Hilary Brown and Matt McGarry C O R K, Ireland, Jan. 26
A sudden spate of TV exposťs,
docudramas and a major motion picture have
brought to light one of the most shocking episodes in the history of
Catholic Church in Ireland the existence of the now-notorious
laundries," a sanctified form of slavery.
Operated by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order, the laundries were
slave labor camps for generations of young girls thought to be unfit
in Irish society. Girls who had become pregnant, even from rape,
were illegitimate, or orphaned, or just plain simple-minded, girls
too pretty and therefore in "moral danger" all ran the
risk of being locked
up and put to work, without pay, in profit-making, convent
"wash away their sins."
They were completely cut off from their families, and many lost
them forever. Stripped of their identities, the girls were given
instead of names. They were forbidden to speak, except to pray. If
any rule or tried to escape, the nuns beat them over the head with
keys, put them into solitary confinement or shipped them off to a
Over a period of 150 years, an estimated 30,000 women were forced
brutal penance, carried out in secret, behind high convent walls.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the laundries began to close,
power of the Church in Ireland diminished and as social attitudes
puritanical. Incredibly, the last Magdalene laundry to shut down was
We Were the Living Dead
Mary Norris, 69, was committed to a convent laundry in Cork for two
An articulate, intelligent woman, she was transferred from an
age 15 because she was "disobedient."
Her number was 30. On one occasion, she said, the nuns actually
girls to pray for those held in Soviet prison camps, a bitter irony,
considers the convent laundries "an Irish gulag."
Though it was clearly very painful for her, she took us around the
now abandoned where she had suffered so much."In the winter, it
cold, and in the summer, it was like the desert, it was so hot with
steam," she said. "We were the living dead.
We weren't treated as human beings, as individuals. We were just
part of the
workforce. Nothing more, nothing less." Guilt by Illegitimacy
64, spent a total of four years in two different convent laundries.
14 when she was virtually kidnapped by two women who had determined
was "in moral danger."
Williams liked to take a walk in the evenings, after working all day
bed and breakfast in Dublin. She said the women considered her much
attractive to stay out of trouble. She was only 14 when she ended up
convent laundry outside town as "Number 100," and locked
into a cell each
She says she almost never saw daylight."Oh, it was
dreadful," she said. "I
cried and cried all the time, and kept asking why, why wasn't I
And I would write begging letters to my mother. When I finally got
was already dead and buried three years. But I was never told, even
was writing, still writing letters to her."
She has since learned that the nuns stopped all her mail.
Her mother wasn't married, so Sadie was considered to be guilty of
There have been no direct reparations from the Irish Catholic Church
tens of thousands of women it used as slave labor. Nor has there
formal apology. It's not even known how many victims of the
laundries are still alive: they are not organized, and many don't
talk about this terrible part of their past.
Very few Churchmen in Ireland will comment on the scandal.
An exception is Willie Walsh, the Bishop of Killaloe.
Over a cup of tea in his residence, he said that it is "a
source of pain and
shame." "These girls were rejected by society, and the
Church in some way
thought it was giving refuge to these girls," he says. "I
Magdalene laundries was in some instances a form of slavery."
The Rev. Patrick O'Donovan is more outspoken.
"It's an appalling scandal," he says. "You could
compare them to
concentration camps. The nuns thought they were doing good. They
realize the damage they were doing."
Mary Norris has campaigned to have a simple memorial built in the
where she was held.
Thirty names are engraved on a simple headstone; dating from 1876 to
Some women spent their entire lives in these institutions. Having
off from their families, they had nowhere to go.Norris says she no
hates the nuns who oppressed her. "If I hated them," she
says, "they'd still
be winning. They'd still have control over me."
The DVD film Magdalen is available
from the National Secular Society