‘The walls scream’: Uncertainty surrounds historic space of Catholic abuse

DUBLIN – Mary Smith stopped talking, leaned over and rolled up her right pant leg to reveal evidence of the suffering of her youth.

“Look,” she said.

On her kneecap were twin divots, shaped in the bone by years of waxing, scrubbing and atoning for her sins in Ireland’s network of reformatory institutions.

As a child and young adult, Smith never knew life outside what was once a sprawling system: Her unwed mother, incarcerated in an institution herself, gave birth to her in 1952.

“I have two big holes in my knees from all the praying I did and from all the work I did as a child,” she said. “I can’t kneel. I envy people who can kneel.”

Smith and the other girls inside the St. Aloysius Industrial School for Girls in Clonakilty, County Cork, led a life of piety, silence and the constant cleaning of chapels. She was later imprisoned in the Sunday Wells Magdalene laundry in Cork for her supposed promiscuity and is one of the survivors for whom advocates are fighting to create a memorial in Dublin.

During adolescence, Smith moved from one industrial school to another. At 14, she fell in love with a boy from the nearby town. The institutional authority figures supervising her didn’t see it as an innocent romance. Instead, it was a threat to her virtue.
As penance for her budding relationship, she was sent to the Sunday Wells laundry. She worked like before, but this time with a shaved head and changed name.

Hers was a girlhood lived out in fear and darkness.

Smith remembers the moment she got her first period under the watch of the nuns and brothers at St. Aloysius. She was on her knees scrubbing the floor when blood pooled in her underwear.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” said Smith, sitting on a sofa in her small Dublin apartment.

Another girl warned her, “You have to keep working. You can’t stop.”

She turned to the person in charge and received a bare-bones explanation about periods.

“You get them every month,” she was told. “And you’re not to tell the other girls.”

Smith is one of the estimated 10,000 women who entered a Magdalene laundry in Ireland between 1922 and 1996. Named to evoke the maligned reputation of Mary Magdalene, ten laundries existed throughout the country, each one operated by a women’s order of the Catholic Church.

In the early days of the institution, “fallen women,” often prostitutes, were incarcerated. By Smith’s time, young women didn’t need to violate Irish social norms to be sentenced to labor without pay and vows of silence and good behavior. They just had to be viewed as at risk of doing so.

Abuse was rampant. According to Justice for Magdalenes Research, 1663 women died in the laundries from 1835-2014, a number nearly double the 879 deaths recorded in the McAleese Report.

In 2013, the Irish state announced a plan to provide restorative justice for the survivors of the laundries, who are popularly known as “Magdalenes.” In addition to financial compensation, Justice John Quirke, the facilitator of the state inquiry into the laundries, recommended that a memorial be built in consultation with survivors.

Many are still waiting for compensation and proper health care. They’re all still waiting for a memorial. In Dublin, a former laundry has become a national flashpoint for the issue.

The back of the former Sean McDermott Street Magdalene laundry stands derelict. It’s at risk of being replaced by a hotel chain. Photo by Anna Groover

‘We locked people up’

Smith’s story and others like it have inspired Dublin City Councillor Gary Gannon to take up the cause of memorializing the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene laundry, the only former laundry in public ownership and a 15-minute walk from Trinity College in the city center. Dublin City Council is considering a bid for the property by Toyoko Inn, a Japanese hotel chain.
The three-story building spans almost an entire block. Simple brickwork and modest crosses adorn it, and a small concrete relief of Virgin and Child reigns over an emerald green set of doors.

The front of the former Sean McDermott Street laundry faces a prominent thoroughfare in the North Inner City neighborhood. Its facade has been maintained over the years. Photo by Anna Groover

While in operation, the laundry kept up appearances.
The front-facing part of the laundry was freshened up in preparation for the papal visit, Gannon said.
“You paint the parts that you think the important people will see.”
If John Paul II had driven behind the laundry, he would’ve been met with a different sight entirely.
On Railway Street, the rear of the complex carries itself with much less dignity. Crumbling concrete walls traverse the wall. It’s covered in patches of mold and fungus. Several layers of wire mesh and iron bars fill the windows, but errant tree branches poke through from the interior. White mosaic crosses embedded in the wall stick out against the gray and brown.
“Those walls had two purposes,” Gannon said. “One was to contain the women that were incarcerated inside of it.”

The back of the complex has deteriorated over the years. During the laundry’s operation, lower-class residents of the neighborhood were met with less-than-friendly architecture. Photo by Anna Groover 

The other was to intimidate the surrounding populace—composed of mostly the lower-class—into adhering to the Church’s standard of morality. If not, he said, “that was where you would go.”
Until 1996, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity ran a Magdalene laundry out of the complex. In 2011, the order transferred ownership of the premises to Dublin City Council, which put it up for sale.
The potential sale of the property to Toyoko Inn elicited public outrage. Survivors and advocacy groups had envisioned the laundry as the site of the promised memorial, something Justice Quirke mentioned several times in his report.
Along with support from Gannon, who represents the district the laundry is located in, public outcry at its sale without consultation with survivors halted the transaction until a consultation can take place.
The consultation process is beginning. In mid-March, Justice for Magdalenes Research, an advocacy group for survivors, announced that the state was sponsoring a meeting in early June for Magdalenes to meet and discuss what they’d like to see done with the laundry.
But Dublin City Council is moving forward with the sale, even as survivors prepare to talk about their hopes for the space, casting its future unresolved yet again. The council says that the sale can happen alongside the development of a memorial on the space.
For many, the laundry’s uncertain future symbolizes the larger struggle of Magdalenes to gain proper recognition as promised by the state. For Gannon, the sale without a construction of some sort of a memorial would be a failure of Irish society to move forward.
“We always hide our problems in this country,” he said. “We always have hidden our problems away and told ourselves truths that we choose to believe. . . We want to define ourselves as the most Catholic, pure country in the world. We locked people up.”
Gannon wants the Irish Republic to be modern but says that cannot happen if it fails to accept the horrors of its past. “That space down there represents an opportunity to come to terms with that.”

‘What is a mother?’

Smith never met her mother. They were separated at birth, and the courts put her in St. Aloysius by the time she was two-and-a-half.
As a child, she had no idea what the word “mother” meant, nor what it meant to have a parent or caregiver.
Smith calls nuns and brothers “things with habits and collars.” To her, they’re not human. When she was little, the only way she could make sense of their cruelty was by assuming they were from outer space.
Once, Smith was beaten with a leather strap so viciously that the other girls thought she was dead.
As a teenager, she says she was raped by an authority figure in the system.
She only began to conceive of motherhood when a girl from outside the industrial school system told her that her mother must have been pretty, because she was, too.
Smith balked. She implored the girl to explain to her what a mother was.
The girl responded, “You know.”
Smith didn’t.
“So now I’m beginning to ask myself, ‘what is a mother?’” Smith said. “And I’m beginning to realize, is there something I’m missing in life?”
This revelation sent Smith down a long path to find and reconcile with her mother. Through bits of information fed to her by the institution’s authority figures and her own personal investigation after finally leaving the system, she learned the story of her birth. Her mother’s name was Eileen. She had an older brother, Christopher. And her mother died in a mental institution when Smith was a teenager.
In her apartment, Smith pulled out a yellow, plastic shopping bag. Crinkled and faded in places, it’s where she stores her photos of Christopher, who she connected with in 1990. She flipped through the photos she has of him, some with her younger self, a stop-motion film of sorts. In them, he grew gaunter as the photos advanced.
He too was haunted by the institutions he spent time in, she said, and starved to death in a mental hospital, leaving her with no family, again.
Christopher and her mother are the reason she’s spoken out publicly about her experiences in the industrial schools and laundries. But she’s found little solace in the repercussions from women coming forward and being financially compensated for the abuse they experienced.
“No money will compensate me,” she said.

‘Justice always looks imposing’

Since 1993, several groups have fought for justice for the survivors. Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), which published an online archive of survivor testimonies this year, is at the forefront of the fight to preserve the Sean McDermott Street laundry.
“The major goal was to create a bulwark of testimony so that this couldn’t be easily forgotten, couldn’t be easily dismissed,” said Katherine O’Donnell, a leading JFMR advocate, “and for the future generations who want to know their history, and understand the awful places Ireland will end up in if it doesn’t take on this history.”

The entrance to the Sean McDermott Street laundry looms over the sidewalk. O’Donnell spoke of the psychology of the convent’s architecture.

Beyond conducting the oral history project, which put her in touch with several dozen Magdalenes, including Smith, she’s experienced the emotional power of the interior of the Sean McDermott Street laundry.
“To an Irish person like me, it immediately disciplines me in ways that it might not discipline another person because I’ve been in buildings like this as a schoolgirl,” said O’Donnell, whose research focus as senior lecturer in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin is on women’s and gender studies.
She instinctively understands the disconnect between the horrors survivors experienced inside the buildings and the imposing oak doors, terrazzo flooring and Victorian architecture of this laundry in particular. “This is where the upper echelons, the powerful Catholic orders … this is how they lived.”
Not all of the site exists anymore: only the convent, a chapel and the laundry walls are intact. Dublin City Council uses the premises as an equipment store yard, Gannon said.
Smith’s struggle to tell the story of her girlhood and reclaim the narrative of a lost education, lost family and years of humiliation is what drives the work of O’Donnell, Gannon and others like them. That and the fact that the first token of kindness Smith can recall receiving was an ice cream cone that same admiring boy gave her in her teens.
Gannon and O’Donnell hope the laundry is converted into a museum, but as O’Donnell noted, the ultimate decision should rest upon the shoulders of survivors convening in Dublin in June.
“I think we do need a museum,” O’Donnell said. “But this is me, an academic, right? So, I’m going to be doing my best not to be pushing this on the women.”
Smith wants the laundry to become a museum, too, one that evokes the experience and emotional response of laboring in that sort of space.
“Make it like a laundry,” she said. She’d like a future curator “to put the clothes up there, like we had to wear.”
Gannon envisions his grandchildren one day touching the laundry’s physical walls.
“Justice always has a physical space,” he said. “Justice always looks imposing.
“I think it has to, to spread a message.”
For O’Donnell, the power of the space is in the emotion it can elicit.
“The walls scream,” she said. “They don’t talk, they scream.”