Saturday 17 March 2018

'I wish to Christ I'd had a baby...'

On February 19, 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised in the Dáil to the women who had been incarcerated in Ireland's Magdalene laundries. A new book, 'Whispering Hope', tells the harrowing stories of five survivors. In this extract Marina Sullivan, who was placed in a Magdalene laundry after the death of her parents, talks about her experiences

Hard graft: Exhausted faces in a hot laundry room in Dublin city
Hard graft: Exhausted faces in a hot laundry room in Dublin city
Whispering Hope

'I dreamed of going to England. I just wanted to get out of Ireland because it was such misery. In Ireland, I was always hungry. In Ireland, I was an orphan. In Ireland, I was a sinner.

It was while daydreaming of England that I burnt my hand very badly. One day, though, pressing a skirt, I slipped and fell. I put out my arm to stop myself, but it landed against the press, scalding the whole of my lower arm. I screamed in agony, smelling the burning skin, and as the day went on I watched as the blister spread leaving my arm red raw. By the time we queued for bed I was crying in pain. I couldn't help it - my arm was a burning, blistering lump of charred meat.

Hearing my sobs, Mother Scholastic grabbed me by my burned arm and I screamed out in agony. She didn't care. She barely glanced at my arm.

'Stop that nonsense,' she said and shook me hard. 'Just stop it, or I'll give you something to cry for.' It hurt for days and days, and the dye from my dress worked its way into the wound, making it worse. But I didn't dare complain, and I cried silently, because the nuns seemed to like to see us in pain. It was part of our penance. They were very hard and spiteful.

One day I broke a cup at breakfast time. Drinking tea, I put my cup too close to the edge of the table and when I put the saucer of dripping on top of it, it toppled over and smashed on to the floor. The crash reverberated round the refectory, and everyone turned round and watched as the slivers of china shot in all directions. The tea made a terrible big puddle. My face burned with embarrassment. I held my breath, my heart sinking, wondering what would happen next.

'Go and fetch the mop and clear up that mess!' screamed Sister Leo, towering over me. 'Now pick up every piece of china - the splinters too.' When I had finished, and Sister Leo had checked to see that I had done it properly, she fetched some rope, looped it round the handle of the cup, and made me wear it round my neck. I felt so stupid. And she made me wear that cup round my neck for three days and three nights. Everyone stared at me, and at night when I turned over in bed, the jagged edge poked into me, waking me.

For the next three days there was no chair for me at the table in the refectory. I had to eat my food off the floor like a dog. Everyone stared at me, but the worst thing was my sore knees. I nearly cried with the pain of them.

The nuns were bad to me, but they were worse to the girls who came from the county home in Enniscorthy. They had nobody in the world. Most of them had had babies that were fostered or given for adoption, and their families wouldn't have them home again. They had disgraced them.

I didn't know anything about men. I had never been with a man. Sometimes I wish to Christ I had had a baby like those other girls as then he or she might come looking for me now. But I never had one.

One day, when I was 19, Mother Scholastic sent for me. I walked down the tunnel and into the parlour to find my Uncle John sitting there. I liked Uncle John. He was Mammy's brother, and had helped us when Mammy was dying. I had seen him now and then when I'd been living with Aunt Lily, and he was always kind to me. There was a young man sitting beside him. I hadn't a clue who he was.

'Marina?' the young man said. 'Is that you?'

'Well, I'm Fidelma now,' I said, wondering who the slight built man was.

'Marina, I'm Philip. Philip, your brother.'

I looked at him in confusion, trying to see the little boy I had once known.

'Marina, I've been searching for you for years,' he said. 'But what's happened to you? You're skin and bone?' He was crying, and I felt like crying too. But Mother Scholastic was staring at me, and before I could answer, she cut in.

'Fidelma is a good worker and she's happy here,' she said. I cried when they had gone. I didn't know what to think. I wanted to leave the laundry so much, in one way, but I was terrified too. I lay in bed that night, thinking about Philip, wondering how life would have been if Mam and Daddy hadn't died. Three weeks later my uncle and Philip came back, and this time they were insistent that I go with them."



"I met a girl up the road called Moira who was good to me. One evening she said, 'There's a bit of a dance on, Marina. Will you come with me?'

The men were all lined up on one side of the room, and the women were on the other side. We stood with the women, trying to look as if we were enjoying ourselves. Then this dark, handsome boy came across to us. We danced, then we talked a bit and he told me his name was Sean. When I was 21, Sean and I got married. He seemed a good man. I liked him, and I wanted the security. It was nice to have someone, because for years I'd had nobody. We were happy. Well, at first we were. I wanted children, I always had. So when I found out I was pregnant, I was over the moon. Sean was too. But one evening when Sean was out drinking, as he so often was, I had a terrible pain and I started to bleed. I was so frightened. I called the doctor, who came to visit me in our rooms in Kilburn. But he said, 'I'm sorry to tell you, but you've lost the baby.'

I became pregnant two more times after that, but I suffered more miscarriages. The third time Sean came home to find me lying on the floor, not able to move. He called an ambulance and I was rushed to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. I nearly died, and never got pregnant again. I try not to dwell on it too much, because if I did, I would go mad."


Whispering Hope: The True Story of the Magadalene Women

Steven O'Riordan

Orion, pbk, 304 pages, €14.99

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