstrating ‘a further interest in our institution,’ as the head nun noted in a circular letter. She wasn’t wrong. For more than 70 years, the Irish State wordlessly gave its blessing to the detention of the thousands of women, which must have given the nuns the impression they were doing something right. The record also shows that when the laundries were inspected, the discussions that ensued were about problems with the machinery (steam pressure vessels, hydro extractors and the like), or observable contraventions of fire safety. Over tea and biscuits, the assessors went through these issues with the nuns. The women kept doing the laundry. Of the 24 former inspectors interviewed by an Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC), set up in 2011 to establish the facts of the Irish State’s involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, none of them recalled much about the women. One inspector, who examined a Laundry in Galway in the 1970s, remembered only that the women seemed detached, not appearing to show any interest or curiosity in my presence. Another, who made several visits to a Laundry in Cork in the late 1980s, mused: If I thought about it at all, I think that I thought that these places were some sort of sheltered workshops with outsiders coming into work in them as well. It was easy not to think about it. The nuns have explained that the women’s names were changed for their own protection, and this was also the reason visits by family or friends were not encouraged. Was it for this reason also that a rule of silence was imposed at almost all times, and no friendships were allowed between the women? It was easy not to think about the women with no voice and no name. It was easy not to think about the women who lived behind high walls and iron fences, behind windows that shut out all views of the streets below. It’s easy still. The nuns continue to hold tight to their records, keep bolted shut what went on, while the State makes its excuses. The Sisters continue to feel a strong moral responsibility to protect the privacy of the women who passed through their doors, wrote Senator Martin McAleese, husband of former Irish President Mary McAleese, and Chair of the IDC. It is for this reason, and not for secrecy or self-interest, that their archives have not been opened to researchers or the general public. Thus speak the powerful and the respectable, and their word is absolute. Campaigners for the Magdalene women have come to understand this, just as they have come to realise their own words will always be suspect. In the recent publication Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries (2021), an account of a five-year struggle to extract some redress for the Magdalene women, members of the group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), document how those in authority wield ‘belligerent ignorance’ as a deliberate strategy to evade responsibility. The authors explain: ‘Declaring that what they, the powerful and respectable, know is all there is to know. Nothing further needs to be known if it is not already known by the powerful. If it needed to be known, it would be known by them.’
But what if we listen to those who are not powerful and respectable?
What if we listen to the voices gathered as part of JFM’s Oral History Project, a collection of interview transcripts and audio recordings with survivors of the Laundries?
What if we listen to Sarah (a pseudonym)? Born in 1960, she was the eldest of 11, her father ill with schizophrenia, her mother an alcoholic and a tablet abuser. When Sarah left school at 15, her job was to look after the children, to forage for food, to make the dinners, to mind the house, until fighting with her mother got her sent away at 16. First she worked in the Laundry in High Park. By the time she was 17 she was inside the Laundry on Sean McDermott Street, and what she remembers now is the stink of the bleach, the smell of piss, the reek of urine… always had that smell, always. She remembers a big drum, the big washing machine thing and the huge rollers. She remembers the bars on the windows, the doors that were always locked. She remembers how it took two of the women to fold a sheet, remembers the way you had to stand in the middle and you had to run your hand down it to get the crevice right and fold them again and pour them over. She remembers how this had to be spot on, or if not they’d have to be done again. She remembers the vans, all day long driving in and out the black gates, collecting the laundry. She remembers the older women, who weren’t really old, because they were only in their thirties, but who looked so old with their white hair and their rotten teeth and their bent-over backs. She remembers their faraway eyes, their distant smiles. Oh, they would say, we came here a long time ago…
What if we listen to Lucy (a pseudonym)? Born in 1961, Lucy was raped by her father when she was five. Between the ages of five and fourteen, Lucy was also beaten and sexually abused by her oldest brother, then by another of her brothers, then by the lifeguards at the local swimming pool. She was hungry, always hungry, and out of everything it was the hunger she couldn’t stand the most, because food was the weapon, it was a very big weapon, so when she was put into the Laundry on Sean McDermott Street when she was around 15, and she got fed with a sandwich and a cup of tea, she thought maybe she had struck gold, because now she had a bed (shared with three others), and there was food, and she wasn’t being sexually abused, and maybe now she could get a good night’s sleep and have a full belly. But very quickly the beatings started there too, the hard slaps across the face, the strikes with the thin sticks that gave you welts across the backs of your legs. She remembers the strikes if you didn’t get the cleaning of the dormitory right, the cleaning that had to be done at 6.30 in the morning, before breakfast, before the laundry, top to bottom, on your hands and knees, scrubbing the floors….if there was even a spot of dirt in the place like you… ooh! You’d just… you know, it wouldn’t be worth it… and she remembers how it was even worse if you made a mistake with the laundry, if you forgot something, lost something, or if ever you slowed down, took a pause, started to talk, how you’d be beaten to a pulp for this because like you know, your job… you had to do your job right and this was the job you had to do. If you did it wrong you… you… hell to pay. She remembers the Laundry’s frightening front door, the steel bars on the windows, the barbed wire at the top of the walls that were anyway too high to even attempt to climb. She also remembers the old women, the women who weren’t old, except that they looked old. She remembers the way they didn’t know how to talk, how they rocked back and forth, how scared she was of them. That’s what she remembers most about her time in the Laundry, being scared, always so scared, and how she felt like she just couldn’t cope any more…
It seems strange, although perhaps not so surprising, that there has always been a rational explanation for why we cannot listen to these women. It was all so long ago, even if it wasn’t, and times were different then, even if that has never stopped trauma from continuing to wreck people’s lives. Besides, survivors are not reliable witnesses to their own stories because they see things subjectively, they remember poorly, they get confused. Senator McAleese hadn’t originally intended to speak with Magdalene survivors for his investigation. When they were eventually interviewed, the women were asked to explain how what had happened to them constituted abuse. ‘Memories fade with age,’ the senator told a daughter of a Magdalene woman, ‘if your mother was sitting here she probably wouldn’t remember everything.’ Listening to the women might also have meant the McAleese inquiry doing something other than reassuring the nuns it would destroy all copies of Magdalene records received from religious orders, and return the originals. It might have meant a public funeral for the Magdalene women exhumed at High Park, rather than the nuns being allowed to cremate the remains (a contravention of Catholic custom) and inter the ashes in a plot they owned at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. It might have meant an inquiry after the undertakers discovered the bodies of an additional 22 women the Sisters didn’t seem to know anything about, and who were also cremated without being identified. It might have meant the accurate documentation of all the Magdalene women around the country who are buried in unmarked graves. (An unknown number of women are unaccounted for.) Listening might also have meant the laundries not being sold off as commercial concerns, one by one since the 1990s, the buildings’ histories obliterated by the new developments. After the Sisters of Charity transferred the ownership of the Sean McDermott Street Laundry to Dublin City Council in the late 1990s, the new landlords scrambled to sell the site to the highest bidder, which finally arrived in late 2017 in the form of the Japanese hotel chain Toyoko, offering €14.5 million, the chance of a lifetime, said the council, a powerful opportunity to turn the site into a hotel with 350 rooms, into 55 1-bedroom apartments for social housing, into a supermarket and other retail outlets, and yes yes, a Laundry memorial. The Local Authority was solemn: ‘Toyoko has indicated its awareness of the historic and very sensitive nature of the site. They are very happy to include a memorial garden to commemorate former workers in the Magdalene Laundries here and throughout the country.’ The earnest tone was resonant of other avowals, such as the assurances given by Monreda Development, a secretive property development firm linked to Northern Ireland investors, that survivors would have access to the burial ground of a large former Magdalene Laundry in Cork, which Monreda owns. That promise, by now several years old, seems to have got stuck behind the Laundry’s 10-foot, razor-wired walls. Monreda’s plans to build 234 apartments at the site also appear to have stalled, as did similar proposals from the 5 other property development companies that have owned the site since 1996, when the Good Shepherd Sisters sold it. Given that the convent has been derelict for 25 years, it is also unsurprising there have been 4 suspected arson attacks on the site since 2003; after each fire the Gothic redbrick building becomes even further sealed off behind more wires, more fences. What it all ends up meaning is that nobody gets inside, certainly not survivors, who grow older year on year. In any case, it appears our society still wishes to make visible the one kind of Mary, the Mary I prayed to, the blue and white unsullied, the likeness that still saturates our roadsides, our villages, our consciousness. Meanwhile, the other Mary, the penitent-sinner-seductress, the representative of shame, specifically Irish women’s layers of shame, remains hidden, denied, erased.
Dublin, 26 August 2018
There are, they tell us later, several thousand of us. We are many less than the 200,000 who have made the pilgrimage to see the Pontiff, on this occasion of the second ever papal visit to Ireland, although they, too, are far fewer than the expected 500,000. But we are a noisy gang, gathered here at the Garden of Remembrance. We hold up placards. They say: Truth, Justice, Love. They say: Hey Pope Francis, You’re Outta Chances. They say: Release the Magdalene Files Taoiseach. We sing loudly, along to a version of ‘Imagine’ with Brian Kennedy, to a cover of ‘I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free’ with Hozier. We cheer and sob when writer Marian Keyes reads us ‘Late Fragment’, Raymond Carver’s final, aching, poem, written while he was dying of cancer. Our assembly has been organised to start at 3pm, the same time as Pope Francis begins his homily in the wind at the Phoenix Park. In 1979, when Pope John Paul II celebrated a Youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse, Co Galway, he told Ireland’s young people he loved them. The phrase became mythical; for years people wept when they recalled it. But it was fashioned from fairy dust. Now we are asking another Pope for a different kind of recognition. ‘Ireland made our abused people invisible,’ says Keyes, in tears on the stage, ‘We made you inaudible. We made your stories unreliable.’ At 4.30pm, we turn, as a group and in silence. We walk down Parnell Street and onto O’Connell Street, turn left onto Cathal Brugha Street, pass those standing quietly on pavements; continue onto Sean McDermott Street Upper, nod to those peering out from windows, keep going onto Sean McDermott Street Lower, stop and cluster in front of the Laundry, where one after another we put our names to a petition to block the sale of the building. We use black Sharpie markers to write messages on the white sheets that have been hung across the Laundry’s main entrance; we listen to more short speeches, this time from a handful of Magdalene survivors. Someone plays a guitar. 10,000 people end up signing the appeal against the Laundry’s sale, and two weeks after Pope Francis’s visit, a majority of Dublin’s city councillors vote for the State to retain ownership of the Sean McDermott Street building. On the evening of the vote, the small group of women who had taken seats in the public gallery, all of them Magdalene survivors, stood and applauded. What would it mean for these women, and their histories, to become visible? Another survivor, who also took part in the JFM Oral History Project, tried to explain: ‘but that’s not where it ended, you know, you had to go through life knowing you had all of that – you couldn’t tell anybody about it because nobody really wanted to know. And so therefore you were left with the whole thing yourself… you found it really hard to trust anybody, because… you were a very giving person and trusting everybody and then, you know, you found that you had been taken in, so.’
Dublin, February, 2023
Another year, the stirrings of another blustery spring. The surrounding streets are busier, but not a lot else appears to have changed at the former Sean McDermott Street Laundry. The building remains: closed off, broken down, still imposing under cloudy skies. When I get closer, though, I see a sign, pasted onto temporary hoarding near the entrance, telling me the institution is now in the possession of the Office of Public Works (OPW), following a land transfer from Dublin City Council. In late March 2022, the Government announced it was going to finance the establishment of a site of national conscience on the grounds of the former Laundry, explaining that the National Centre for Research and Remembrance will act as a central repository of records related to institutional trauma; as a museum and exhibition space, where future generations can learn about what happened in the institutions, and as a permanent memorial to those who suffered in those institutions. This all seems like good news, and of course it is good news, even if the centre still doesn’t have a budget, even if there are still no plans drawn up for the project; even if members of Open Heart City, the voluntary group of academics and architects upon whose research the government based its ideas, worry it could be at least 10 years before the centre opens; even if many survivors have still not given consent to have their testimonies displayed or even archived in the new centre; even if there are survivors who have said they didn’t know anything about the development until the government announced it, which made them feel dismissed and invisible all over again. The sign on the hoarding tells me the OPW is now in a preliminary phase of work aimed at making the Sean McDermott Street building safe to access, before any future development can begin. A few days ago, 73-year-old Elizabeth Coppin, a Magdalene survivor, lost her case before the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), where she had argued that the Irish State breached her human rights by neither preventing, nor subsequently investigating, the abuse she endured as a child, first in an industrial school, then in three different Magdalene Laundries. ‘In the circumstances,’ wrote UNCAT, ‘the Committee considers that the State party undertook necessary examinations of the complainant’s claims by competent authorities.’ I cross the street, turn to face the Laundry, snap more photographs with my phone. As the rain begins to drive down, and I put my phone in my pocket, I watch a woman in a fur-hooded parka pull her child’s buggy to shelter under the arch of the building’s front door.