Comment: Magdalene laundries survivors denied what was promised by the State

Let down yet again, ageing survivors of the Magdalene laundries have suffered unnecessary pain in the past few years, writes Claire McGettrick.

Comment: Magdalene laundries survivors denied what was promised by the State

Since 2003, Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR, previously JFM) has worked closely with a number of Magdalene survivors who guide us constantly in our work.

In a personal capacity, JFMR members provide support to the women, and the relationships we have with them mean more to us than anyone will ever know.

We have always said that Magdalene survivors are an ageing and elderly population, and in this regard the past few years have been difficult.

In 2014, our co-founder Mari Steed’s beloved mother Josie died. In 2015, the irreplaceable Martina Keogh passed away, and in 2016, we lost Catherine Whelan, the woman who was the spark for our political campaign. Unfortunately, 2017 was a difficult year too.

We have a treasured photograph which was taken in June 2012 at Leinster House, when we helped to organise a meeting between Magdalene survivors and Senator Martin McAleese.

Because the women did not want to be in the media glare, they used a more secluded entrance used for VIPs. Two of the women, ‘Beth’ and ‘Kathleen’ (not their real names), asked for a photograph on the spot where dignitaries normally pose.

When you bring survivors together, they truly make the most of every opportunity. They both looked proud as punch on their visit to the seat of power, where they would speak the truth about what happened to them.

Unfortunately, we lost both Kathleen and Beth last year.

Beth was born in a mother and baby home and was fostered out until she was 16. At 20, Beth discovered she was pregnant, so she was sent to the Good Shepherd mother and baby home in Dunboyne.

Months later, after spending 48 hours in labour, she gave birth to stillborn twins in Holles Street. A week after giving birth and still haemorrhaging, Beth was put on a train to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Waterford.

She cried every night and was so unhappy that she attempted to escape, only to be returned by two nuns who found her. Beth spent just over three years in Waterford, and was released only because she went on hunger strike.

In March 2012, JFM began gathering testimonies for submission to the McAleese Committee, and Beth’s was one of the first interviews we conducted.

In June 2012, Beth gave her testimony to Senator McAleese in person. In December 2012, Beth was part of a smaller delegation who attended a second, more difficult meeting with the Senator, when she and the other survivors and relatives were, without prior notice, brought into separate rooms and questioned again about their testimony. While we waited, Beth told us she did not have enough money to heat her house that night.

Beth shed tears of happiness in the Dáil on the night of the State apology. Three years later, she felt she had been conned. Her lump sum payment was gone because she had debts to clear and family to look after.

Beth also had serious health issues and for her, the enhanced medical card was of the utmost importance. After reading Judge Quirke’s report, she signed away her right to sue the State, on the legitimate expectation that she would receive comprehensive healthcare.

In 2016, Beth phoned to say she had spent 17 hours on a drip, sitting in a chair in a crowded emergency department. Her words will haunt me forever: “When will it be over, I just want it to be over.” Beth died just over a year later.

Kathleen’s family were Travellers, and when she was four she was removed from her mother and put into St Dominick’s Industrial School in Waterford.

Kathleen was confined in St Dominick’s and three different Magdalene laundries and never knew freedom until her early 20s.

Nonetheless, her spirit stayed strong — indeed, she was so rebellious she was transferred multiple times. She was eventually thrown out on a snowy night for being too much trouble. Her entire childhood and young adult life had been indescribably ruptured because of her incarceration from such a young age.

Kathleen was a woman of principle, and in the time that we knew her, she enriched our lives beyond measure. She kept a close eye on developments, and was also one of the first to give her testimony to JFM for submission to Senator McAleese. She too gave evidence in person when she met the Senator in June 2012.

When the McAleese Report was published, she was one of the few survivors who received a copy. Kathleen began reading the report and immediately saw it for what it was.

She texted to ask what page the survivor testimonies were on because she couldn’t find them. Unfortunately, I had to tell her they weren’t there.

When a civil servant phoned her to ask would she meet then taoiseach Enda Kenny in the days leading up to the State apology, Kathleen declined to take part in what she felt was a charade.

Kathleen phoned me when she received her guide to the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Card: “We were hoodwinked, this is no better than the medical card.” For Kathleen, it was, above all else, a matter of principle. She had been promised an enhanced medical card, and it was obvious to her that this was not what she was receiving.

She died just over two years after that phone call. Kathleen’s last few years were difficult because her health was deteriorating so much, but this was exacerbated by the fact that she was so deeply distressed by the Irish State’s betrayal of trust.

I don’t know whether Kathleen or Beth would have lived longer had they been given the healthcare they were promised, but I am absolutely certain of one thing — the fact that they were denied what was promised caused both of these women an enormous level of unnecessary pain in the remaining years of their lives.

It meant they had been let down yet again, that they could not achieve closure, and that the fight for a normal life which began during their childhood years would never end.

Kathleen, Beth, Josie, Martina and Catherine and, indeed, all of the other women who have left us will not be far from our minds at the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event on June 5 and 6. We know how much they would have loved to attend the event, to meet their fellow survivors, and to have their say on how they are memorialised.

Claire McGettrick is an Irish Research Council Scholar at the School of Sociology in University College Dublin and co-founder of Justice for Magdalenes Research.

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