“Reflect here upon their lives”
Meadbh Gallagher examines the controversy behind the Goldenbridge orphanage, the Magdalene laundries and other church institutions for women and children.
Today, if you walk into the centre of Stephen’s Green, just to the right of where a magnolia is stretching in full blossom sits a new wooden bench. On it is a metal plaque inscribed with small faceless heads and the words: “To the women who worked in the Magdalene laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities – reflect here upon their lives.”
In his autobiography, Pat Tierney explains that for the greater part of this century, the state paid the churches to keep people in institutions, “usually situated behind high stone walls”. The Magdalene laundries were just part of the structure of orphanages, industrial schools and asylums catering for the needs of this mass internment policy. Thousands of women went through them, many died in them. The internees of the industrial schools and `orphanages’ were often the children of the `penitents’ doing laundry labour in the Magdalene institutions.
Industrial schools alone detained over 70,000 children between1900 and 1970. Pat Tierney was one of these. On the 4 January this year, Pat hanged himself on church grounds in Drumcondra, Dublin. Hours earlier, he had rung Patricia McDonnell to talk about the day a memorial would be dedicated to the Magdalene women and children, a day both of them had worked for – Pat for three years, Patricia for 35. Last Saturday, the memorial bench was unveiled at the site Pat and Patricia had chosen in Stephen’s Green. The President, Mary Robinson described the occasion as “historic”.
There are a lot of church grounds in Drumcondra. Travel up Grace Park Road behind the Archbishop’s palace and your view to the left is constantly blocked by stone walls, up to fifteen feet in height, enclosing Catholic church property. Near the top of the road is High Park Convent; it was here in 1993 that the Magdalene women suddenly became the subject of public controversy. The owners of the convent, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, had ordered the mass exhumation of 133 bodies of Magdalene laundry women buried in a section of the convent grounds. The reason? They had sold the 12-acre section to developers for around one million pounds.
Re-interred in a double grave on the edge of Glasnevin cemetery, the 133 bodies have been joined by 42 more. Under the heading `St Mary’s High Park, In Loving Memory of’, 175 names and dates of death are listed on grey stone, the first in April 1858, the last in December 1994. There are no religious trimmings on the grave.
Despite the publicity which accompanied the 1993 exhumation, the question still lingers: who are the Magdalene women, that they can be so easily discarded, without explanation and in such numbers?
“The nuns have been at pains to point out that the Magdalen women were poor illiterate destitute but I would dispute that totally”, Patricia McDonnell says. “My sister-in-law’s father had a farm, a butcher’s shop and a dairy herd which supplied all the people within a 10-mile radius with their daily milk.” In the early 1940s, the girl, Chrissie, was taken from a Galway village and driven by the local priest to a Magdalen laundry in Dun Laoghaire.
“Her parents had both died and she was the only daughter in a family of nine. She was 16. For some reason, the parish priest decided that this girl was “in moral danger”. He told her brother he’d got her a job in Dublin and the 21-year-old had no reason to doubt the priest’s integrity.
“She simply disappeared into the system. When her brother would inquire how she was the priest would suggest they ought to leave her alone. When she came out nearly 20 years later she was really in quite a disgusting condition and weighed about four stone.”
“History is pregnant and the truth is pushing out and there’s no virtue in silence anymore. The ones who wouldn’t bow and the ones who wouldn’t swallow prove you can’t destroy all spirits with some lies”.
from a poem for the Magdalene women by Maighread Medbh
Another Galway woman, who had an institutional background similar to the Goldenbridge cases highlighted by the `Dear Daughter’ television documentary, remembers the threat that she’d be sent to the Magdalene “asylum” as punishment for misbehaving. As her mother was ill and her father couldn’t get work Maria Madden [not her real name] and her two brothers and one sister were all put in orphanages in the late `40s. From the age of five to 16, she was in St Ann’s industrial school, Lenaboy, in Galway. During this time both her parents died. Maria remembers nothing from the age of five to 11. Then she remembers too much. For example, in class, a nun, Sr Coleman, used half of a brush handle to beat the children with. “She’d belt you black and blue. You’d be hit on your hands and then she’d follow you around the classroom belting you on your back and legs and arms.” Another punishment was getting your hair cut. “One girl had hers cut with a breadknife. That was your punishment, to make you look as bad as they could.”
The stories come out in parts, as though they’re caught in a mesh. “People say I should forget my childhood, but should they forget theirs? Should we only talk about childhoods if they are happy ones?”
Maria was put in the school laundry at 11 or 12, “a frightening place, with big basins, a tank and dripping water”. In the laundry she washed the children’s’ own clothes. The nuns’ laundry was sent out to the Magdalene. Next door in the furnace the clothes were dried and she would `tease’ the straw in mattresses before putting it back in again.
“Someone said to me `it’s like something out of Dickens’ and it made me think, am I being believed here, because it’s not something that far back, it’s something much nearer than that.”
A school photograph shows Maria and her class in their best pinafores, which were worn once or twice a year. Maria points to one face: “I don’t know what she done, but this girl was taken away when she was about 15 and put in the Magdalen laundry as punishment. I don’t know if she ever got out”.
“We were threatened that if we didn’t get our period we’d be put in the `sanatorium’. I would be terrified. A group of girls younger than me, their periods all came at the same time in the way they often do when girls are together, and the nun began not to believe them. She’d make some of them take their knickers off and show her their knickers.”
Summing up her experience in St Ann’s, Maria says: “You looked after the younger children, you looked after yourself and you were a child yourself.” She recalls when she was 12, herself and another girl were given two babies to mind. “We used to have to get up in the middle of the night to feed them. One night I got up and put the ring on to heat up the milk. Somehow I fell asleep and woke up to smoke everywhere and nuns running down the corridor. Sr Coleman gave out to us for that but didn’t hit us.”
“I have gone through so many revolving doors, psychological revolving doors that I’ve never seemed to get out of anything. Whether in or out, I was still locked into the system.”
I asked Maria what she had thought of the Dear Daughter programme. “I was bored”, she admits, “I suppose `cause I’ve been there; I thought I’d hear something different.”
A day after her sixteenth birthday in 1965 Maria was taken to Dublin and put to work for a wealthy family. For a further fifteen years she worked as a domestic servant, starting out earning 10 shillings a week and walking away in 1980 with ?15. “I was his punch bag,” she says of the man she worked for, a reputable doctor. “Where were my rights? Why didn’t I report him? I didn’t know I had any. You were brought up to believe you had no rights: you were there to wait on other people, to do exactly as they told you. You didn’t argue, you never did anything for yourself, nobody ever did anything for you, you did everything for everybody else – that was your life.”
Maria went to counselling when she got married but still has low self esteem, she says. “I’ve never felt 100% good about myself, the damage has been done.”
“I don’t love myself, I can give love but can’t accept it; you can do so much for people and not accept it back. For years I was told I was nothing, that I’d never be anything. I am something, but I can’t convince myself.”
She now works for a woman who gives out about “all the orphanage stories”. “They’re all going for the money now,” the woman is fond of telling her. Maria finds it hard to take, this constant doubting of the stories of abuse. “Those affected have every right to raise their stories. Our rights were taken from us when we were young, we’re entitled to have them back now. The two nuns I’d want to get at are dead and gone. I just want to never allow it to happen again.”
Kathleen Maher describes the effect of the Goldenbridge stories on her as “like opening a filing cabinet and getting to look at all these files inside”. She could relate to the Goldenbridge experience. She was born in St Patrick’s Home for Unmarried Mothers on the Navan Road in Dublin. Her mother was one of thousands who found herself pregnant and unmarried in the 1940s, her family unable to meet her needs. St Patrick’s at this time had 500 babies, it was severely overcrowded. Separated at eight months, Kathleen and her mother lived parallel lives in religious institutions. She describes a childhood “of distance and denial” and then spending all her life trying to get a profile of a relationship between herself and her mother. While Kathleen was in St Philomena’s home in Stillorgan, her mother was transferred to the Magdalen laundry in Donnybrook “as part of her penance”. At 11, Kathleen was transferred to the Lakelands industrial school in Sandymount, another institution with its share of cruelty to its children. She has heard the view that as corporal punishment was the norm outside, the nuns in these institutions were only doing what was expected of them. She asks: “Does that justify such behaviour?
“The record of priests and nuns is not good. They should not be told that everything is all right now. They should answer the questions exactly as a criminal would.”
In Sandymount, Kathleen mixed for the first time with children who had known life on the outside and had experienced family life. She also learnt street language there and after trying out the words “fuck off” on a nun, her punishment was to be transferred back to Stillorgan. “I was sent back to the place I hated, to mind children and to clean. I had no experience of childcare and was just a potwalloper.
“The system was so structured; they used this internal structure so that they always had some arrangement made to relocate someone, this collusion amongst themselves and then of course, the courts and the rest of society helped them.”
A friend of Kathleen’s was transferred to the Donnybrook Magdalene laundry after she came in one night with love bites on her neck. Twice she escaped and twice she was brought back to the laundry by Gardai. Kathleen was threatened with the laundry when she was late back another night but her reaction may have saved her from ending up in the same place her mother had passed through. “I thought at the time I needed to show some strength so I said, well, if you’re putting me away then put me away.” Instead, now aged 15, she was sent out as a domestic servant, then into a series of jobs working for doctors and on ward duties in hospitals.
“I have gone through so many revolving doors, psychological revolving doors that I’ve never seemed to get out of anything. Whether in or out, I was still locked into the system, with no way to unravel everything.”
“I don’t know what she done, but this girl was taken away when she was about 15 and put in the Magdalen laundry as punishment. I don’t know if she ever got out”.
Kathleen Maher, Patricia McDonnell and Maria Madden have two things in common other than their connections with institutional care in Ireland. None of them solely blame `the nuns’ but see society and the state as colluders. Kathleen Maher views it like this: “The church colluded with the state, and society, dictated to by the church, readily fed into that”. All three also share a concern for women and children at risk or in care today. Patricia McDonnell is concerned there is not enough monitoring of children in care. “I think we still pay lip service to our care for the underprivileged. We discarded some of our people without a thought to their rights or to our constitution in the past and the bit about all children being equal has been abandoned left, right and centre. One only has to look at the recent Kelly Fitzgerald case to confirm that.”
Of most concern to Patricia is not the fact that there is no legal obligation on religious institutions to keep records, nor is there an obligation on them to publish existing records.
As a community worker, day to day Kathleen Maher sees women trying to develop better support systems for women and children than currently exist. “The question is,” she says, “what will be the question we will be asking ourselves about our care of children in 25 years?” An unmarried woman who becomes pregnant today goes on a rollercoaster for services, Kathleen says. “She may have to move to find these services and find herself in a situation where she knows nobody. As she goes through the system of reporting she’s homeless and has no money, nothing is concrete; everything is ad hoc, so that there is nothing to suggest women can feel safe when they leave home or when they find themselves pregnant.
“They often end up more vulnerable than they were, and often to the detriment of their health. They become more disconnected from mainstream services, their options become limited and they are at risk.”
In spite of the continuing hostile environment for single mothers, ten per cent of families in the 26 Counties are now lone parent families and about 17% of births occur outside marriage, compared to 5.4% in 1981. This trend follows the same pattern throughout Europe. In addition, more mothers are opting to keep their babies rather than have them adopted. In 1982, 18.6% of all adoption orders went to women applying to adopt their own children. In 1992, the figure was 43.6%. State provisions of services however, lag far behind. Despite the realities, the system is still geared to deal solely with women who are married or attached.
Kathleen Maher notes how a woman still has to fulfil one of three conditions to be eligible for a Dublin Corporation flat: “She needs to be married, living with a fella, or have a child”. So in her own right a woman has no right to housing.
Today the number of Irish women seeking abortions abroad continues to rise. The state continues to export a problem. Throughout the period of institutionalisation for the women featured above, children were being exported. The treatment of women as a empty vessel and children as a commodity was vividly being demonstrated through a child migration policy overseen by the churches and implemented by the state. Two thousand children were taken from their mothers and sent abroad, some ending up on the same ships as English children being exported under a smiliar policy exercised from the end of the last century up until the 1960s by Britain. In the Irish case, not only did the birth mother have to give up all rights to the child, but the adoptive mother had to guarantee to give up work, not use contraceptives and to give the child a Catholic education. The Archbishop who devised these rules, John Charles McQuaid, frustrated attempts to bring in adoption legislation in the Irish Free State until his church virtually wrote the eventual Adoption Act of 1952. The same Archbishop presided over the majority of the state’s industrial schools and Magdalene institutions.
Last Saturday, there was not a church collar to be seen at the ceremony to dedicate a park bench to the Magdalene women. Several church representatives had been invited. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin had been approached to give even a one-line statement. Nothing was forthcoming. The silence surrounding the failure of the churches (not all institutions were Catholic) and the state to acknowledge their guilt continues, the mainstream media duly obliging. Focus instead is on individual nuns and priests who are given the benefit of trial and appeal by media. The former internees of the institutions are left to be doubted or left to be written off as `victims’ or as history.
As Kathleen Maher finishes talking to me, she pulls from her pocket a letter received by a woman regarding the absence of her daughter from school in Ballymun a month ago. Under `penalties’ the parent is warned her child could be “placed under the guardianship or committed to an industrial school”. The Act under which this penalty falls, the School Attendance Act 1926, was one of those used to institutionalise children this century. For this mother and child, it’s not all in the past.
Two images relating to her childhood come from Maria Madden as she talks. One is a recurring nightmare: she is being sucked out the landing window of St Ann’s by the wind. In the other, she is looking out the same window saying, “I want to be the birds, I want to be the trees.” Both are still with her.