FOR almost a century, small adverts tucked away in the classifieds were one of the few reminders of the existence of Ireland’s ten Magdalene laundries, crisscrossing the country from Dublin and New Ross to Limerick and Galway.
More than 10,000 women passed through these institutions from the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until the closure of the last remaining laundry in 1996, yet their stories went untold for decades.
Even now, much of the daily routine of life in the laundries is cloaked in mystery.
Despite the increasing number of testimonies shared by women who survived the institutions, a refusal of religious orders to allow access to archives has stunted historical research.
Advertisements for Magdalene laundry services hint at freshly pressed linen and starched shirts, but survivor testimonies tell a different story.
“The ground…but the floor was always…it was like tiled floor and all the steam that goes on in the laundry and all the slopping around and your clothes soaking wet, you know. It…it was like a sweatshop,” explained one woman in an oral history collected by the Justice for Magdalene Research group.
As well as being forced to work in the laundry without pay, many survivors describe having their hair cut upon entry, being given a new name, and the dreary monotony of an unchanging daily routine.
The experience of the laundries didn’t end on their departure, with many experiencing recurrent abuse, trauma and shame for years after.
Women were not sent to the Magdalene laundries for a crime – the reasons for entry varied, ranging from giving birth outside of marriage to being the victim of sexual abuse – yet they were incarcerated inside the institutions for indefinite terms, with some spending their whole lives locked away.
Historians might never be able to piece together a comprehensive history of the Magdalene laundries, but survivors hold the key to fully understanding the experience of life inside their walls. And as the majority now approach older age, it is integral that their memories are preserved.
I am currently working on a PhD research project at NUI Galway that aims to capture some of these experiences.
The research will use sensory memories of the laundries (ie. the smells, sights, sounds, tastes and feel of the space) to build a clearer picture of what life was truly like in the institutions, and how it shaped survivors’ sense of identity and belonging.
As well as individual interviews, I will also be conducting reminiscence sessions.
These group sessions will provide an informal setting for survivors to share their memories of the Magdalene laundries with the help of memory prompts such as photos and music.
If you have direct experience of the Irish Magdalene laundries, I would like to speak to you.
Interviews will be held over Skype, Zoom or telephone until social distancing measures are lifted and will be entirely anonymous.
Contact [email protected] to participate or find out more.