Thursday 14 November 2019

Magdalene women celebrate a new sense of 'sisterhood and solidarity'

Love and respect mattered greatly to the Magdalene women who met to share stories and experiences, writes Alan O'Keeffe

HERO: Josephine Condon — who suffered at the hands of ‘rotten nuns’ at a Magdalene laundry in Cork when she was 15 — pictured at the Mansion House last week. Photo: Frank McGrath
HERO: Josephine Condon — who suffered at the hands of ‘rotten nuns’ at a Magdalene laundry in Cork when she was 15 — pictured at the Mansion House last week. Photo: Frank McGrath

Alan O'Keeffe

Purple stickers lying discarded on the floor after a gala dinner in the Mansion House were a welcome sight for Dr Katherine O'Donnell.

She had ensured the badges were available to any former inmates of Magadalene laundries who did not want to be photographed or questioned about their experiences.

Many women wore them as they journeyed by coach from Aras an Uachtarain to the Mansion House in Dublin for the dinner and concert last Tuesday evening.

The majority of the 230 former laundry workers had no badges indicating they did not mind being filmed or questioned.

Those who chose to wear them were the most anxious or even fearful about the public events of the Dublin Honours Magdalenes programme last Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Tuesday the women heard President Higgins formally apologise on behalf of Ireland for their inhuman treatment in former decades.

They heard warm words of welcome from the Minister for Justice and the Lord Mayor of Dublin and enjoyed uplifting messages and songs from musicians and actors.

"When they felt the love and respect of the crowd, many of the women actually took off the purple stickers," said Dr O'Donnell, a key member of the Dublin Honours Magdalenes organising committee.

"It was wonderful to see some of those stickers on the ground afterwards," she said.

The two-day event included opportunities for women to share their stories with each other for the first time.

Many women said later that their shared stories gave them a better understanding of their own collective experiences.

"During the listening exercises, the women liked the level of respect they received. They weren't being looked at as survivors in a pitying way. They were being looked at as heroes whom we can learn from," said Dr O'Donnell.

The hugely successful events were funded by the Department of Justice and Dublin City Council.

"So, we've done this together, the population of Ireland and of Dublin have honoured the women.

"But the generosity of the women themselves in accepting our invitation has honoured us all," said Dr O'Donnell, a professor of History of Ideas at University College Dublin's School of Philosophy.

The Justice for Magdalenes Research group seeks to educate the public about the inhumane system of Magdalene laundries and similar institutions that were run by religious orders with State patronage and collusion during most of the 20th Century.

It also seeks to support the women who were incarcerated in the institutions and who performed unpaid labour in harsh and cruel conditions.

The group and businesswoman Norah Casey helped organise last week's events.

Around 600 former laundry inmates have received redress payments from the State for their suffering.

Up to 200 other women from similar institutions will receive similar support.

Last week's events, which included a visit to the former Hyde Park Magdalene Laundry in Dublin, were recognised as giving the survivors a sense of sisterhood and solidarity, she said.

One of 60 women who travelled from Britain to attend the events was Josephine Condon (81), originally from County Tipperary.

She told the Sunday Independent she spent almost a year in a Magdalene laundry in Cork when she was 15.

"For many years, I thought that place in Cork was the only one in Ireland.

"This week, listening to all the other women tell their stories, I am only now realising there were 80 of those places all around Ireland," she said.

Josephine was a young girl when her mother, Mary O'Brien, died giving birth to her fourteenth child.

The seven youngest children were still living at home when she died. Their father went to Scotland to get work, leaving two of the children's aunts to look after them all.

The aunts failed to look after them adequately and someone reported them.

"One day, me and my two younger sisters were taken away in an ambulance to an orphanage in Cashel. My four brothers were taken away to a place in Clonmel (Saint Joseph's Industrial School)," she said.

Her brother, Michael O'Brien, who later became Mayor of Clonmel, sensationally recounted on RTE television in 2009 how he was regularly raped and beaten at the Clonmel institution.

Josephine, of Manchester, said one of the nuns in the Cashel orphanage was a distant relative. But the "nice nuns" in Cashel sent her at the age of 15 to "rotten nuns" in charge of the Magdalene laundry in Cork.

"I was terrified in the laundry," she said.

"I had to operate a big iron and I had to feed sheets into a big machine with rollers. It was so hot in there. If you fainted you were told to get up and work.

"We weren't allowed to talk to each other. I'd arrange to meet my friend Chrissie in the toilets. We would be in separate cubicles whispering to each other in case we were caught.

"It was so cruel. I remember seeing a young girl standing on a stool at a machine and a nun kicking the stool out from under her.

"Every night I cried for my mother and I cried for my younger sisters," she said.

After 11 months, the nuns sent her to work as a maid in Athenry and later brought her to work in the local convent.

One day, her big sister Biddy arrived and took her to live with her husband and children in Clonmel.

As years went by, she moved to England and married an Irish electrician. She raised five children and has eight grandchildren.

She said she was appalled at many of the stories of cruelty meted out to laundry inmates which she had heard during the gathering in Dublin.

And it rankled, too, that she had worked for almost one year in the Cork laundry without payment.

She said "Not a penny was paid to me. When I left, I didn't have a farthing to my name."

Sunday Independent

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