Monday, March 6, 2017

Remembering the 'Maggies'

It is hard for people of my generation, or those younger than us, to imagine the terrible stigma which was attached to single motherhood in 20th century Ireland.

A beautiful ceremony in Bohermore yesterd
It’s only now we are waking up to what a terrible institution the Roman Catholic Church was and the awful, disgusting, inhumane ways in which some religious orders and individuals treated some of the most vulnerable members in our society.

There was no joy, no sense of fun or adventure, in post-colonisation Ireland. Beautiful people were locked up for decades because the most natural thing imaginable, having sex, was turned into a dirty, rotten crime.

The children of single mothers were branded as “illegitimate” and “bastards”, leading to the kind of terrible attitudes which allowed 796 of them to be buried in a septic tank in a so-called ‘mother and baby’ home in Tuam.

They were seen as less than human, the devil’s spawn, and harsh treatment of them was seen as the norm.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during my University days, I had quite a few friends who were single mums. I don’t think I – or even they – realised what amazing ground-breakers they were in terms of social change in Ireland. Had they been born a decade earlier, they might have been incarcerated for life by nuns.

How guilty were Irish families – and all of Irish society in general – for allowing young women to be stolen from them, locked up for life while their children somehow ‘disappeared’?

Well, we remembered those women in Galway yesterday.

How strangely appropriate – and deeply poignant – that an event had been organized to honour the women of the Magdalen Laundry in Galway yesterday of all Sundays.

The event took on a whole new significance following the shock revelations about the discovery of the bodies of 796 babies in a decommissioned septic tank less than an hour up the road, in Tuam.

About 100 people took part in the moving ceremony in which the names of each of the women buried in Bohermore Cemetery were called out before flowers were placed on their shared graves.

The Flowers for Magdalenes event was planned weeks in advance to give a dignity in death which had been denied in life to the Galway women who had been imprisoned in the city centre laundry.

Until the closure of the laundry in 1984, ‘fallen’ women who became pregnant outside marriage were locked up and forced to work in the premises in the heart of Galway City.

The Magdalen Asylum, as it was known, was run by the Sisters of Mercy from 1845 until its closure. There were 41 such institutions across Ireland in the late 1800s.

Placing flowers on the shared graves of the Magdalene women
Women who became pregnant outside marriage were taken away from their families and placed in the laundries, along with their “illegitimate” children.

They were separated from the children, many of whom were moved to another institution across the city, called St Anne’s. If they were not given up for adoption, they were allowed to see their children once a year.

The inmates, known as ‘Maggies’, had to wear ‘penitence caps’, large boots, and heavy skirts down to their ankles. They worked in the laundry and slept in dormitories. They were never allowed out of the Forster Street premises.

The last resident died in the laundry in 1995, just one year prior to its closure, and Sunday’s remembrance ceremony was attended by women and adult children who had been confined to the home.

It was really moving to hear graveside testimonials from a former Magdalene Laundry resident, a woman who worked there as a teenager, and a man who had been sent there with his single mother.

The sixth annual 'Flowers for Magdalenes' event
took place at a Galway graveyard yesterday

One 70-year old lady, who left a comment on my Facebook page, summed up the heartbreak we experienced as we listened to the stories being shared by former residents and their adult children.

“I cried today for those women. I thought about the time after your baby is born,” wrote Mary Lyons.

“I thought about how you wanted to be treated as the most precious woman in the world as you had carried and produced this other little human being.

“You wanted warm baths, comfortable clothes, plenty of sanitary stuff and loads of praise.

“But not in the Magdalene Laundry. No, you had to swelter in the heat of a laundry where you washed and ironed the clothes of the rich and the linen from the local hotels.

“Why? Because the Catholic Church had such a hold on everyone, they fostered the idea that sex outside marriage was worse than if you committed murder.”

As Mary pointed out, there was a huge irony in young women being locked up and made to feel guilty by religious people who participated in, or covered up, the terrible abuse of Irish children.

Yesterday, former resident Peter Mulryan broke down in tears as he recalled his difficult childhood in a home and how he used to look up at the stars and dream of another life as a youngster.                                                          

Mr Mulryan has taken a High Court action in order to obtain information about a baby sister he never knew from Tusla, the Irish child and family agency.

"It's an insult the way these women are buried in on top of each other,” he said, as he surveyed the shared graves at Bohermore.

Mr Mulryan said he had never been able to trace his little sister. For years, he didn’t know if she had been buried in the mass grave in Tuam, as he believed she had been confined there, or whether she had managed to escape and make a new life in the United States. 

He has since found out the truth.

“My sister was buried in that so-called grave, that septic tank, in Tuam," he said. “She was only nine months old."

He was given a huge round of applause for his bravery, as was a former Magdalene Laundry resident who described how harsh life was for the women in the Galway facility.

“I knew many of these women here,” she said, with tears in her eyes, looking out over the graves.                                                                            
It was the biggest attendance yet at this annual event

Another lady, who worked there as a 13-year old, said she wanted to re-assure family members present that the lay staff who worked there – apart from the nuns – had treated the women well.

Flowers were laid on each of the graves and afterwards poet Sarah Clancy and singer Caroline Stanley dedicated a poem and a song to the Magdalenes.

Sarah read an angry poem, ‘A Prayer to St Bridget’. You can view Sarah's poem here.

One of the organisers, Ann Irwin, said she was taken aback by the numbers who attended the sixth annual Flowers for Magdalenes event at the graveyard. Only three women attended in the first year.

“What happened on Friday was totally coincidental, but it was important that we provided an opportunity for people to congregate and to tell their incredibly poignant stories,” she said.

“The stories that people told this year were nothing but heart-breaking, really. People have told their stories before, but not to such an extent. They were so beautiful and so brave to tell their tragic stories.”

She said it was important to call out the names of each of the women out loud, to give them a dignity which had been denied them in life.                 

It was a poignant, emotional ceremony in Galway
“It was important that everybody said their names together. It was important to hear the testimonials of survivors and that these things are said,” she added.

Ms Irwin said it was important not to forget how women and children had been treated when they were confined to the Magdalene laundries all across Ireland.

“It’s a very, very recent history, but it’s a history we have swept under the carpet to such an extent. If it wasn’t for events such as today, people would turn a blind eye. It’s so important to keep it on the agenda and not to forget these women.”

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can check out his Facebook page here

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