NEWS FEATURE: Survivors find redemption in an unlikely alliance

Filmmaker made an emotional connection, says Claire O’Sullivan

On Tuesday night, a long line of Irish women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s stood side by side on the plinth outside the Dáil.

Each woman held on tightly to the hand of another before they all raised their linked hands, cheering and smiling broadly at the scrum of cameras and journalists standing below them.

The wait had been long, their suffering great; but finally their day had come. The Taoiseach, on behalf of the State and its people, had apologised for all they had endured in the Magdalene Laundries, the hellholes where, in the name of religious redemption, they had been locked up and forced to work for nothing while being constantly derided by nuns.

In the midst of that group stood a young man.

From Millstreet in Co Cork, Steven O’Riordan isn’t the son of a Magdalene survivor. He isn’t a human rights activist. He is a 29-year-old who watched Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters in 2006, having just graduated from a film studies degree. He was stunned to learn that the last Magdalene Laundry had closed just 10 years previously and realised that tracking down these women would make a great documentary.

“I went on the internet that summer looking to see if I could track these women down,” said Steven.

“I trawled everywhere, pretending to be a survivor, to see if I could get anyone in any of the groups or forums to talk to me. It was there that I found Maureen O’Sullivan. I asked could I talk to her on the phone and after our first conversation — it lasted three hours — I was shocked as she jumped all over the place telling me how she had been put in a laundry as a child, how she’d been hidden in a tunnel by the nuns, how she’d never been an unmarried mother.

“To be honest, I started just to see could I track these women down, thinking it would be great to do it. Then suddenly I was thrown into something much, much bigger as I tried to verify Maureen’s story. More survivors started to come forward and then Maureen and the other women started asking me to help them write letters, to get information for them. I felt compelled to do it really. I didn’t think any other way as they hadn’t been given the opportunities that I had.

“There’s no doubt this attitude came from Joanne. I understood absolutely what they had to put up with.”

Steven’s younger sister is Joanne O’Riordan. The 17-year-old, who was born with no limbs, has become a national symbol for how a disability does not mean you must sit in a corner, grateful for any bit of help.

“We fought so hard to get the women’s records,” said Steven. “We did whatever we could. We agreed that I would pretend to be their sons, as it was the only way I could get at information from the nuns. I found myself looking up acts, legislation, something I had no interest in before. At one point, a religious order called the guards on me, as they said I was trespassing their grounds. When the guards arrived, I said that I to wanted to make a complaint about the 30,000 women that had been imprisoned in Magdalene Laundries by the nuns. The women began to trust me.”

At the same time as he was researching The Forgotten Maggies, Steven was living in London, getting the odd acting role. This meant that he was up at 4am editing, researching, and doing voiceovers for The Forgotten Maggies.

Eventually, in 2009, The Forgotten Maggies, which was co-produced with Gerard Boland, was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh.

The women involved in the documentary decided they wanted to form a representative group and so Magdalene Survivors Together was born.

“Talking to me for the documentary became a form of self-counselling for them, I think,” said Steven.

“They also met people with similar experiences. Many of them had never spoken to another survivor before, so it was huge for them. I empowered the women and they empowered one another.”

The 37 members of Magdalene Survivors Together have become the public face of the Magdalene laundries. Somehow, these unique women found the self-esteem, courage, and determination to do media interviews and be photographed. Despite the put-downs, bullying, and mental torment that they suffered in the laundries, and the stigma and disregard they experienced outside, they refused to give up. However, by stepping into the glare of the public eye, they are in a minority.

The lion’s share of Magdalene survivors are not aligned to any organisation, whether it is Magdalene Survivors Together, Sally Mulready’s Irish Women Survivors’ Network, or Justice for Magdalenes. Their time in the Magdalenes is something that they do not want to revisit or make public, as Martin McAleese underlined in his report — fewer than 100 Magdalene survivors spoke to the McAleese committee, out of the estimated 800 he believes are still alive.

Justice for Magdalenes is the survivors’ advocacy group, and brought the issue of state involvement in the Magdalenes to the UN Commission for Torture, a move which forced the Government to establish the McAleese report. JFM’s work is research-driven, and the survivors attached to their group are the silent women, those who wanted to enter and exit via the back door of Government buildings on Tuesday for fear of recognition.

Nonetheless, the estimated 700 more who have hidden their Magdalene past and could not countenance attending the Dáil must have found new reserves of courage from Enda Kenny’s words and the sight of fellow survivors beaming on the Dáil plinth.

The events of that night must stirred something as, within 48 hours, 400 women had contacted the Department of Justice to register initial interest in the Magdalene redress scheme.

Picture: Steven O’Riordan: I posed as a survivor online to make contact with these women, then posed as their son to wrest information from the nuns. Picture: Dan Linehan

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