Monday 19 March 2018

Margaret spent time in nuns' Wexford laundry – but has got no apology

Magaret Cowman at her home in Chambersland New Ross
Magaret Cowman at her home in Chambersland New Ross

Saoirse Mcgarrigle

As the Goverment continues to ponder the McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries, a New Ross woman has told of the horrific time she spent at a similar institution in Wexford, which has not yet come under the brief of the Magdalene inquiry.

Margaret Cowman (née Cullen), a native of Ballywilliam, spent four years at the Summerhill Training Centre near St Peter's College, but says it was more akin to a slave labour institution than a training centre.

She says that the apology made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil three weeks ago today (Tuesday) gives her hope that the Government is beginning to recognise the pain and suffering of all the women and children in the laundries.

However, she says this does not go far enough because Wexford's now demolished Sisters of Mercy laundry in Summerhill is still being referred to as a 'training centre'.

'I was thrilled by the apology by the head of state, but I was very distressed and shocked to hear that the House of Mercy was referred to as a training school.

'The only training for me was scrubbing floors and polishing and sorting out foul laundry, putting sheets in the dryer and putting them through the colander for ironing, washing dirty laundry in the sink or working in the sorting room.'

'I believe I was aged 12 and a half or 13 when I went in,' Margaret says.

'I was taken into this "House of Mercy" by the local priest, Fr Clancy, and my mother. It is my belief that I was placed there because my mother thought I would get into trouble, get pregnant. But I, along with my siblings, was told that I had been placed there to educate me to get trained in English and in mathematics.'

She estimates that this was between 1953 and 1957.

In July 2011, when it was first suggested that the Irish government might make an official apology to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, Margaret says she wrote to Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin to tell him of her experiences at the so-called Summerhill Training Centre. She says she did this as she felt it was time that the government recognised that children that were sent there were treated in the very same way as all the other victims at the officially recognised Magdalene laundries across the country.

On July 18 she received a letter from Minister Howlin stating that he had received her letter and was forwarding it on to Minister of State at the Department of Justice Kathleen Lynch.

Margaret says it wasn't until November 26, 2012, when she received a letter from Minister Lynch's office stating that her correspondence had been 'brought to Minister Lynch's attention, who has noted all of your comments and taken them on board'.

Margaret is disheartened by what she claims is the State's reluctance to recognise the suffering of the children who were 'incarcerated' at this particular laundry.

She says that she will stop at nothing, even if it involves hiring a solicitor, to 'pursue this issue as long as I live'. She sayd she is intent on proving that the women and children who were sent to Summerhill suffered in the very same way as those at any other Magdalene laundry did.

'My basic day began at 6 a.m. for Mass and I recollect that breakfast was at about 7 a.m. and consisted of bread and butter. Different girls would be given different tasks to do each day. Typically at about 7.30 a.m. we would begin scrubbing big long corridors and dormitories,' she said.

'We would then wash the dishes after breakfast and laundry work would start at 8.30 a.m. when girls would have to sort foul laundry. It often had faeces from the local nursing home, Ely House. On reflection we were simply child labour and were treated as such.'

Most of the hotels in town, such as the Talbot Hotel, the County Hotel, White's Hotel and the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College, sent their laundry to the Sisters of Mercy, says Margaret.

A typical day in the laundry would usually end at 9 p.m. but if the girls had not finished their work at that point Margaret claims that the nuns would dim the lights so that 'anyone passing by could not see the lights on in the laundry and know that the inmates were still working', and the girls would be forced to work up until midnight.

It was also the practice of the House of Mercy to contract the girls out to the community to work as servants. Margaret spent one stint working for a local family where she claims she was physically and verbally abused.

Margaret can remember a green laundry van would come in and out of the convent dropping off and collecting the laundry. She claims the driver had a board that read 'Sisters of Mercy Laundry' which he would always remove when he parked up in the convent because the girls were never supposed to know that that was what it was actually called. They were to believe that it was a training centre and not a laundry despite never once engaging in any lessons or even being given books to read.

Eventually after four years and several failed attempts to escape the nuns' control Margaret managed to leave and made her way back to Ballywilliam, where her mother told her: 'You'd better get a job quickly because you can't stay here.'

Margaret left Wexford and emigrated to London. It was only then that she realised the full extent of the damage which her time at Summerhill had caused.

'I wanted to become a nurse but I had so much to catch up on after years out of school. My English was dreadful and I had no maths.'

Margaret said that when she was first sent to the House of Mercy she was given the impression that she was going somewhere that would give her a top class education, which her family would not have been unable to pay for without the support of the Sisters of Mercy. However, this was not to be the case and her years at the convent actually inhibited her education more than anything.

She says things were different in England where she met people that offered to help her catch up on all of her missed lessons. One teacher, she says, offered to tutor free of charge.

She enrolled as a trainee nurse, and after two years of hard work and attending extra classes by night, she became a qualified nurse.

While living in London, Margaret fell in love with a Waterford man. The couple married and raised two children before he died at the age of 49.

After 50 years away, she decided to move back to Co. Wexford and now lives at Chamberlain Close in New Ross.

New Ross Standard