VOICES FROM THE NORTH INNER CITY
Gloucester Street Laundry
Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry
Since the establishment of the Free State in 1922, records show that 10,000 unmarried pregnant girls and mothers (and often, their children) were incarcerated in these laundries. Some never saw the outside world again.
The shame of being pregnant and not married meant these women were often shunned both by their families and society. Incarceration in a Magdalene Laundry sealed their fate.
An inquiry chaired by Senator Martin McAleese in 2013 found that the State and the Irish police force bore a major responsibility for sending these women to the laundries and for failing to protect their rights as workers. The vast majority of women and girls were sent against their own wishes.
Each inmate had their Christian name changed when they entered the laundry and her surname was never used. It is reckoned that in the region of 1,000 women buried on laundry grounds spent most of their lives inside these institutions.
The McAleese report also found that a police officer could arrest a girl or a woman without warrant if she had run away.
So called after the Bible’s redeemed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, the laundries were run as businesses but the women were forced to work for nothing. They were cruelly exploited and endured many of the same hardships as the inmates of industrial schools – a physically demanding regime, poor nutrition and a rigid work and prayer regime. Verbal and psychological abuse was common.
The power of the Church and the shame of being an unmarried mother was so strong that for decades, the harsh treatment of these women and their children was disregarded by society.
Magdalene Laundries were institutions which were generally run by Catholic religious orders. They operated in Ireland from the 18th century until the late 20th century.
The country’s last operational Magdalene laundry on Gloucester Street closed its doors on 25 October, 1996.
Postcard of Gloucester Street Laundry exterior
Postcard of Gloucester Street Laundry interior
Gloucester Street Laundry
Founded in the 19th century, the Gloucester Street laundry (now Sean MacDermott Street) was owned by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. It had an average of 100 workers.
The back gate of the laundry, where deliveries were once made, is on Railway Street (formerly called Mecklenburg Street). This street was once the heart of Monto, the city’s notorious red-light district.
The laundry admitted its last new inmate in 1995 (from a psychiatric hospital) before closing its doors on 25 October, 1996.
The Gloucester Street Laundry was the last operational Magdalene Laundry in Ireland.
In 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny formally apologised on behalf of the State for its role in the Magdalene Laundries.
“Fr O’Connell used to call to our house from the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. He got me a job in the Magdalene Laundry on Gloucester Street.
I worked there for a while in 1935 as a van boy. I went out to all the big hotels collecting all the dirty laundry.
Inside the laundry, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the “penitents”, that’s what they called them. I wasn’t allowed to have any conversations with them. The head sister would come over to me and say, “don’t be talking to them girls, let them get on with their work.” You weren’t allowed to talk to them, no way. You would see them singing.
We used to go into the back entrance to the Laundry from the Railway Street end. The laundries are all gone now, the washing machines done away with all them.
The nuns were very strict, there was a wire dividing them, there was a kind of angle iron down in the ground and a big wire mesh six feet high, I could look in at them, but couldn’t go in near them anyway.
The Sisters were very strict on them. Superiors they were called. I was nine months working there, I was paid four shillings a week. The convent owned the van the washing was collected in.”
JAMES BURKE – BORN 1920, LOWER GLOUCESTER PLACE OFF GLOUCESTER STREET
From interview recorded by Terry Fagan.