Seeking Redress for a Mother’s Life in a Workhouse

(Paulo Nunes dos Santos for the International Herald Tribune)

Samantha Long and her sister, Etta, found their birth mother in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, where she had toiled, unpaid, for decades.

DUBLIN — Samantha Long and her twin sister, Etta Thornton-Verma, were born in 1972 and adopted at 9 months. They never knew their birth mother and decided to try to track her down in the mid-1990s. “Nothing prepared us for what we found,” Ms. Thornton-Verma, who lives in New York, recalled in a telephone interview last week.

Samantha Long and her twin sister, Etta Thornton-Verma, were born in 1972 and adopted at 9 months.

“We were prepared for the ordinary possibilities, like a teenage girl who got pregnant and wasn’t in a circumstance to keep us,” she said. “But we were not thinking that she might be incarcerated by nuns.”

In 1995 they found their mother, Margaret Bullen, here in the Sean MacDermott Street Laundry — one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, or workhouses for girls — where she had toiled since 1967, six days a week, without pay. They were shocked by her appearance. “She was very disheveled and looked more than 20 years older than she was,” Ms. Long said. “She was 42, but we were looking at a pensioner’s face. It was hard work, poor nutrition and forced labor.”

Ms. Long was among those present in the Irish Parliament on Tuesday as the government made public a 1,000-page report that concluded that there was “significant state involvement” in the incarceration of thousands of women and girls in a system of slave labor that continued until 1996. And she and her sister were among those disappointed when the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, failed to issue an official and unambiguous apology for the state’s role.

The twins found that their mother had spent her childhood in state care and was transferred to a laundry in her midteens. She became pregnant twice while under the care of the religious order that ran the laundry. Conversations with their mother led her daughters to believe that they were conceived of sexual abuse. Both her twin babies and another girl born four years later were taken from Ms. Bullen and adopted.

She never received any pay for decades of labor, nor did the religious order running the laundry pay contributions toward a pension. She stopped working in 1996, when the last of the laundries closed, and lived in a convent attached to the laundry for the rest of her life. She died in 2003 of Goodpasture syndrome, a disease associated with exposure to toxic chemicals used in the laundry. She is buried in a communal grave for Magdalene women in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

Most of the Magdalene women are now either dead or very old; it is estimated that just 1,000 of the 10,012 young women the report said had passed through the laundries are alive. In the weeks leading up to the publication of the report, some came forward to recount their experiences, which remained raw decades later. There is widespread public support for their demands for an official apology from the church and the state, and for compensation for their years of unpaid work.

In the cases of the Magdalene women who have died, it is their children, taken from them shortly after birth, who are speaking out on their behalf. Ms. Long and Ms. Thornton-Verma have been campaigning for an apology for their biological mother for 10 years.

Mr. Kenny’s statement made it clear that they would have to wait at least two more weeks for Parliament to debate the report, and even then they may be disappointed.

“When I heard that the report confirmed state involvement I was pleased, but I was really hoping for an apology,” Ms. Long said. “I just hope that in two weeks’ time the state is going to rally around the women and say, ‘You do belong to us, and we are sorry for leaving you alone and treating you that way.’ That is very important.”

The Magdalene Laundries were a network of 10 institutions run by four religious orders — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. They were used in certain cases to detain women considered deviant in what was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic country. Women who had children outside marriage, girls deemed flirtatious (so-called preventive cases), those with mental disabilities and even victims of sexual abuse were sent to the laundries, often turned in by family, where they simply disappeared from society.

While Mr. Kenny’s statement did not satisfy the Magdalene survivors and their descendants, the report did represent some progress.

It demonstrated that the Irish government can no longer rely on the defense that it “did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries.” That argument was used in part to resist repeated requests for a statutory inquiry until an advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes, brought the issue to the attention of the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2011.

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Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
A life unlived: 35 years of slavery in a Magdalene Laundry One woman tells the story of her mother who was sent to a Laundry in Dublin at the age of 16 – and died there at the age of 51. 30/09/12   

THE TREATMENT OF women incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries – and the level of State involvement in these Church-run institutions – has been highlighted yet again this month. There was disappointment among survivors and relatives of those kept in the Laundries when it was announced that a State committee’s final report into the matter would be delayed until the end of the year.

To reiterate the urgency of revealing the inter-departmental findings, the Justice for Magdalene advocacy group last week distributed some redacted statements of women detailing their lives in such institutions. (The group claims that there was State involvement in the operation of the Laundries as places to send women considered to be “problem girls”, due to poverty or pregnancy outside marriage for example.)

Samantha Long’s mother Margaret Bullen was placed in Gloucester Street (now Sean McDermott Street) Laundry c.1967 and died 35 years later, never having been released into society and her own home. Margaret died of an illness known as Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease of the kidneys and liver – one of the causes is exposure to industrial-strength chemicals such as those used in the Laundries.

Samantha made a lengthy statement to the interdepartmental committee, led by Senator Martin McAleese, about her mother’s life. Margaret Bullen had a tragic start in life: she was born in a mental institution in Grangegorman, Dublin to a mother who already had six children, Margaret being the youngest. Margaret was sent home to Kimmage to live with her siblings and father, where she remained until she was three years old. At that point, Margaret’s brother was sent to Artane industrial school and Margaret and her sister closest to her in age sent to the notorious High Park industrial school and Laundry in Drumcondra. That, as Samantha says of her mother, “was the end of her and the outside world”.

A second statement sent to Senator McAleese’s committee from a former Laundry inmate who remembers Margaret and her sister recounts how Margaret suffered fits as a young child but that they were ignored by the nuns there (then known as the Sisters of Charity of Refuge, now the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity).

Margaret appears to have been moved in her early teens to a special school called St Teresa’s in Blackrock, after she was certified mentally unfit for education, but fit for work. Her daughter Samantha says in her own statement:

She was assessed at age thirteen as being mentally challenged because on the day that they measured her, they said that she had an IQ of fifty, which I dispute after meeting her, even after all those years of institutionalisation.. And I think that if you’re hungry and tired from your slavery, your IQ wouldn’t be very sharp, or your skills on any given moment mightn’t be sharp. You would be probably just pulled into this room – “now we’re going to measure your IQ” – so even the shock of that wouldn’t, you know, you could shut down.

At roughly the age of 16, Margaret was sent to the Magdalene Laundry at Gloucester Street. The exact time and circumstances of her move there are not clear because Samantha and her sister are still waiting on full records to be supplied to them on their mother’s past.

She became pregnant – twice – with Samantha and her twin sister Etta, and later with another daughter, while officially under the care of the Gloucester Street nuns. The circumstances of these conceptions are again shrouded in mystery but Samantha says her conversations in later life with her mother when they were reunited led her to believe that Margaret had been the victim of sexual abuse and predators several times.

There was no education, no education and I, you know, I honestly believe for a long time she didn’t know how she got pregnant, she just knew that somebody hurt her once and then she had babies. I really believe that. She didn’t make that connection, I know that for sure. She was no, she didn’t have a boyfriend, let’s put it that way. And that’s the politest way that I can say that.

Some of the more harrowing details of Samantha’s testimony recount how her mother was denied society, education, wages and other basic rights for most of her life. This extract recalls Samantha and Etta’s first meeting with Margaret in the Gresham Hotel when they were 23 and had traced her as their biological mother. (Samantha and Etta were adopted by a loving couple in Dublin and later moved to Sligo in childhood.)

Margaret was only 42 at the time but looked much older. She was carrying a handbag but it was completely empty, because she didn’t own anything nor did she have any money. Samantha recalls:

And, she was just lovely, and she was asking extremely innocent questions like, she, it was the first time she ever had coffee and it was very exciting for her to have coffee and she hadn’t seen brown sugar before either and obviously in the Gresham there was brown and white sugar cubes on the table and it was all very fancy to her. And she was just overjoyed to be there and absolutely wowed by everything.

She looked, she looked like a pensioner. I couldn’t believe she was forty-two, I kept looking, I kept looking into her face to find a forty-two year old and I couldn’t, because she had the face of hard work, that face that you see in so many women that have just had to work too hard and have never had a rest and have never had anyone to take care of them or tell them to put their feet up, and who have just, just worked too hard. Because, as I said on the radio a few years ago, this was slavery and I don’t use that term lightly and I’m not an emotive person but slavery is a form of work for which you get no pay and you can’t leave and these were the white slaves of Ireland and they were never emancipated. And nobody stood up for them until now, until you guys (Justice for Magdalenes) did.

Samantha Long was asked by Senator McAleese’s commission what she would like the State to do to redress any wrongs committed against the women in Magdalene Laundries. She answered:

I would like the state to apologise for keeping those young girls behind bars, literally and figuratively. I would like the church and state to apologise for forcing them to do slave labour.

I would like the church, the state and society to redress their reputations and apologise for keeping them down, for denying them education, freedom, money, their babies and their lives, all of those things.

And I would like that the circumstances that they find themselves in, through the missing pieces that the rest of us get in life, because they had no education, so how could they make it?

They were sitting ducks, keep them down, keep them unaware of their rights, keep them without money, keep the roof over their head, feed them a little bit, keep them alive, just enough for work. Give them their wages now, give them their wages.

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