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Tuesday 23 April 2019

Forgotten Maggies immortalised in heart-rending documentary

JUSTICE: Maureen O'Sullivan's case was major milestone
JUSTICE: Maureen O'Sullivan's case was major milestone

Trish O'Dea

MORE THAN 16 years after their remains were controversially exhumed from a forgotten corner of a Dublin convent, the 155 Magdalens of High Park Convent are again in the news as the barring of Magdalen survivors from the Redress Board causes uproar.

Documentary-maker Steven O'Riordan unearthed the full level of official confusion about who exactly these women were and when they died during his research for a forthcoming film, The Forgotten Maggies.

On May 25, 1993, the Department of the Environment issued a licence to Sister Ann Marie Ryan, Superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, High Park, Drumcondra, Dublin for the exhumation of the remains of 133 women, interred in Saint Mary's Private Graveyard at the convent. The licence stipulated that each set of remains be either reinterred at Glasnevin Cemetery or cremated within 48 hours.

Of the original 133 names listed on the licence, 30 were not located. An additional 32 remains were identified which were not included in the licence, and a further 20 unmarked and unidentified sets of remains were disinterred. In all, 155 sets of remains were exhumed.

Only one set of remains -- that of Elizabeth Henderson, who died in 1983 -- was sought by her family and re-interred in the family plot.

News of the exhumation caused a public outcry at the time -- even without details of the fact that many of these women were literally wiped from history, with no markings on their graves and/or no trace of their names in the nuns' records.

At the time Sr Angela Fahy, Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, High Park wrote to the Irish Independent, on Monday September 6, 1993: "The exhumation work took place in a small cemetery plot which was part of an 11-and-a-half acre site which we had to dispose of in order to raise funds to pay the costs of a new and modern housing complex for the women who live in our care today... We released the cemetery for the very serious reason that we were convinced of the inevitability that in due course it would become isolated and inaccessible.

"Your report described the women as abandoned or unwanted. The reality is that these women have made their home with us; we know them; we want them and we care for them. The labelling or categorising of them in your report in an attempt to explain why they are living here has caused great pain and anguish to all of us here... It showed great insensitivity not only to the women who have died but also to those who live with us now."

The tone of the letter is in remarkably strong contrast to the testimonies of the experiences of the women of the Magdalen Laundries in the years that followed.

Four of the 200 or so survivors, out of 30,000 who were incarcerated in these laundries told their stories in the documentary The Forgotten Maggies, which will be screened for the New York Film Institute next week.

One of the featured women, Maureen O'Sullivan, was sent as a 12-year-old to a children's home in New Ross. She walked through a dark tunnel from the home to the adjoining laundry every day.

Her substantial award from the Redress Board at the beginning of July this year represented a major milestone -- this was the first time that the State acknowledged that children were forced to work in the laundries. For four years Maureen was repeatedly turned away by the Redress Board. It took the persistence of documentary maker Steven O'Riordan and his team to secure justice.

Steven now wants some form of recognition for those who will never have the chance to fight for redress -- the 155 women who were afforded neither a dignified burial when they died, nor the respect to be allowed to rest in peace.

Sunday Independent

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