Case Study – Mary C

Three years ago last month, the Irish government issued a state apology to survivors of the country’s infamous Magdalene laundries. That apology meant everything to me, just like it did for thousands of other women incarcerated for little more than being confident or poor. I bore deep scars from my time in a laundry.

Born in a Mother-and-Baby Home in Dublin, Ireland, my mother –just like 35,000 others – was forced to give me up because she wasn’t married. The court ordered for my transferral to an orphanage in Kilkenny when I was two.

The orphanage wasn’t a homely place. Love and care were absent. The days were long and hard, starting abruptly at 6.30am. After prayers, breakfast and mass, we earned our keep with hours of exhausting chores. Education was minimal, leaving us feeling totally unprepared for the outside world.

The nuns constantly reminded me that good Catholic girls obeyed authority and that my boldness would inevitably land me in trouble. And so it transpired when, aged just 12 years old, I was cast as a deviant. Yet I had done nothing wrong.

I was accused of starting a fire in the orphanage, ripped from my bed and thrown into a car by nuns and a social worker. Scared, frightened and confused, I had no idea where I was going, or why.

I was incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry for two long years and was coerced to wash dirty linen daily. I’ve carefully blocked those two hellish years from my memory.

When I finally got out, the same social worker transferred me to an infirmary. There, I was bullied by my peers and the nuns never ceased to find more elaborate ways to torture us. One nun would wet her cane and rub salt on it. I learned not to cry, either that or the punishment would be worse.

When I turned 16 the Irish state no longer had responsibility for me, so I found myself work and somewhere to stay. I thought I would relish a normal Irish life and freedom. Unfortunately, the reality was very different.

I had no formal qualifications and a barrage of stigma to fight against. I was considered subhuman and not worthy of the most basic of rights. Emblematic of that is how, when I was 17, I was raped by a police officer. I couldn’t report the crime. The authorities would accuse me of lying and likely imprison me rather than my attacker.

A year later, aged 18, I finally gave up on Ireland. What should have been a short trip to visit my sister turned into a whole new chapter in London and the rest of my life hitherto.

I lived from pillar-to-post, working tough jobs and constantly felt like I was in everyone’s way. I didn’t have much luck with relationships either, having three children by two abusive men. I eventually escaped, registering as homeless and spending years moving from one sink council estate to the next.

After my sons flew the nest, my landlord served an eviction notice. At 40 years old I found myself homeless once more. But I had a glimmer of hope: I found out about an Irish survivor-led advice service in north London.

Phyllis Morgan from the Irish Women Survivors Support Network (IWSSN), compassionately supported me and secured a beautiful council flat. Phyllis was my guardian angel: from having nothing and no-one, I suddenly had a home, support workers and counselling. From that point on, my life only got better.

Shortly after being re-housed the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, issued a state apology to Magdalene laundry women. All my life I’d walked down the street hanging my head in shame. After that apology, I could finally hold my head up high with pride. I had survived.

I always knew what had happened to me was wrong. Beneath the moralistic language were corrupt motivations for the laundries’ existence. They served a dual purpose: increasing profit and policing women’s behaviour. We were nothing more than slaves for the religious congregations.

Despite my hardships, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Others remained homeless, grappled with addictions or even took their own lives. I was lucky because I survived, and now I am truly free; in my heart, mind and soul.

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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.

 

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Case study – Mary

Mary, aged 74, is a Survivor who fled Ireland in her late teens. Mary was placed in an industrial school at a very young age and spent her childhood there. Upon leaving the institution, Mary faced extreme discrimination, finding it impossible to secure a stable job and leave her past behind her. Mary left Ireland in the 1950s to start the next chapter of her life in the UK.

Settling in London, Mary married and had her own family. Sadly it wasn’t a happy marriage, due to violence she experienced from her husband. In later life, IWSSN helped Mary to trace her sister who was born in a mother-and-baby home and who Mary had never met. Overjoyed about their reunion, Mary enjoyed spending time getting to know her long-lost sister and finally felt a sense of belonging.

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