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Thursday 19 September 2019

'I was told, "That's how you humiliate a 12-year-old"' - One Irish survivor's story

Kathleen Aebi-Kealey is one of hundreds of ­Magdalene laundry survivors who have returned to Ireland in recent weeks, each with a sad ­personal history. Marie-Louise O'Donnell got to know Kathleen and here retells her account of a painful and prolonged 'education'

Kathleen with her young colleagues at the laundry in the same year
Kathleen with her young colleagues at the laundry in the same year
Kathleen Kealey Aebi who returned to Ireland.
Kathleen in the midst of her ironing duties at St Mary's Laundry in Stanhope Street, Dublin in 1959, where she lived for six years

'The fat nun slapped me across the face. That's how you humiliate a 12-year-old. Slap them across the face."

Kathleen Aebi-Kealey spent six years in St Mary's Laundry on Dublin's Stanhope Street. It was a Magdalene laundry run by the Sisters of Charity. She is originally from Portlaoise and was the fourth youngest of a family of 10. She was sent to the laundry to get educated. At least that is what the parish priest convinced her parents would happen. In the laundry she would get a real education. They believed him. They were poor. Very poor. They believed things.

So when she and her sister Bridget were 12 years old, the Magdalene laundry became their new home. A lasting education did happen. But it was of an entirely different kind to the meaning of the word.

Hers was a life of ironing and folding and pushing and pulling. Washing and cleaning and pleating and parcelling and organising. Ironing and ironing and ironing. The day and night ironing of the huge tablecloths and sheets and pillowcases and serviettes and uniforms of the great hotels of Dublin. And all the altar vestments, and the night and feast fabric of the palatial Jesuit houses. Ironing until her hands became immune to the scorch and burn of the heavy hot linen and long flexed press.

Kathleen Kealey Aebi who returned to Ireland.
Kathleen Kealey Aebi who returned to Ireland.

When that was done, she piled and packed and pencilled and addressed, all that was to be collected for distribution, back among the great and the good, making sure not to make a mistake in the numbering and labelling for fear of punishment. And as night fell, she sorted the mountainous piles of the filthy and the stained fabric, ready for the huge machine and industrial irons the next day.

And all the time she managed to become aware and to avoid some of the men who came to collect the cleanliness, but who brought their dirt with them, through their furtive attempts at invasive touches and pawing around the young girl. She knew where and how to hide when she smelt them coming, and if she felt that God was not really around her world then, she uses his name now in gratitude to him, that she avoided that eternal damage.

Between 12 and 18 years of age, her world was one of vast industrial-like steaming warehouses. A daily regimented routine surrounded by gigantic loud cleaning machines, heavyweight levers, high dense racks, piled high with linen cloth, thick electrical cables and onerous wooden troughs that had to be constantly moved, filled and emptied.

'My father made a coffin'

A young life standing all day ironing and packing, and immersed in an atmosphere of the lingering daily odour of human stained cloth and hard detergents that clung to the air and her uniform. That is some real and lasting education.

"My mother and father actually had 12 children," she told me as we sat together at the Magdalenes' restorative celebrations dinner in the West County Hotel last week.

Kathleen (left) with her sister Brigid in 1957
Kathleen (left) with her sister Brigid in 1957

"I was three or four years old when the twins were born. A beautiful boy and girl. The girl twin died soon after birth. I don't know why. She just died. And then the boy died. My father said that he had died out of loneliness for his sister, pined away for her. Imagine. It was an extraordinary thing to say. The priest refused to bury them."

"Why did he do that?" I asked in shock.

"Because we had no money to pay for the funeral," she answered in a matter of fact way.

"Can you imagine what that was like?" she continued. "Being refused a burial. There is nothing more immoral. I cannot think of anything more cruel. My father made a coffin. He put it on the back of his bike, cycled out and buried them himself in the graveyard, under a beautiful tree. I went back to the graveyard recently to visit the priest's grave."

"The priest's grave! Why did you do that? Or was it that you wanted to make sure he was really dead?" I asked, trying to contain my rage.

"No," she replied with great composure, "I just wanted to ask him did he realise the awful things he had done, and the terrible pain he had caused when he was alive."

We sat in silence. Kathleen and her sister Bridget, and me. At the Magdalene gathering dinner. It was a kind of fate that brought us together. I had never met her before, but I had heard her on the radio relate with enormous grace her story of Magdalene incarceration for the girlhood years of her life. Seeing a spare chair at her table, I had asked if I could join her.

"Oh please do," she said with wide-eyed enthusiasm. "I would be delighted."

I felt during the evening and our intimate conversation, that I had known her for years. Maybe I had met her down through all the silent pain and anguish that women have endured around systems of control, abuse, silence and obedience. Systems of politics and church that taught us and indeed expected us to be voiceless and grateful. Systems that buried expectation and replaced it with shame and gratitude for breath. The - sure that's the way it is. The "glory be to the Father and to the Son and to all here and all else, amen" systems.

Was it the sin of Mary Magdalene that named and fuelled the cruelty of these institutions on their female others. Oh, I had met her before in my own life, in many guises. I had seen her in the distance at bus stops, maybe I even was her, in some very small way in my own single motherhood.

'I was number 64'

"That parish priest convinced my parents to put me into the laundry," she said. "They hadn't a clue what was going on. They visited and they were put sitting in the parlour of the convent. But there was always a nun present and on guard when we were with them. So we couldn't say anything. And we didn't. They wouldn't have believed us. And they had eight children at home. I was number 64 and my sister was number 63. A number. No name. Just a number."

We were silent again. What is there to say to such wanton degrading of a young life? What is there to add? I broke the silence.

"You're so full of grace," I said, "like the prayer. Without rage."

"Why do you say that?" she asked

"It's the way you hold yourself. Your control. Your quietness," I reply.

"'I learned silence when I was 12 years old, and all that goes with it," she answered. "We were not allowed to speak during work hours, which was all day. Or anywhere else. Our world had little play or amusement or joy. Except the simple fun of our own making when we could. I'm well used to silence. It was my world as a child and young girl and woman. I learned very quickly how to put thoughts and feelings into a bottom drawer and never open it."

Her demeanour told that story. A serene natural beauty. Slim and elegant in a night blue chiffon blouse and a deep ochre-coloured embroidered skirt. She wore a long beaded necklace, a glassy reflective outfit match, and her eyes were a deep green, piercing and perceptive. When she smiled and laughed, her mouth opened generously to reveal preserved white teeth.

"You must have been a dawn beauty," I say. "That's what my mother would have said of a woman as preserved as you, and as striking. It's how she would have described you."

"Do you think so?" she replied. "I don't think of myself as that. Ever. I cannot think of myself as that. I cannot believe I am even here. It was my sister Bridget who saw it in the paper about the restorative justice for the Magdalenes. I wrote to the commission and it evolved from there. I never told my family about my past until recently.

"My son was in his 40s when I spoke about it. I just couldn't open that bottom drawer where I had hidden for years. My husband and children are very proud of me. I grew up as just labour. Slave labour. Not as a free human being. We got up in the morning, went to Mass, then breakfast and immediately into the laundry.

"We never left it, except for meals and prayer and bed. And we never got out. Never. I didn't know anything but work. Hard heavy work. I was good at it. I could arrange and organise and I didn't make mistakes. I was reliable. The nuns knew it. When I finally could leave at 17, I asked the nuns for a reference. They would not give me one. They wanted me to stay and become a charge hand in their laundry. Can you believe that? They even wrote me a letter asking me to come back. I still have it. I kept a box of personal things all through my life. I brought it everywhere with me. It's tied around and around with ribbons. I have everything in it. Everything. Letters and photos. I don't know where I got the photos, but I have them.

"Would you like to see the letter?" she asked unexpectedly.

"I would," I replied.

She left the table and went to her room and brought back a file of black and white photos of herself as a young 12-year-old and 14-year-old and 16-year-old in the laundry, in the uniform, behind the giant ironing board. I looked through them. "There she is," she said, stopping at one photograph, "there she is." And there she was. The fat nun who had done such never-to-be-forgotten damage, standing in veiled face, like an overfed prison guard, in the middle of the young girls' lives.

The letter offering her an awful job in the laundry was dated 1959 and written in the most elegant handwriting. An educated disguise, just like the parish priest's promise.

She didn't reply. She never got any reference. When she left, she was paid nothing for her six years of full-time, seven-days-a-week work.

"What did you do then?" I asked.

'Ireland was no place for me'

"I went to my father. I told him that Ireland had done nothing for me. All its institutions, political and religious, had let me down. It had no place for me then or now. It had nothing to offer me and it couldn't even educate me. So I emigrated to England and trained as a general nurse, psychiatric nurse and a midwife.

"That is where I met my husband, who is from Switzerland. I married him and went to live there. I worked for the criminal police as a translator and I taught English as a foreign language. I had two children; a boy and a girl.

"My son became a consultant anaesthetist and spent three happy years working in the university hospital in Galway and in the Galway Clinic, and my daughter runs her own physiotherapy clinic. I have wonderful grandchildren and a very happy and fulfilled life."

"Do you think that the laundry played any good role in who you became, in what you did with your life, and in how you are now?" I ask.

"Well," she replied, "it taught me to look after myself. I knew I needed to be brave. To survive. I needed to stand up to things. Not to be afraid. I knew I had to. I knew I could. I learned I could. But it stole my childhood. My young years. It stole joy and happiness and the wild in us. It stole freedom and affection. I'll never get that back.

"I don't know what happened to the other girls. My sister Bridget became a cook, married and had five children. She survived. But others didn't. I see that despair and damage in the faces at other tables here tonight."

"It is rare in my job, at this time in my life, that I meet somebody who, as the late Seamus Heaney wrote, 'blows the heart right open'," I said. "You have done that for me. You have done it for us all. You have been redemptive for us all individually and collectively as a country and you have cleared the space for us to understand and acknowledge the cruelty and neglect of young girls and women that was ignored for decades.

"We are so grateful to you, even though you may be only hearing it now. I don't look for my morality from politicians or priests or nuns or celebrities or institutions, or successful media people at dinner parties. I look for it through my own pathology and history and experience. And I found it tonight in a divine woman like you, Kathleen Aebi-Kealey."

She looked at me and didn't speak. There were tears in her eyes. And there were floods in mine.

"I hope we will remain friends," I said.

"We will," she replied, "we will."

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