Monday 16 December 2019

'My great-aunt was a cash cow for the laundries' - Niece of former Magdalene Laundry victim

More than 250 women priests and bishops around the world have defied the Vatican’s ban and are members of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. Stock photo: PA
More than 250 women priests and bishops around the world have defied the Vatican’s ban and are members of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. Stock photo: PA Newsdesk Newsdesk

Plans for a housing development of 184 housing units on the site of a former Magdalene Laundry at the Good Shepherd Convent in Cork has been met with some opposition from locals.

The land contains a mass grave of some of the laundry's former residents and some locals feel that the development should be "fully sensitive" to the memory of the women of the laundry.

The niece of a woman who spent the majority of her life in the Good Shepherd said that while she doesn't oppose the development of the site for houses, she would like to see the mass grave renovated and refurbished so that the relatives of those who are buried in the mass grave can remember their loved ones.

Speaking to Liveline, Rose Brien-Harrington, whose great-aunt Esther spent 70 years in the laundry, said she wants to see a proper memorial and heritage centre erected at the site.

"I have no objection in principle [to the development]; we have a housing crisis in this country and I wouldn't stand by and say 'no you can't build here', this is prime land and it's right in the middle of the city centre.

"I do believe that the ground should be forensically examined... I think the graves should be marked and there should be a memorial or heritage site for people who had relatives there so that they can go and trace them and see if they were buried.

"There are people walking around whose mothers and grandmothers are buried there and they can't visit their graves. Imagine not being able to visit your mother's grave."

Ms Brien-Harrington's great-aunt was placed in the Good Shepherd laundry at the age of 14. She died there at the age of 84 and is now buried in a mass grave at St Joseph's Cemetery in Cork.

She said that her great-aunt had been in the care of an orphanage along with her two sisters when their mother died. When the girls were 14 the sisters "moved on with their lives" but Esther ended up in the laundry.

Ms Brien-Harrington said she believes her great-aunt was targeted by the nuns because of her easy-going nature and embroidery skills.

"She was a very docile person... a good girl who'd always do what she was told and she was very good at sewing. I think this was her downfall and why she was easily trafficked by the nuns."

Ms Brien-Harrington said that her grandmother, Esther's sister-in-law, tried to get her out of the home but her actions were blocked and her business was "threatened" by a local priest.

"My grandmother tried to get her out - the women were told they couldn't leave unless they were claimed - and a local priest came up to my grandmother's house and threatened her. He told her he would personally see to it that she'd lose her sweet shop, that my grandfather would lose his coal round  and he would see to it that she and her children were out on the street."

Ms Brien-Harrington said she believes the laundry was desperate to hold on to Esther because her great-aunt was their "cash cow".

"She did beautiful embroidery and a lot of her work was sold in Harrod's in the 60's," she said.

Ms Brien-Harrington said that her aunt "didn't receive a bob" for any of her work but believes the women were given a pocket-money allowance in their later years.

Recalling the time she first visited Esther at the Good Shepherd, Ms Brien-Harrington said she was shocked at the conditions and the manner in which adult women were treated.

"My father brought her a transistor radio as a gift and here was a woman in her 60s asking a nun if she could keep a transistor radio. She actually had to ask permission if she could keep it.

"We used to go in and visit them and they were like children. Their iron grey hair combed in and never a screed of lipstick on them or anything like that. Every time my mother and I visited they used on land on us. I mean we were nothing to look at on the street but to them we were like birds of paradise.

"I remember once I had a €2 scarf from Penneys and this women fell in love with it. I said 'you can keep it' and she had tears in her eyes. This was a cheap scarf that nobody would think twice to look at. I'll never forget that. They were like children."

Ms Brien-Harrington said that Esther's name had been left off the headstone of the mass grave where she is buried. Her name was only added in 2013, 26 years after her death.

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