Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry About To Disappear?

Photo by Eoin Meegan

By Eoin Meegan

Only last month
Dublin City Council gave the green light for the demolition of the former Magdalene Laundry at the Crescent, Donnybrook, to make way for 44 new apartments. For over 150 years women and girls who committed no crime were incarcerated there, some remaining all their lives, and forced to work long hours without pay. To its shame the State was complicit in this wrongdoing, firstly by failing to protect and look after the welfare of the inmates, as was its duty, and secondly, by availing of the services those same laundries provided. If this building is razed to the ground, one of Dublin’s most important sites of significance will disappear for good, and for a second time the women and girls who lived and worked there will be airbrushed out of history. 

Action needs to be taken immediately. The Government, or Dublin City Council should step in as a matter of urgency and purchase this building. Why is it here in Ireland we are so eager to lay waste iconic structures of significance that would be protected and preserved in other European cities?  Former concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau are preserved as a permanent reminder of the past, so that the passage of time cannot erode it from the public memory. Do the women who suffered in these Irish institutions deserve less? In many ways the Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, and Industrial Schools are our Auschwitz. The abuse and suffering of those who went through them cannot be allowed to fade into oblivion.

 In 2018 a special two-day summit was held in Dublin where Magdalene laundry survivors discussed preservation of the buildings. One laundry survivor said: “Bear in mind, a person who was adopted might want to return to the place where their mother was kept.” Another survivor added: “The State and the nuns should never be allowed forget what happened.” If we allow this cultural vandalism to continue all that will be left of this site will be the chimney stack which is a protected structure, the rest will be lost forever.

Stolen Lives

Countless unmarried mothers, victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, incest, and even mental illness were consigned to Donnybrook laundry, and others like it. Upon arrival they were given a new name, or sometimes just a number. All their belongings were taken from them and they were set to work washing clothes, ironing and sewing from eight in the mornings until evening. If they tried to escape, as many did, they were arrested, often on the charge of stealing the institute’s uniform, and swiftly returned. Punishment for any kind of disobedience included forced kneeling, beatings, and shaving of the head. At a conservative estimate 10,000 women and girls went through these institutions since 1922. Considered penitents or ‘fallen women’, they were subjected to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Survivors recount how they often went to bed hungry and cold, but many say what hit them hardest was being denied any kind of education and the senseless waste of their lives.

 Due to the ridiculously low rates the laundries were able to tender, many businesses, hotels and hospitals availed of their services. To our national embarrassment so too did State agencies. The Gardaí, Prison Services, and the Department of Defence, to name but a few, had their linen washed in Donnybrook. Numbered among its illustrious clients was Áras an Uachtaráin. In fact among the artifacts which survived in the Donnybrook laundry is a basket marked ‘Áras an Uachtaráin’. State inspectors regularly visited these institutions, but only examined the machinery and premises, and did not inquire into the girls’ ages or working conditions. Some girls were there sent by the judicial system, but most ended up there because their families didn’t want them, or were brought in by religious groups such as the Legion of Mary. As was the case in the following story.

Sara’s Story

One day in 1954 Sara W. was taken by the Legion of Mary from a B&B where she was then employed to the Donnybrook laundry. She describes the

“The door was locked and the windows used to be up very high, like a small little window … and I used to climb up the top of the bed to look out. I never seen daylight for two years. At nine o’clock every night you were locked into that cell – summer and winter.” She continues. “The only bit of freedom we were allowed to walk up and down a place called ‘the bleach’, where they put out the sheets in the summertime, clothes lines and all that. You’d walk up and down there. That was your

 Sara was only 15 when she was brought into Donnybrook. During her time there her mother died but the nuns never told her. She used to write to her every week, heartbroken that she never got a reply. Sara spent two years in Donnybrook before being moved to another laundry in Cork. She is one of over 90 survivors whose story is recorded by the Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), an advocacy group for Magdalene survivors, as part of their Oral and Archival history collection.

Possibility of
Unmarked Graves

Apart from the importance of preserving this landmark building, the possibility of unmarked graves existing on the site is another reason to halt this development immediately. Following an application to develop the site in 2016 a report by the Dublin city archaeologist Dr. Ruth Johnson stated: “Given its association with the Magdalen laundries there is potential for burials being uncovered during the course of works.”  Significantly, the discovery of the grave of 796 infants at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam was made less than six months after Dr. Johnson’s warning.

 An Archaeological Assessment carried out on the Donnybrook site noted:

“Since there are no clear records as to what happened to some of the women who operated within the laundries once they died, it remains a possibility that some are buried within the area of proposed development.” It goes on to point out that due to the Religious Orders’ failure to register deaths, or the fact that any requirement to notify Local Authorities concerning burials in the Orders’ private plots was either waived or ignored, combined with a general lack of transparency and cooperation from the Orders, meant that “it is impossible to state with certainty the number of burials which may exist within the grounds of the original convent, which includes the proposed development area.”  

  The Religious Sisters of Charity who operated the Donnybrook laundry until its sale in 1992 refute this, saying they can account for all former laundry residents interred in a private cemetery on the grounds of St Mary’s convent, adjacent to the building in question. And they say their records have been verified by the McAleese Commission. However, It should be pointed out that the McAleese Report into State involvement in the Catholic-run Institutions is deeply flawed. It has been heavily criticised by a number of bodies, including survivors (who are referred to as ‘penitents’ in it), the JFMR, and the eminent scholar on the Magdalene laundry system Professor James Smith. Most damning perhaps is the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which states the inquiry had “lacked many elements of a prompt, independent and thorough investigation.”

A comparable incident at another Magdalene laundry might suggest caution. When the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge were selling lands at High Park, Drumcondra in 1993, a discrepancy in relation to actual body numbers came to light (thanks to the unparalleled research by Mary Raftery). The Sisters applied for the exhumation of 133 remains, however during the work an additional 22 were discovered. It later transpired that the Order could not produce death certificates for 58 of these 155 women. The Sisters explained this away as ‘an administrative error’. All the High Park remains were cremated and re-interred in Glasnevin, amidst considerable anger, it must be said, particularly that the families of the women in question were not notified of the official ceremony committing the ashes to the new plot. Research carried out by JFMR would suggest that there are over 200 High Park Magdalene women buried in Glasnevin in unmarked, or wrongly marked graves, or whose burial place is unknown.

What needs to happen

Structurally, the Donnybrook laundry is in excellent condition with all its fittings, sinks, baskets, ledgers and other artifacts relatively intact; another reason why it makes no sense to knock it down. The building should be retained in some form as a testimony to the past, a place where future generations can visit, and as a way of honouring the 10,000 plus women who lived there. One idea would be to re-imagine it as a museum, displaying all the artefacts in their original setting, complemented with interactive video and audio of the women’s stories. This might include a cultural centre, a library, exhibition and recital rooms; perhaps even a healing centre. The former ‘bleach’ area and its surrounds would be transformed into a garden, complete with flowers and a fountain; a place of contemplation and reflection. The decision of Dublin City Council in April will now go to An Bord Pleanála, but there is still time to stop this destruction. After participating in the incarceration of these totally innocent women, and in benefiting financially from their labours, is it too much to ask that the State should step in now and preserve this historic dwelling before it’s lost forever?