The Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry

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.

I thought I had it bad, till I encountered Mary Smith. Her life and Valerie’s – of whom I talked about at B&W – are just two terribly sad stories.

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….?

Underground Passageway

 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


3 thoughts on “The Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry

  1. My dad was a security officer and he was on duty 5 nights a week for quite a few yrs in the good shepherds just before it burned down. I often called to him while he was on duty. He brought me up to see little nellys room. (Heartbreaking!) He walked all over that building and knew it off by heart. He even found a little teddy bear and a tiny pillow up in the evesof the attic. We both could sense the oppressive feeling when ever we entered. Im 50 yrs of age now and a single mother of one. Im so lucky! Things could have been so different! Its a good thing that building burned down! But the perpetraters should never be fogotton! Nor should all those little angels be forgotten for what they sufferd at those evil hands!

  2. My mother was taken in by the Sisters at Sunday’s Well as a small 6 year old in the late 1920’s, her mother was deemed ‘unsuitable’ to care for her as they were living on the streets. My mother left the convent aged 16, worked in Cork for a couple of years then went to the UK. Met my father, had us children. She has no bad memories of the school, she learned to read, write, do her maths, English, Gaelic, how to care for herself and for others. She used to care for other little ones that were brought in to the orphanage. She is the most marvelous of ladies, still going strong almost 93 years old. At the time the Sisters were her saviours. We took a visit to Sunday’s Well around 1998, Mum needed to see it again, this was not long before it was totally demolished I believe. I know that there were bad things said and done by the Sisters, but there was also the good and my mother is testimony to that


    Times were very hard for everyone in Ireland in the 19th & 20th century. The conditions in the lanes were appalling. Most of the working conditions for men were downright slavery. They were terrible times all round. The standard of living was just above starvation level & many an adult & child went to bed hungry.

    YES! Things were very hard in Ireland, but don’t forget that we had had a Famine in 1847 that decimated the country. And as a nation, we had spent 800 years under English colonial rule.

    Only ignorant people can attempt to paint the Magdalen Homes, as if they were something out of the ordinary! They weren’t. The children in those homes had better conditions than those outside in the lanes and it wasn’t until the 1950’s & 1960’s, when industry came to Ireland, that standards of living rose.

    In the Middle East today children are treated worse than animals, yet the Saudis are spending billions of dollars on building mosques all over Europe & America. If you think Roman Catholicism was bad, then you are in for a great surprise. There has been a great reformation in Europe over the past number of years and people like you are free to express yourselves, but in the Muslim Middle East, you can be killed for speaking your mind. People like you, will open the doors for Fundamental Islam, because you are ignorant of what these people are really like. Its very easy to knock the old regime, just like the opposition parties can do to those in government. But I would like to warn YOU! Be very careful of those who will come to power in the future.

    Those in the Magdalen Homes, who were cruel to orphans, betrayed their vocation, but they all didn’t. Many great women dedicated their lives to look after the orphans of Ireland, when they had been rejected by their OWN families.

    I know all about the Magdalen Homes. I had an aunt in one & we always visited her every Sunday. But not just her, but all the other “girls” & they loved to see us coming, for we were the family they never had. I will go to my grave defending the great work the Good Shepherd nuns did in the Magdalen Homes. I know of many sad stories, of children taken from young girls & put up for adoption; of cases of incest & rape. But there is something else that most Irish people forget. Only for the Good Shepherd laundries, the country would have been plagued with fleas & nits. Most of Ireland are ignorant of the terrible problem of fleas in the 19th & 20th century. The washing & drying facilities were none existent. A big sink & boiling kettles of water and carbolic soap was all our mothers had to clean our clothes. The bed sheets went to the Good Shepherd laundry. And we were very grateful to them for cleaning & pressing them.

    Oh yeah! Its easy to be “the hurler on the ditch”, but you know nothing of the hard “facts of life” that Irish people endured in the past. But one would think that with all the advancements that have been made in the past 50 years, Irish people would be better for them. NO! We have a 60 to 70% illegitimate rate in many cities in Ireland today! With free contraception & the morning after pill, our young girls have the “morals” of a wanton whore, on the dock front.

    There were excuses in the past, but now there are none!

    Our young women can’t cook a meal, unless it comes out of a box or package. They can’t budget to run a home, but always have money for their “cans” & “fags”! Our mothers had next to nothing, but they had morals & high standards, even in poverty. I lived through those times. I know what I’m talking about & I have no time for the likes of Mary Robinson & her husband, who are in my eyes, parasites!

    YES! We made mistakes!

    YES! We could have done better!

    But by Christ, we did better than a whole lot of countries in the world & we are the greatest country in the world to help out other countries going through hard times!

    For Christ’s sake, can you not see,?

    With all our faults, we are better than Saudi Arabia, with all its billions and the rest of the Islamic world?

    But you are so blinded by your ignorance, that you are throwing out Jesus Christ and accepting Muhammad in his stead!

    If not you, then your children will live to regret your blindness!

    It was the Spirit of Jesus Christ that drew those great women to those Orders and they gave their lives for those who were in need. There was a Judas in the 12 Apostles and there will always be “bad apples” in the barrel; but you don’t condemn them all.

    Let us not forget those who gave Love & Comfort to the Orphans, when no one else would!

    I never will.

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