I visited this red-brick Magdalen laundry in Sunday’s Well, Cork, just prior to it being badly burnt out by an unknown arsonist in 2008. I went with Mary Smith, a Corkonian and Dublin based survivor of two industrial *schools* as well as a *guest* of this Magdalen laundry. It was a very harrowing experience for the both of us, but particularly Mary, whose dreadful past memories came flooding back to her as we surveyed the gargantuan buildings, graves and vast grounds. The building reminded me somewhat of a place where Heathcliff would feel quite comfortable. as it too was perched on a high sloping hill. It was so bleak and miserable and Dickensian.
Mary got into a big discussion about ‘Little Nellie’ of whom I’d heretofore never heard anything. The statue of an angel depicted the child who had once resided in the institution and who had gone to heaven after such a blissful short life in the house of horrors.
I was living in Co. Wexford at the time and going back to my residence afterwards was so difficult. For a whole week I was haunted by that gloomy devastatingly painful visit with Mary Smith. I was so shattered and traumatised and I know it took its toll even more so on the survivor of that hellhole.
Mary’s mother had died in a mental institution at the young age of 32.
Mary discovered quite accidentally in a passing discussion at her place of work in Dublin, as a young person in her twenties, that she could possibly have a brother. She was in a discussion with a work-mate – who apparently hailed from the same town from whence Mary’s relatives derived. It was from this worker that she learned the news of her sibling. The brother had stayed with the mother till he was five years old. When she became pregnant again out of wedlock, there was no place for her to hide, but the mental hospital. It was very common in the late fifties. So she was carted off there by the ‘cruelty men’ as they were then known colloquially.
Her brother went to Upton industrial *school* and then went on to another harsher industrial *school* institution before ending up in a mental hospital, where he remained till the day he died some few years ago.
Anyway – in the heel of the hunt we both had no luck in finding the grave of Mary’s mother. However, I learned not long afterwards that she did find it. What a relief it must have been for her.
We finally ended the day by going to visit her brother in the mental hospital. He was so pleased to see Mary. His beautiful face gleamed with delight as he was given a huge hug from a survivor who repeatedly kept telling him. “Don’t you know who I am. I’m your sister. I’m your sister.” With all the reinforcement the connection and bonding was evident.
I thought to myself – I’ll never have to go through that experience of finding a sister or a brother…I’ll say no more on that matter….?
Change & Decay
The Good Shepherd Convent, Magdalen Laundry, Cork, Ireland, (now derelict) first opened on the 29th July 1872 and operated as an *orphanage* and a Magdalen laundry until the late 1970s.
It has been estimated that around 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of the Magdalen institutions. Most were incarcerated against their will at the request of family members or priests for reasons such as prostitution, being an unmarried mother, being developmentally challenged or abused. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious were sometimes sent to the Magdalen Asylum. The last Magdalen Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.
Mary and I both climbed the steep steps and meandered about the Magdalen laundry.
*School* and *orphanage* were euphemisms for child-prisons.
H/t photos Michael O’Brien