Tanya Sillem blogs ahead of her report on the Magdalene Laundries on tonight's Prime Time:
Mary Merritt’s husband sobbed all the way through her interview for Prime Time. Bill Merritt is the sole witness to the years of misery suffered by his wife since leaving the Magdalene laundry at High Park in 1960. Now 81, Mary says that even now she wakes up crying: "My husband will tell you I wake up at night crying, thinking about what my life was. I should have forgotten about it after the years, but I can’t."
It was only after they had been married five years that Mary Merritt told Bill about her past. Born in the Dublin workhouse, Mary Merritt had been brought up by the nuns at an orphanage, where she was known as Mary O’Connor. In 1947 she was ordered by a nun to travel to Dublin, to work in the laundry at High Park Convent in Drumcondra: "She came down to me and she said 'O’Connor you’re going to Dublin to work', so she said I’ll get your things ready for you. The two nuns they put me on the train they were with me and they brought me into High Park, and the first thing they did was take all my clothes, give me a big serge skirt a big white apron a cap and some boots and (they said) your name from now will be Attracta and your number will be 63."
Like other Magdalene women, Mary Merritt is elderly but feels that she has to speak out before she dies. Like others, she says she’d had difficulty in obtaining accurate records. The Sister of Our Lady of Charity which ran the laundry at High Park say she was admitted and discharged a number of times over an eleven year period, but Mary is adamant that she was imprisoned there for fourteen years:
"I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t even know what it was when I first went there. I was afraid of my life, and I didn’t talk for a whole fortnight. They thought I was deaf and dumb."
She says that she escaped on one occasion, while picking potatoes on the farm. She says the police were waiting for her at Griffith avenue and brought her back, and she recalls begging them: "I have to get out of there. I never done anything wrong I said, I didn’t kill anyone I said, I didn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t have got fourteen years for murder and that’s the way I felt about it, when I came out about it. I can’t sleep at night even to this day when I think about it."
Nobody knows how many women were in the Magdalene laundries. They were started in the 1780s as part of a rescue mission for prostitutes, and were essentially shelters for a very vulnerable group of people. At the beginning, and probably in the decades before they closed in 1996, women were free to come and go. However, for the most part they were closed communities and many survivors say they were incarcerated against their will.
Professor James M Smith of Boston College and author of a book on the Magdalene laundries says that a whole variety of women and young girls found their way into the Magdalene institutions. He told Prime Time: "It’s very important to underscore that the population of women in the Magdalene laundries changed over time. Historically it would have been understood that women in the Magdalene laundries were either there for punitive purposes to either pay or undergo penitence for a sexual deviance, for being a prostitute or on the other hand young girls who were there as quote unquote ‘preventative cases’."
Marina Permaul, now in her seventies, was born in Ennis, County Clare. She grew up in an industrial school after her parents died of TB: "The Magdalene laundry was like a prison. It was the last place I wanted to go to. It was a threat since we were children."
Yet, it was exactly where Marina found herself heading, after leaving school. She’d been working as a ward’s maid, in an old folk’s home, when she was spotted talking to a porter. She told Prime Time: "I was bundled into a taxi – i didn’t know what was going on and was taken to laundry in Galway. I was crying quite a lot because there was two nuns, one on either side of me. and I was in the back seat of car, and it was a man that was driving car, and i cried and cried and I cried."
The Sisters of Mercy said Marina’s allegation of abduction is of deep concern and has been brought to the attention of the Gardai. But like the other Orders which ran the laundries, they declined to take part in this programme.
Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, Head of the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin, believes that the Magdalene homes were one element of a series of institutions that regulated Irish society for much of the 20th century. These included reformatory schools, industrial schools, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, mother and baby homes, Magdalene homes: "When you look at the totality of those institutions, about one per cent of the population was institutionalised in the early 1950s, an extraordinary number of people were incarcerated."
Unlike survivors of the industrial school system, the Magdalene women were never compensated under the Residential Institutions Redress Board. That was because the state officially viewed the laundries as private institutions voluntarily entered by residents or if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians.
Last year, after a campaign by survivor advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes, the UN Committee against Torture announced it was gravely concerned at the failure by the state to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene laundries. Maeve O’Rourke of Justice for Magdalenes explains: "There is a principle that even if the abuse happened a very long time ago in the past if the State has failed in its obligation to investigate that abuse and to provide redress well that abuse is continuing."
Last summer the Government set up a committee of civil servants under Senator Martin McAleese to look into the facts of state involvement in the laundries. Although the religious orders which ran the laundries said they would assist the committee, they wouldn’t be the subject of its investigation. This has caused some concern to the Vice Chair of the UN Committee Against Torture, Felice Gaer:
"We asked for an effective investigation, a prompt impartial and in fact thorough investigation and as far as i understand it the McAleese committee has a much more narrow mandate – we’ll have to see the results of that but at this point they are only looking at state responsibility – and there hasn’t been a response to victims action to provide an apology or assist them."
Last week it was announced that the McAleese committee wouldn’t be reporting until the end of the year. And there’s concern that time is running out for the now elderly Magdalene women.
There are several helplines that offer counselling and support to those affected by what happened in the Magdalene Laundries, they include:
Justice for Magdalenes: Ireland 086-1267544, USA +1 215-589-9329, UK +44 208-346-7479
Irish Survivors Advice & Support Network (UK): +44 207 267 9997 (office hours)
Connect Counselling: Freephone 1800 477 477 UK and Northern Ireland: 00800 477 477 77 (Wednesday - Sunday 6pm-10pm. Also open 10-11.30pm Tues, Sept 25)
Samaritans: 1850 60 90 90 (Open 24 hours)