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Case Study – Philomena

Philomena grew up in Ireland, and was a very lively and confident teen. Still living at home, her parents became concerned about her levels of confidence, and where it might lead her. Philomena’s mother sought the advice of her local parish priest, who recommended a Magdalene Laundry – he thought that was the best place for Philomena to learn how to be a proper, young catholic woman.

One day, when Philomena was just 16 years old, a priest turned up at Philomena’s door, and informed her he was going to take her away. The priest didn’t explain where she was going to be taken, and Philomena had thought they were going to recruit her as a nun. As it turned out, the reality was something she couldn’t have imagined in her worst nightmares.

Philomena had actually been taken to a Magdalene Laundry, where nuns informed her she was there for own safety and morality. Philomena toiled in the laundry for 8 long years; forced to engage in hard labour in sweaty, damp and steamy conditions, with no ventilation. Philomena tried her best to behave and get on the nuns’ good sides, as she was led on by the hope that one day she could leave if she became the good catholic woman her family, society and God wanted her to be. Over the years Philomena became very subservient and quiet, out of fear for never being able to leave the laundry. Philomena knew of women in their 60s and 70s still in the institution and she didn’t want to be one of them.

Eventually when Philomena was 24, the nuns let her out to become a home-help. Philomena was firmly instructed to obey the owners of the property, and the nuns still kept a close eye on her. Much like in the Magdalene Laundry, Philomena worked incredibly hard, starting her duties at 5am and falling into bed at 11pm. Philomena received no more than pocket money, which just about covered her personal toiletries. Philomena felt very bitter about how she was treated – she had committed no crime yet she was incarcerated like a prisoner for all those years.

Philomena learnt of another woman who was working in a big house not far from where she worked, who was also incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry. Philomena managed to meet the other woman, and together they planned to run away to England.

Philomena and her friend successfully fled Ireland, and upon arriving into London, they were both approached by members of a local Catholic church. The church offered them both a room, got them work and supported them until they got on their feet.

After several years of working in London, Philomena ended up marrying, having children and moved outside of London. Despite leading a happy life in her new England chapter, life wasn’t easy for Philomena. Because of the working conditions she endured, Philomena developed breathing issues and she never again had the confidence she once had. Philomena found it a challenge to leave her local area, and from fear of being picked up and taken away again, she couldn’t manage going to work. Philomena’s family had a tough time making ends meet.

In later life, Philomena heard about IWSSN and the organisation’s Women’s Group. Philomena’s friend who already attended IWSSN’s Women’s Group meetings encouraged her to come down to London and join the group. Philomena felt she had an affinity with Irish institutions and liked the idea of getting to know others who had similar experiences to her. Philomena made lots of friends and finally started to get her confidence back.

When the Irish government’s Restorative Justice Scheme was launched for Magdalene Women, IWSSN caseworkers helped her apply for a financial award and because of the length of time she spent in the laundry, she secured around €92k. Philomena was given a €50k lump sum and the rest is being given to her in monthly instalments – and this is all on top of an Irish pension. Finally, for the first time in decades, Philomena had a good income. With this award she has been able to make her house more comfortable and livable for old age and the money is making her day-to-day living so much easier. Philomena is now not afraid of getting the gas bill.

Philomena is very grateful for the Irish government’s apology to the Magdalene Women and for admitting the women were wronged. Philomena didn’t ever think she’d live to see the day when she’d receive an apology and redress for what happened to her – an experience that she tried to move on from, but always felt haunted by.