These Women Survived Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. They’re Ready to Talk.
Posted June 6, 2018 10:50 p.m. EDT
DUBLIN — They are a haunting sight in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters: the notice boards that spring up outside Red Cross tents and hospitals, covered in notes from desperate people searching for loved ones lost in the chaos.
As 220 survivors of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries convened for a state-sponsored meeting in Dublin on Tuesday, strikingly similar pleas for the lost went up at their hotel.
Orders of Roman Catholic nuns ran the laundries for profit, and women and girls were put to work there, supposedly as a form of penance. The laundries were filled not only with “fallen women” — prostitutes, women who became pregnant out of marriage or as a result of sexual abuse and those who simply failed to conform — but also orphans and deserted or abused children.
“Their names were changed in the laundries, and it was often hard to talk, and they didn’t get the chance to really know each other there,” said Maeve O’Rourke, legal adviser for the Justice for Magdalenes Research project. “So they’ve put up a notice board in the hotel, for people to put messages on, to try and trace people they knew in the laundries.”
The Magdalene Laundries were part of an interlocking system of orphanages, industrial schools, “mother and baby homes” for unwed mothers and church-run institutions in which Ireland once confined tens of thousands of its own.
At least 10,000 women and girls are believed to have passed through the laundries between independence from Britain in 1922 and the closing of the last one in 1996.
Upon their release — or in some cases, escape — many survivors of the institutions left Ireland to shrug off the stigma of having been in them, and then spent their lives wondering about the other women whose paths they had crossed.
“I heard about one woman who is here somewhere today who I think I knew in Kerry,” said Elizabeth Coppin. “I’ll be looking for her later. And I’ll be going for a look at the board back in the hotel.”
Coppin, 69, was made a ward of the court in County Kerry after being battered by her stepfather at age 2. She was removed from her home and confined in the industrial school and laundry system until age 19 — three years after the expiration of the judge’s order making her a ward of the court.
Abused by a nun at school, she tried to commit suicide by setting herself on fire. Later, she escaped for three months from a Cork laundry but was recaptured and returned to the nuns by child protection officials.
This week, she flew to Dublin from her home in England and was already beginning to fill in blanks and find old connections.
The two-day conference in Dublin was funded by the Irish government as part of an agreement to redress the mistreatment of the women. The event broke new ground by attracting so many women who had been confined in the laundries — once a source of shame in a deeply conservative Catholic country.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, hosted a reception and gala dinner for survivors. But what moved Coppin most was the reception she met when her bus pulled up outside the site of the event.
“The crowd on the street was cheering us,” Coppin said. “We couldn’t believe it. Not just women, but men and children, too. It was wonderful — very emotional.”
Coppin left Ireland the first chance she got after leaving the laundry and made a new life for herself in England. There, overcoming the poor education she received in the industrial school, she eventually went to college and became an elementary schoolteacher. She met an English man and had two children.
“England was my savior, like many women who went there, or to different countries like America,” she said. “My choice was to get as far away as possible from Ireland.”
But the Ireland that Coppin left is a far cry from the one she encountered this week. Coppin was struck, she said, by the many young women who successfully came together — “so articulate and so educated” — to campaign for the repeal of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.
She also noted the new willingness to confront the systemic practice of forced and illegal adoptions, often without records, which preserved an illusion of Catholic chastity while depriving unwed mothers of their children and children of their birth identities.
Despite the new mood of openness and acceptance, many of the Magdalene laundry survivors in Dublin this week were either too frail or too shy to talk about their experiences.
Norah Casey, a businesswoman and journalist who was one of the driving forces behind the event, said that more than half of those in attendance had come from abroad. Most were from Britain, and a few were from the United States and other countries.
“A lot of them didn’t even have passports to come here — they got the hell out of Ireland as soon as they could and never came back,” Casey said. “It is great to have them here, talking, but it is also very sad. I haven’t heard one of them say that life was good after they left the laundries. It got better, that’s all.”
Most of them have spent their lives trying to find parents and siblings or children who were taken from them, Casey said. Many don’t know who they really are. “Magdalene asylums” were originally conceived by Christian churches in Western countries, including Britain and the United States, as charitable institutes to support “fallen women.”
In Ireland, the Magdalene institutions became associated primarily with the Catholic Church, and by the mid-20th century there were at least a dozen industrial laundries in the Republic of Ireland.
Some women were confined to the laundries for life and were forced to work long hours in poor conditions with bad food, no pay and little or no medical or educational support. The women and girls — even those who had come into the laundries directly from orphanages or “industrial schools” for juvenile detention — were told they should toil as penance for their sins.
In recent decades, the power of the church in Ireland has dwindled, in part because of a number of abuse scandals, not least among them the revelations of the suffering in the Magdalene laundries.