"I have never experienced such kindness ... I've never had such a lovely time in all my life.

"I think we've been recognised and we're important. I feel important now. And I don't feel I'll be ashamed if my neighbours back in Acton [London] find out where I've come from, where I originate from."

Those are the words of one of the Magdalene women who travelled back to Ireland for this week's Dublin Honours Magdalenes event.

We're being heard after all these years.

230 survivors, who are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, travelled from all over Ireland, the UK, the US and Australia.

It was the first time the women were brought together and for some their first opportunity to speak freely to others who shared experiences in the laundries.

Image - Anne Marie Mulally arrives at the Mansion House

Anne Marie Mulally arrives at the Mansion House

They were honoured by President Michael D Higgins and the State at special events.

'Welcome home sisters' was the message from hundreds of well-wishers who turned out in Dublin city centre to greet the women.

Their emotional week came decades after their experiences in the Magdalene Laundries and five years after a State apology.

State honours Magdalene survivors


'WE FORGOT YOU'

Described as a dark chapter of Ireland's history, in 2013 then taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Magdalene Laundries "cast a long shadow over Irish life, over our sense of who we are".

In an apology to the women on behalf of the State, he said: "As a society for many years we failed you. We forgot you or if we thought of you at all we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes."

He apologised for the hurt the women endured and any stigma they suffered as a result.

As a society for many years we failed you. We forgot you or if we thought of you at all we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.

"This is a national shame for which I'm deeply sorry and offer my full apologies," he added.

While every woman's story was different, he said, "each of them shared a particular experience of a particular Ireland: judgemental; intolerant; petty; and prim".

'For too many years we put away our conscience'

Mr Kenny said the women "took this country's terrible secret and made it your own. Burying it, carrying it in your hearts, here at home or with you to England, to Canada, America and Australia on behalf of Ireland and the Irish people".

But, he said, "from this moment on, you need carry it no more because today, we take it back.

"Today we acknowledge the role of the State in your ordeal."

Four congregations ran Magdalene Laundries: The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Charity and the Good Shepherd Sisters.

Between 1922 and 1996, an estimated 11,500 women passed through ten institutions.

A report investigating State involvement with the laundries had been published two weeks prior to the State apology.

It found that 26.5% of known admissions of women and girls were facilitated by the State.

They were sent there by court order, gardaí, social services or under supervision after leaving industrial or reformatory schools.

The report described the environment in the laundries as harsh and said it involved physically demanding work, which produced a traumatic and lasting impact on the girls.

It found there were many instances of verbal censure, scolding and humiliating put downs.

The Magdalene Restorative Justice Scheme was then established.


'I WAS TO BE CALLED MONICA'

Many testimonies were heard this week, some for the first time publicly. Survivors shared their stories, their trauma and the stigma they endured.

Philomena Cunningham, who now lives in Acton in west London, was one of the many women who travelled back to Ireland from abroad for the Dublin Honours Magdalene event.

She spoke of how she came to be in a Magdalene Laundry, how she left, and the impact it had on her life.

Image - Philomena Cunningham

Philomena Cunningham

Born in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin in 1943, Philomena was sent to live in Banada Abbey orphanage in Co Sligo at a young age. She says she had happy times there and made friends with Josephine Anderson, a life-long companion who accompanied her to Dublin this week.

Philomena says: "Josephine looked after me. She was older than me. She put ribbons in my hair and things like that.

"But they sent her away suddenly without telling anybody. And we never said goodbye or anything. So I was up all night looking for her. Looking out the windows wondering where's she gone.

"Anyway because the nuns said I was her 'stamp', they were going to get rid of me too. And I was only 12 years old, so they sent me out to work."

They got a member of staff to take me up to Dublin to Donnybrook – the Magdalene Laundry. And of course I'd never heard of it and I knew nothing about it.

Philomena says she worked with a family who "had two sons – it was very nice. But I was very lonely because I'd no friends in Swinford. Josephine had gone out of my life. And I wasn't in touch with any of the girls that I grew up with in Banada, the convent. So I wanted a boyfriend really. So I went out one night and unfortunately, I didn't realise it at the time, I was a kid myself, I left the children sleeping in bed and I didn't come back until 3am in the morning."

She said when she arrived back, the family "were very annoyed with me. So they decided to take me back to Banada Abbey. And of course went back to Banada at 3am in the morning. The nuns put me in a single room. I didn't see any other children or anything. And next morning, they got a member of staff to take me up to Dublin to Donnybrook – the Magdalene Laundry. And of course I'd never heard of it and I knew nothing about it."

Image - A photo from a Magdalene Laundry (Credit IFI)

A photo from a Magdalene Laundry (Credit IFI)

Philomena says her toughest day in the Magdalene Laundry was the first.

"They brought me into the laundry and they gave me a long uniform, dress, to put on and thick stockings, cut my hair and my name now was Monica. I was to be called Monica.

"And I was shocked. I didn't know why they had done this to me. I know the seriousness of leaving children alone, I know now it's serious, but at that time I didn't realise. That was all I did."

She recalled being "locked up in the cell every night, you know. You couldn't open the windows – only in the middle, that much. No radio. No nothing. Just a bare cell and a bed."

"I had it planned in my mind I was going to run away anyway from the time I went there. I wasn't going to stay. So that was it."

Running away

"I was there for six months, made friends with other young girls that were there. And one of the other young girls, her mother came to visit her on a Sunday and gave her a ten shilling note. And with that we decided we would run away, three of us together. So anyway, we jumped over a high wall. I don't know how we did it but we did."

With the ten shillings, she said they got the bus to Bray, Co Wicklow, where they spent the night outdoors.

The next morning, she said, they met the laundry men who drove them back to Stephen's Green in Dublin.

"And the police picked us up from there. And brought me back to Donnybrook. I don't know what happened to the other two girls, I've never seen them since ... So [they, the police] brought me back to Donnybrook where I was locked up for about two or three days in a room with just bread and water."

She added: "I don't think the nuns realised, I don't think they knew what to do with me because I was still underage and they were responsible for me until I was 16. So I think it was then they decided they would send me to an open convent – I don't know the name of the convent – but they put a miraculous medal around my neck and we went to a convent in Dublin.

"And they were very nice to me. Prayed for me and everything. And then they got me a job in Jervis Street Hospital and my best friend from Banada was working there. And she got me a job, well she paid my fare to come to London – five of us all came to London together and that's my story about Magdalene Laundry."

Image - Philomena Cunningham with her friend Josephine Anderson

Philomena Cunningham with her friend Josephine Anderson

'I had the mental scars'

Philomena says she cried this week as she listened to other women's stories from the laundries. For her, she said, it was later in life that the experiences impacted her.

"I didn't feel anything. I didn't feel sad. Well, I knew when I was happy with my friends. But it was water off a duck's back, you know, at the time, but it hit me later on when I was aged 23.

"I thought what's going on? I didn't know the word depression. I never heard the word depression. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what the doctors were talking about. And then when I was depressed, I couldn't talk. I was withdrawn. I couldn't do nothing. All I could think about was wishing I could drop dead. And then because of that my children suffered."

"I still get very emotional. But it's affected me because I was homeless and that. And out of desperation I married my husband to have a roof over my head. Of course that was disastrous too."

Image - Former Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott Street

Former Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott Street

Philomena says the journey from London to Dublin this week was not emotional, at first.

"No, we were all excited. We weren't thinking about the Magdalene Laundries. It was only when – it hit us when we first went to the hotel I felt emotional. And I was crying when we went for a walk yesterday with the girls and we were singing all the old Irish songs.

"I got very emotional. And listening to the stories. It's still very raw. But some of them have been through much worse than what I've been through. But then I suffered up here, mentally, terribly. And I had the mental scars, you know."

This week was closure of sorts, she said: "For me, I think so, I think so. I think we've been recognised and we're important. I feel important now. And I don't feel I'll be ashamed if my neighbours back in Acton find out where I've come from – where I originate from. I don't think I'll give two hoots now."

"I've never experienced such kindness ... I've never had such a lovely time in all my life."

This week the women discussed what Ireland should know about the Magdalene Laundries and what lessons should be learned from what happened there. The answer for Philomena is simple:

"Well you see, we never had any love or anything. Even if they are children. Even if they have a little pet like a cat or a dog to love, it's something. We didn't have anything like that. So I think love really, because we didn't have it at all."

Survivor of Magdalene Laundry - Elizabeth Coppin

Another survivor Elizabeth Coppin was sent to three different Magdalene Laundries. She also spoke about the impact it had on her life.

"I mean sometimes I would just cry and weep, literally. At night-time and daytime. A smell, a sound, a word - it would just trigger it off. And you would just go into this awful, awful dark place. The Irish people that weren't in there, they have got no idea.

"And you know what made it worse? The stigma attached to it. And I mean that.

"I mean we were accused of being fast women, prostitutes in Irish society. I mean I was not even 15 when I was taken there by two nuns from an industrial school. A lot of us from the industrial school, we hadn't even been in the outside world. Some never saw the outside world because they died in there."

Read more of Elizabeth's story here


Image - Welcome at Mansion House

Welcome at Mansion House

'FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT'

After years in the shadows and living with the stigma of the Magdalene Laundries, this week the women were embraced by the State.

There were mixed emotions as they met to share their experiences, something they had requested to do, and to discuss how the legacy of the laundries would be remembered.

Those processes started in Áras an Uachtaráin on Tuesday when President Michael D Higgins held a special reception for survivors.

He apologised to the women, saying they had been profoundly failed by the State, by successive governments and by society.

I sincerely hope that the journey you have been on over recent years will help each of you in making peace with the past. 

"Ireland failed you. When you were vulnerable and in need of the support of Irish society and its institutions, its authorities did not cherish you, protect you, respect your dignity or meet your needs and so many in the wider society colluded with their silence."

'You were failed', says President Higgins

"You were failed by governments that knowingly relied on the existence and practices of these institutions rather than addressing your particular needs in other, more sympathetic ways.

"You were also failed by a society that actively colluded by their silence in your incarceration and treatment or who 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 spoke of the "wrong that has been done to you, the pain that has been caused in your lives and the opportunities that have been lost to you as a result of your mistreatment".

"Today, here in Áras an Uachtaráin as President of Ireland, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, I apologise to you - survivors of the Magdalene regime."

Image - Mairead Manly (L) and her friend Roseanna Murphy with President Higgins

Mairead Manly (L) and her friend Roseanna Murphy with President Higgins

But he also spoke of the silence being broken.

"Today we also mark a new and positive turn on the long journey from darkness to light that has been undertaken by you personally over so many years, and by Ireland as a nation in more recent times.

"We have moved from a time of disbelief, denial and even hostility towards your experiences, to a time where we acknowledge that we must deliver compassion, listening and a genuine and heartfelt will to hear, to share and to learn from your testimonies.

He said he hoped the journey they had been on in recent years would help each of them in "making peace with the past".


Image - A message for the Magdalene women

A message for the Magdalene women

'WELCOME HOME SISTERS'

After the reception at Áras an Uachtaráin, there were fiercely emotional scenes outside the Mansion House that evening.

Hundreds of well-wishers gathered to greet the women, to applaud them, cheer them and support them as they arrived for a gala dinner.

'Welcome home sisters', read one of the banners.

Lord Mayor of Dublin Mícheál Mac Donncha: "I have never seen such emotional scenes outside the Mansion House. It was quite incredible that the people from Dublin and the people from far afield came out spontaneously to greet you. And as I said, no one deserves it better."

Image - Gertrude Last is welcomed by the crowds

Gertrude Last is welcomed by the crowds

Some women described their time in the laundries as they arrived at the Mansion House.

"I worked in the laundry instead of going to school. I wasn't given secondary school education at all. I worked from morning 'til night. Slaves. Continuous. All day. We didn't have a choice. Didn't fight back because we knew we would be punished."

"It wasn't very nice I remember that. Well I tell you something now, and I mean this most sincerely, I was lucky I got out of there. And a lot of poor people didn't."

Image - Gabrielle O'Gorman at the Mansion House

Gabrielle O'Gorman at the Mansion House

Others spoke of the reception they got from the public.

"I'm emotional. I didn't know this was going to happen ... when I see that and everyone knows about us. At last!"

"It meant so much, you have no idea how much it meant."

I've hidden things for a long time ... I can talk openly now to my family

More described the significance of the day for them personally.

"It means a lot because at last we're being heard. We're being heard after all these years. I was in there in the '60s and now look, we're getting heard and we're getting believed."

Image - Welcome signs for the 230 survivors

Welcome signs for the 230 survivors

"That there's nobody judging me anymore. That there's hundreds of us not being judged ... when we got off the buses, did you see the crowds? That meant so much."

"I can talk openly now to my family. I can talk openly now to my children. That I couldn't before. And not hide things. Because I've hidden things for a long time."