In the late eighties, I wrote a cover story for the Washingtonian in which I identified myself as an “orphan girl” and detail some of the horrors of the Catholic Irish Magdalene Laundries, which operated throughout the county.
Being very naive (and youthful), I was moved when I heard of these situations, where girls had been housed for up to 50 years or longer, in reeking and disgusting conditions.
I won’t go into the miserable living conditions of the women, nor the guilt they must have been left with, nor the loss of dignity they faced, or the shame of having to live in such sordid conditions for so long without being given a proper education or adequate medical care.
I will only talk about the freeing of the women, and the women who knew of the plight of the women trapped in the laundries but tried to ignore it out of shame and shame on themselves.
For me, it was news when the government finally declared that such a thing had happened, but I didn’t know at the time, how recent it might be compared to other years in the past, and the testimonies of those women who were held captive who came forward in the past few months.
They talked about the sickening conditions they had endured, which included them being chained to beds in filthy cages with urine and feces gushing down their wrists.
They were kept in the facilities either as mothers, or as young girls who became pregnant by Roman Catholic priests, and didn’t get the help they had been promised.
The Irish state acknowledged the women’s plight when its Minister for Health Phil Hogan referred to the laundries as “industrial laundries.” This was back in January, with the politician of the time Deputy Danny Healy-Rae noting “these women were just thrown away and we were paying for their care, so that was to me unacceptable.”
I wrote about this in the now vacated Washingtonian story, and last month, there were more interviews with the women by local television news.
The conversation has grown because, as I said in the piece, there were hundreds of thousands of girls, many of them under the age of 14 or 15, who were forced into such abusive and degrading conditions in the early years of the last century.
This notion of a dark age is still there, despite a very recent court case which highlighted that there had been too many survivor stories to be put in a box.
The fact that the people who hid the truth for so long, have now told their stories, is another sign of a very changing world and attitude towards some of history’s darkest events.