Have you ever heard of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland? Just recently, President Higgins presided over an apology to some of the living survivors of these horrific institutions. Here is just one woman’s story.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? The barbeques are in full swing here in Ireland at the moment – and it’s as if someone “turned the summer on” about four weeks ago!
I’m sipping on a refreshing cup of Lyon’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter. If this is your first time here you’re very welcome, I hope you enjoy reading this Letters from Ireland (if you would like to start receiving a FREE Letter from Ireland straight to your inbox every week click here).
Let me ask you a question: How important is your name to you? That may seem like a ridiculous question given the fact that a name is so fundamental to our identity and how we interact with all the people around us. In this week’s letter, we meet just one of the many Irish women who had her name “removed” as a young girl – but somehow survived life in an institution hidden away from everyday Irish society.
Kathleen was just twelve years of age when the Parish Priest suggested to her father that she should attend a more challenging school in Dublin. She was considered such a clever girl, just a little rebellious – and it seemed like a good idea to all. Besides, she would be accompanied by her younger sister and not be lonely at the boarding school.
After arriving at the Sisters of Charity school at Stanhope Street in Dublin, Kathleen and her sister settled into their dormitory and got ready for school the next Monday. They quickly settled into a daily routine but after three months Kathleen was pulled aside by a nun and informed that she felt she had enough education at that point. It was now time to go to work in the real world. Kathleen protested – the reason she came to Dublin was to further her education and she wanted to speak with her father. The nun said not to worry, she herself would speak with her father and make sure he approved this move. The nod came a few days later – Kathleen and her sister were to join the laundry section of the institution.
Life had already changed for the two girls in many ways since their arrival in Dublin, but did not anticipate the regime that the nuns imposed on the “employees” of their in-house laundry. The next day, they sisters were made subjects of that regime.
As they reported for work early the next morning, they learned that the institution no longer had a use for their names – from that point onwards Kathleen would be referred to as number 64 and her sister as number 63. In fact, given that speaking was forbidden between the girls at all time, they had no need to use these names.
Almost immediately, Kathleen’s rebelliousness came to the fore – she spoke with her sister freely and in front of the nuns. But this sort of wayward behaviour brought her to a series of punishments – mostly involving Kathleen being placed into isolation for hours at a time.
The years went by and the girls withdrew into a narrow mode of survival and routine. Each day was the same as before – they looked out for each other and asserted themselves when the conformity just got to be too much. All the while, the precious years of their early womanhood passed by on the other side of the Magdalene Laundry wall.
At the age of 16, Kathleen was given an opportunity to leave the institution – she was offered training as a midwife at a hospital in England. She left as soon as she could – and was soon joined by her sister.
She was “Kathleen” again. She left Ireland – hoping never to return.
Kathleen trained as a midwife, met a man and they started a family together. She noticed she just wanted to talk to people so much – to hear how they felt and know their stories. She also felt a fierce, protective love for her own children – letting them know how she loved them through her actions and words each day. She never spoke of her time in the Laundry to any member of her family.
Many years later, she received a call from her sister. The government in Ireland were issuing a formal apology to the women who were in the Magdalene Laundries – some were held for a few precious years, like Kathleen – and others for most of their working lives. Kathleen’s children were aged 38 and 42 – and she told them about her experiences for the first time.
The last Irish Magdalene Laundry (or “Magdalen asylum”) closed in County Waterford in 1996.
Last week, Kathleen returned to Ireland for the first time since the age of 16. She joined 200 other women who attended a special function at the Presidential residence. Our President, Michael D. Higgins – apologised on behalf of the the state, the government and the people of this country to these women for the way in which they were discarded, abused and forgotten for so many years.
Kathleen and her sister were glad of this formal recognition for their experiences – and that of the tens of thousands of other Irish women who moved through these institutions – silent for years – many now dead and many more buried in unmarked graves within their grounds. Yes, they were glad for this recognition – and then they returned home to their families and loved ones.
You can see a video of the President’s speech to these women and their families by clicking here.
How about you? Did any of your family, friends or loved ones spend time in any such an institution? Do leave a comment below and let us know.
That’s it for this week. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.
Slán for now, Mike & Carina.
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