“We were all slaves to the nuns and the Church, no more, no more.”

These are the words of Mary Merritt, a survivor of the Magdalene laundries.

She was speaking on the steps of Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday, as President Michael D Higgins welcomed 230 Magdalene laundry women to his official residence as part of a series of events called Dublin Honours Magdalenes.

Mary, who is 87 years old, spent 14 years of her life in a laundry. Yesterday she paid tribute to the women who also suffered but who took their stories to the grave.

“We have to remember also the people who are not with us today, that are all up in mass graves up in Glasnevin and all over Ireland,” she said. “They couldn’t even give them the dignity of their own grave with their own name and their identity on them so we have to think of those women today.

“I worked with some women in High Park [laundry] who spent 52 years there. I spent 14 years — it was little compared to them. So we have to think of those people that are not able to be with us today and, through the nuns, they killed them and the Church has never, never apologised to any of us.”

Mary Merritt was accompanied by Mary Smith, from Cork, who was born in a laundry and who, at 16 years of age, re-entered one as she had “met a boy.”

She, too, spoke on the steps of Áras an Uachtaráin, and again dedicated her words to a woman who was not there to tell her own story — her mother.

“My mother’s name was Eileen Smith and unfortunately she went into the Magdalene laundries when she was three months pregnant on me,” she said. “I’m just thinking of my mother. It was on the Peacock Lane in Cork and it was appalling what they did to her. A priest locked her up.

No one gave the authority to take my mother away from me and leaving me alone and leaving me an orphan. Then there was no record of me for three months on this planet. Then I was put straight to work in Clonakilty.

“It was pure hell. No school, no nothing, just beatings, and because I met a boy at about 16, or whatever, I was locked up then as well in a Magdalene laundry where I was never to come out of there again.”

She said the experience “shattered” her life and that the laundries were “worse than prisons.”

It has left me shattered for the rest of my life, because it was soul-destroying what they did to me, and the same thing to happen to my mother as well. Somebody should be responsible for this.

“There should be one day a year, remembering those people who suffered and were tortured in these places, they were worse than prisons, worse than prisons. Your name was changed, your identity was taken from you and you were never to come outside of those doors.”

Supporting the two women was Elizabeth Coppin, who spoke briefly to the waiting media to put on record that “children were sold to America”.

“We were trafficked, don’t forget, and some of the children were sold to America, don’t forget,” said Elizabeth. “They were given false passports. They should be remembered always, one because it’s Irish history and what they did to Irish citizens.

We were all Irish citizens, no matter where we went in the world. We were all born here.

Other women also spoke yesterday, describing what they had been through.

Cork woman Josie Keane, 68, was separated from her twin sister when they were seven years of age because they were sent from an orphanage to different laundries. Again, like the other women, she used her voice to remember someone else.

“My twin sister died three years ago so I’m sad she isn’t here,” said Josie. “We’re twins and she was in Cork and I was in Limerick because, at that time, they were separating sisters and everything. They wouldn’t let me go to Cork. It was terrible because we never met until we were 21.

“She found me working in the Imperial Hotel and I don’t know how she ever found me. We were pure strangers to one another and they made me very bitter then. Even if I could have gone and lived with her when I was 15, it would have been nice.”

Josie said that the people of Ireland and future generations should be informed about the history of the laundries because, “for years, no one knew what was going on with any of us inside those closed doors”.

President Higgins, in his speech to the women, said Ireland had “failed” them. He spoke of a collusion of silence within society, that assisted in their “incarceration.”

You were also failed by a society that actively colluded, by their silence, in your incarceration and treatment or chose to look the other way, averted their gaze, as vulnerable girls and women were subjected, in so many cases, to further abuse and degradation.

He ended his speech on the theme of forgiveness and, quoting Bishop Demond Tutu, said: “We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”

The President’s final remarks were met by a long standing ovation as each and every woman present stood from their chair to acknowledge his words and their past.

In total, 11,000 Irish women spent time in a Magdalene laundry.

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