‘No one wants these women. We protect them from their passions. We give them food, shelter and clothing. We look after their spiritual needs.’ And that was all that was believed to be required for the inmates of the Magdalene Laundry, in Forster Street, Galway. It is true that no one wanted ‘these women’, because of the twisted sense of morality of the time. Girls who gave birth to a child outside marriage were ostracised by society. If the pregnancy and birth could not be kept hidden (some families kept their pregnant daughter locked away in an upstairs bedroom, or sent to a relative in England ); people feared local gossip, and judgment to such an extent that parents turned against their own daughters. They brought their daughters to the nuns, and walked away. The problem was out of sight, and, they probably believed, gone away.
Patricia Burke Brogan, a young noviciate with the Mercy sisters, although concerned at the discipline demanded in the religious life, she was happy enough, and teaching in the school. But her vocation was immediately challenged when she was sent across the city to Forster Street to supervise the Magdalene laundry which, she was told, was ‘the richest branch-house of our Order’.
Stepping inside the building she noted that each door was double locked and bolted behind her. Having walked down a long dark corridor with the Mother- in- charge, another heavy double-locked door was opened, and Patricia was met by a deafening noise:‘ We’re in a room with huge machines from which steam hisses. Prison bars pattern the roof-windows. The grey walls are sweating. There is a stench of soiled clothing. Bleach fumes sting my throat. I gasp for air.’ * Gradually Patricia made out that the room was full of women. ‘Elderly women, middle-aged women, and young girls all seem to merge with the grey womb-like washing machines.’
After the lecture from the Mother about why the nuns must look after the women, Patricia is warned not to speak to them. Her job was to supervise them, nothing more. Patricia asks why the women are there? She is told abruptly that the women are all penitents.‘ They’re weak. They’ve no control Sister.
They have broken the sixth and nine commandments.’
It is the first time she has heard of ‘The Maggies’ as the women were called in Galway town. Patricia wondered if she had slipped down into Dante’s Purgatorio.
Once the Mother- in -charge went away, Patricia went over to an arthritic woman bent over a sink hand-scrubbing a dirty shirt collar. She took the scrub from the woman and began to scrub herself, despite the woman protesting that it was her work. But Patricia felt that Christ would have done the same.
Moments later the Mother-in - charge had burst in. She loudly reprimanded the woman for allowing Patricia to help. She warned Patricia that she was there to supervise, not to do the work.
‘But they are our Sisters in Christ,’ Patricia protested.
‘Yes Mother. Part of His Mystical Body.’
‘You are preparing to take vows, Sister. A vow of obedience. Keep aloof from those fallen women... some of them were mothers of women in the laundry now. You see this weakness for sins of the flesh stays in the blood for seven generations. From now on you’ll just check their work, Sister!’
Grieving for their babies
Some days later two young women approach Patricia and tell her that they are going on strike. ‘No more of this filthy, dirty work. You can run over now and tell the big-toothy dragon’ (mother-in-charge ).
At a signal from the two ringleaders, all of the women, except for the white-capped consecrated penitents (who were those who had taken an oath never to escape ), sit on the flagstone floor. Some hold baby clothes in their arms, and rock their bodies as they sing lullabies.
Seoithín Seo hó, mo stoirín, mo leanbh. Mo sheód gan cealg, mo chuid den tsaol mór.
Suddenly the consecrated penitents join the others on the flagstones. They too rock to ad fro. To and fro. The place is full of mothers grieving for their babies.
It is a moment of decision for Patricia. What was she to do? Saying a silent prayer for guidance, she walked towards the protesting women, and sat down among them.
Everyone looked at her in surprise. Time passed. Then slowly, slowly, one after the other, the women got up, and went back to their work in silence.’
Next week: Patricia leaves the convent.
NOTES: * I am taking all the quotes from Patricia’s latest book, Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, published by Wordsonthestreet, Salthill, on sale €18.