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Magdalene women finally lift veil on dark Irish chapter

Survivors gather to recall life in laundries

Lies and deceit shroud the dark history of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. This week, the veil has been lifted by the survivors who have suffered so terribly for so long.

The 230 women and their families have been received in the capital for the first time for the Dublin Honours Magdalene event.

For many women, it was the first time their stories were being heard – and the first time they shared their experiences collectively.

The torturous slave labour of the 11,000 women who worked in laundries run by Catholic orders has finally been fully acknowledged.

On Tuesday, they received an apology from President Michael D Higgins. Yesterday, they gathered in the Mansion House to give an insight into the shocking reality of life in a laundry.

For some, industrial life was all they knew for decades. Mary O’Connor from Julianstown, Co Meath, spent 30 years in an “exhaustive list” of laundries. Mary Fogarty (75), from Co Galway, also explained she was “in them all. Newross, Cork, Newry, Waterford…”.

“I was put in the orphanage at about five. And then I was put into the laundries – for nothing. For what they did, I’ll never, ever forgive them,” she said.

For nothing, was the reason Mary gave for why she was in the laundry. For Pauline Stewart, placed in the Donnybrook Laundries aged 25, it was to put her “out of society”, she said.

“I ran away when I was 27. There was a key left in the lock and I just walked out and never went back,” Pauline said.

And running away was one of the only ways to escape their nightmare.

Diane Croghan (77) recalled walking from St Joseph’s in Wexford to Dublin aged 13.

“It took me a long time. And I didn’t even know my age, until I saw my birth cert. I passed myself off as 16 and went into the domestic service – it was the best thing to go into, because you were sure of your bed and you were sure of your food,” she said.

Diane explained she had been fostered by a family as a toddler but when her foster father passed away, she was put into the laundry aged eight.

Another lady who shared her story was Mary Creighton. She calls herself the “accidental Magdalene” as she found herself trapped in a Magdalene Laundry for 77 days when she was pregnant in 1974.

Now 67 years old and living in Liverpool, Mary said her family GP in Mayo informed a local nun that she was expecting a child, and it was not long before the 22-year-old was told that she would be going to Dunboyne, Co Meath, to have the baby.

However, on the way to Dunboyne, the car in which Mary, the nun, and a social worker were travelling in “took a detour”.

“We pulled up outside a draconian building. The door opened and this nun, about six foot tall and red in the face, stood there,” said Mary.

“I was told, ‘you’re staying here for the night, the driver is tired’. In the morning time, I was marched to the laundry.”

Mary was forced to work in Hydepark laundry for six months while pregnant.

When her baby girl was born, she noticed how the newborn was being referred to as ‘it’.

“Never ‘she’,” Mary recalled.

She was then asked to sign her daughter’s birth cert – although she was not told it was a birth cert, and within two-and-a-half hours, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital and given medication she said was suitable for people with “pyschopathic tendencies”.

Mary said she had accepted the apology offered by Michael D Higgins at the reception in Áras an Uachtaráin on Tuesday.

Geraldine Coll (69) from Ardmore, Co Waterford said that her family were under the impression she was being educated in Dublin and were paying for boarding school while she was working in the laundry. As letters went unanswered and undelivered, it was not until two-and-a-half years after first arriving at the laundry that Geraldine and her sibling were able to inform their mother of the truth, when they were allowed out to see her when she was ill. It transpired their mother had been turned away when she tried to visit the girls.

Like Mary, Geraldine was very grateful for the President’s apology yesterday. “I went up to him and shook his hand. And I told him I hoped he got to be the President again, because he was the best President Ireland ever had,” she said.

The women who gathered this week came from near and far to share in this momentous occasion.

Phil Conway (59) travelled for the event from Sydney, Australia, with her son Eoin. She was in Ballinasloe orphanage, in Clifton orphanage and then Hydepark laundry.

“It was a hard decision in the beginning [to come back to Ireland], but I have the support of the boys and my husband,” she said.

Yesterday morning the women participated in a ‘Listening Exercise’ round-table conversations about how they would like to be commemorated. Then last night, the women were invited to join in a farewell dinner with 600 guests in attendance at Citywest Hotel and entertainment from Riverdance. For years, these women worked in silence, ate in silence, suffered in silence. This week, they have been listened to, celebrated and welcomed home.

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