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'Horrendous and inhumane... it was worse than any prison'

Marina Gambold was forced to eat off the floor and had a thick string tied around her neck for three days and nights as punishment for breaking a cup in a Magdalene Laundry.

Working in silence all day in furnace-like heat, the orphan girl was constantly hungry and cried with the pain of her knees from scrubbing corridors.

Marina is just one of the 10,012 girls and women sent to the sweatshops over a 74-year period – where the youngest girl admitted was just nine years of age and the oldest 89.

They were taunted and belittled, punished for not working hard enough – and no one told them why they were there or when they would get out.

"In our heads all we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry," said one former resident.

Mary Smith, the daughter of an unmarried mother, was sent to the laundry from an industrial school and force fed because she refused to eat.

"It was horrendous and inhumane. It was worse than any prison. In prison you get visits, you get paid for what you do and you have the right to leave when your sentence is up."

Maureen Sullivan was taken from school at the age of 12 and sent to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross, Co Wexford, because her father had died and her mother remarried.

Her mother believed she was going to be educated, but instead, "I was shown around the laundry and from then on got up at 6am every morning, I worked every day until 5pm". At night she made Rosary beads.

On one occasion she was hidden in a tunnel when the school inspectors came. "I can only assume this was due to the fact that I should not have been working in the laundry. The nuns have destroyed my life."

Some women stayed in the laundry for less than three months but just under one in 10 stayed more than 10 years and the longest stay was almost 66 years.

 

Freezing

The State referred 2,124 women (26.5pc). They were also put there by their families, by the medical profession and by priests for a variety of reasons – from simply being unwanted to mental health issues – and for crimes from petty theft to infanticide.

The grinding work day started from 7am with Mass and a breakfast of bread and dripping. It was punctuated with periods of prayer. Even in "recreation time you were making beads and Aran sweaters" said one former resident.

There was no question of freedom or payment, and punishment for not working hard enough could be a simple rap on the knuckles, being sent to bed without supper or having to kneel for hours.

Some described much harsher punishments.

Marina Gambold, now 77, recalls being locked outside on a balcony for two freezing winter nights and almost dying of the cold.

When one woman wet the bed, the nuns "pinned the sheet" to her back. The Rosary was recited during the working day and periods of silence observed. Daily Mass was part of the routine, with favouritism shown to those who indicated they were thinking of entering religious life.

"It was so regimental, you learned not to ask questions or complain. Talking was a thing that was seen as sinful."

Visitors and letters were closely screened or controlled by the nuns. Family members put one in 10 women into the laundries, often because of medical conditions like tuberculosis or epileptic fits and sometimes because they were considered "mentally retarded".

Others were sent there because they had children outside marriage, or even because of family disputes. Priests also sent girls to the laundry on their own or with the agreement of their families and some women admitted themselves because they were homeless or being abused at home.

Women were sent to the laundries for petty crime like failing to buy a train ticket or snatching a purse, but they were also sent for far more serious crimes like manslaughter, murder and killing babies to which they had recently given birth.

Many women were placed informally in laundries by gardai or the courts without any specific legal basis.

The average age of entry was 23.8 years, but the youngest known entrant was just nine years of age and the oldest 89.

The report found little evidence of sexual or physical abuse and no evidence of profiteering by the nuns who ran the laundries.

Nonetheless, the experience was at best lonely and frightening and left many with traumatic and lasting psychological scars which they have carried through the rest of their lives.

csheehy@herald.ie


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