Society shunned them, the State abused them, and the Church exploited them but Ireland has finally laid a welcome mat for the women of the Magdalene laundries.
It was unrolled at Dublin Airport where more than 100 women who fled to Britain, the US, and Australia after their ordeal returned as guests of the nation.
Today it will lead to Áras an Uachtaráin and the Mansion House, where hundreds more will join them for a series of events to acknowledge all that they suffered and their strength in surviving.
The gathering has been organised by the Dublin Honours Magdalenes group, which sprang from the Justice For Magdalenes movement that fought for recognition and redress for the 10,000 women committed to the religious-run laundries from the 1920s to the 1990s.
Mary Cavnar, originally from Cork but living in Southampton, was among those who didn’t have recognition even within her own family. Sent to the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well at the age of 11 to work catering for the nuns and minding the babies of the laundry workers, she said the stigma attached to her six years there stayed with her until seven years ago.
“You weren’t allowed to make friends. You felt so isolated,” she recalled, saying it affected her relationships later in life. “I’ve got five children and I couldn’t communicate with them. I could not talk to them.”
It was a legacy that also caused difficulties in her married life, Mary added.
She said she had mixed feelings about returning to Ireland.
“I wish it was under better circumstances,” she said. “But I am really absolutely elated that after all this time it’s coming to a head.”
Mary McNally from Dublin arrived from London yesterday to meet up with fellow Magdalenes for the first time since she left Ireland in 1961. She was placed in St Mary’s Stanhope Street at the age of 14 because the aunt who took her in after her mother died thought it would give her opportunities.
“We never had electricity or running water and my aunt said: ‘If you go to the nuns, you’ll have your own bedroom and you’ll get some training.’ But it wasn’t training, it was hard work,” she recalled.
She left after three years of 6am starts, silent breakfasts, and long days of strenuous labour in the heat and steam of the laundries.
Pushed by Dublin Honours Magdalenes, the Department of Justice agreed to use its database of women who had availed of supports following the 2013 Magdalene Commission report to invite them to the gathering.
The group’s ambassador, broadcaster and publisher Norah Casey, who led the team that took over the arrangements from there, said many of the women who replied had never spoken openly about what they went through.
Even now, around 100 of the women who are attending the events asked for anonymity because they have not disclosed to their wider circle of family and friends that they were a Magdalene.
Although they were incarcerated simply for being pregnant outside marriage, for keeping the company of boys, because of the death of their own mother, or some minor misdemeanour, the stigma attached to them was so great, they never felt free.
Ms Casey said most of the women had gone on to have lives of great hardship and for many of them, in their 70s and 80s, this trip was their first time having a passport or staying in a hotel.
“I haven’t come across one woman yet who has said ‘my life was grand since’.”
“It’s not a happy occasion. How could it be with all the harrowing stories and terrible memories these women have but we’d hope to add some memories that could be positive.”
Dublin Honours Magdalenes has asked the public to line Dawson St in the city this evening at 6.30pm when the women arrive at the Mansion House.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved