“They took my hair, they took my human rights, they took my clothes, they took my name, but they never took my spirit” – Mary Merritt

Mary Merritt was born in 1931 to a single mother in a Dublin workhouse. At the age of two, Mary was put into the care of the Sisters of Mercy in Ballinasloe. In 1947, at the age of 16 and for the crime of stealing an apple, she was put into the High Park Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra in Dublin. Mary is 86 now. “To this day,” she says, “I do not know who my mother is”.

In a powerful interview with Cormac Fitzgerald of TheJournal.ie, Mary outlined the daily existence of psychological abuse and trauma she endured throughout her fourteen years in High Park, working through endless mountains of washing in the Magdalene Laundry run by the Holy Faith Sisters.

“We had a terrible time. We got up for Mass at 6 o’clock in the morning. We went in and we had a bit of breakfast, a bit of porridge, we went from there down to the laundry and we worked in the laundry then until 12 o’clock.

“Then we had cabbage and potatoes for our dinner and we went back down to the laundry again and we worked there until half past six/seven o’clock. And then they’d bring us in, then we would have prayers and we would go to bed. And that was our day every day of the week for 14 years. I’ll never forget it.”

During her time in High Park, Mary attempted to run away. She approached a priest and begged him for help. The priest raped her. Mary became pregnant as a result of the rape and was sent to a Mother and Baby Home, where her baby was taken from her, before she was returned to High Park.

Mary said the nuns didn’t usually physically abuse her while she was at High Park, but they broke her down mentally.

“They used to cut my hair and if I did anything wrong they’d bring me down to a room. It was small and we used to call it 'the hole'. They’d put me in it with nothing to eat and no windows. Then they would cut my hair to the bone. And then they’d bring me up and make me apologise in front of the whole room, kiss the floor and apologise.”

Mary Merritt was turned out of the Laundry in 1969 at the age of 31. She had spent her entire life in institutions and she paints a desolate picture of sitting on a seat on Griffith Avenue, a lost soul dressed in rags, penniless after years of hard labour, with literally nowhere to go.

“WOMEN HELPING WOMEN”

I thought of Mary Merritt last week, as I read The Irish Catholic. 'Magdalen laundry ‘myths’ debunked in new history' is the headline on the front-page story by Greg Daly, which in turn encapsulates his three-page story within entitled 'Women helping women: the reality of the laundries'.

Daly interviewed Dr Jacinta Prunty, head of history at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, about her new book 'The Monasteries, Magdalen Asylums and Reformatory Schools of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland, 1853-1973'. Dr Prunty is also a Holy Faith Sister, and in the interview, she makes some frankly astonishing claims.

After some initial comments which – to me, at least – give the impression that no Magdalene prisoner ever had her hair shorn, Sister Prunty gets down to business.

She claims that, for much of the laundries’ history they were examples of women helping women at a time when the State and wider society would not support them, stating “They were giving women a safe place and the freedom to come and go.”

It’s funny the way all those poor women who were enslaved in the Magdalene Laundries – perhaps 10,000 since the foundation of the State – are misremembering those feminist paradises.

The Irish Catholic cites Dr Prunty as claiming High Park was “cutting edge”. This, presumably, is the same High Park which was put up for sale for development in 1993 and upon the site of which was discovered a mass grave containing 155 corpses, 22 more than could be accounted for in the archives now being so scrupulously researched by Sister Prunty.

It should be remembered that, if not for the ground-breaking work of the great journalist Mary Raftery on the High Park story, there is every chance that we would never have known the truth of what happened in the Magdalene Laundries.

Sister Prunty claims “the vast bulk of the women in the asylums came and went, and came and went repeatedly… you wouldn’t come back four or five times, which was fairly frequent, if things were that bad.”

I’m no historian, but I find this a most remarkable, and – given the testimony of so many survivors of Magdalene cruelty – a deeply offensive thing to say.

Where else does Sister Prunty think a woman who ‘fell pregnant’ – or did so again – would have gone in the Ireland of the Laundries? Given societal attitudes – fostered in no small part by the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church – toward ‘fallen’ women, these women would have been seen as a lesser class of person and would have been deeply vulnerable to all manner of prejudice and predation. 

Sister Prunty goes on to add “Very many came back to die”. One would hardly need to be a professor of history to imagine that women who were completely institutionalised or possibly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome would return to their place of incarceration.

I don’t question Dr Prunty’s bona fides as a respected historian, but as Claire McGettrick, co-founder of Justice For Magdalenes Research, put it, “I hope the religious archives used in Sister Prunty's research are made publicly available so we aren't solely dependent upon her interpretations”.

Speaking to me on Saturday, McGettrick added “While I haven’t read Sister Prunty’s book, I should say that from what I’ve seen of her previous comments on the laundries, she tends to conflate 19th and 20th century experiences in the laundries. As my JFMR colleague, Professor James Smith has pointed out in his book, the laundries became increasingly punitive in the 20th century, coinciding with increased State reliance on the Church for the provision of social services.”

Sister Prunty refers to the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries and related issues (2013), chaired by then Senator Martin McAleese, stating that the report “laid to rest some of the wildest accusations about the Magdalene laundries”.

Mary Merritt is scathing of the McAleese Report. She and other survivors are furious that the report concludes that there was no abuse in the Laundries. McAleese reports only a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer” and that the women, on average, stayed less than a year in the laundries.

“Nonsense!” she says. “I was there for 14 years and I know a woman in there who was there for 56!”

When McAleese was gathering evidence for the inquiry, Mary agreed to be interviewed. “I told Senator McAleese how a priest raped me when I ran away from the Laundry and about the other abuse in the Laundry, but he was not interested. Just like the nuns.

“When the police took me back to the Laundry, (the nuns) didn't believe I had been raped but shaved my head, made me apologise for running away and put me in the punishment cell.”

Justice For Magdalenes Research describes as “most concerning” the McAleese Report’s contention that only a very small level of physical abuse took place in the laundries. “This assertion is made even as the Report gives detail of: women and girls being returned by the Gardaí, being forced to wear a cup on a string for 3 days and 3 nights, being put in a padded cell, food deprivation, being made to lie on the ground and kiss the floor, being made to kneel for two hours and having a wet sheet pinned to one's back.

“Chapter 19 asserts that these punishments were ‘non-physical’. The survivor testimony provided by JFM clearly outlined individual instances of physical assault and similar offences, as well as a prevailing culture of abuse in these institutions. Furthermore, in alleging a small level of physical abuse, the IDC completely ignores the fact that deprivation of liberty and forced labour are grave physical abuses in themselves.”

ENSLAVED

I should return to Mary Merritt, destitute and homeless on that bench on Griffith Avenue in 1969, no longer of any use to the Holy Faith Sisters who had enslaved her. Last March, Mary told Cormac Fitzgerald of TheJournal.ie what happened next.

“A woman came up to me – Mrs Cronin – and she came over, I’ll never forget it, and said ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said ‘They’ve just put me out of High Park and I have nowhere to go’.

“She brought me back to her house, she put me up, she gave me a bath, she gave me clothes, and she brought me down the next morning and said I’m going to get you a job somewhere and somewhere to live.”

Mrs Cronin was as good as her word, with Mary getting a job with Marlowe Dry Cleaners on O’Connell Street and a small flat of her own. Eventually, Mary moved to London, working in the dry cleaners there. One day, a man called Bill, a former Royal Marine, called in for a job. “And fifty years on, we’re happily married.”

Mary and Bill went on to have a family and to own a chain of dry cleaners. I don’t know if Mary ever reflects on the irony of a laundry playing so positive a role in her later life, but in time she and Bill would sell their business and enjoy their retirement.

In 2014 Mary was reunited with her daughter Carmel.

Mary now fights for other Magdalene survivors. She received compensation from the Irish State, but she has never got an apology from the Catholic Church. She says she is still very angry with the Church, and the last time she was in a church was on her wedding day, but she still believes in God and she still prays every night, thanking God for all she has today.

Mary Merritt stayed in touch with Mrs Cronin – the woman who took her in when she was no longer of any use to the Holy Faith Sisters – until three years ago, when Mrs Cronin went to her reward.

Mary was blessed that Mrs Cronin befriended her. Regardless of Sister Prunty’s claims about “women helping women”, Mrs Cronin’s helping Mary was surely a genuine case of women helping women.

Save a prayer for all of the other Magdalene survivors who were less lucky.

  • Tmac

    My maternal grandmother died when my mum was eight, she and her siblings were brought to St Claire’s Orphange in Harold’s Cross shortly afterwards. My mum had a fringe and her new little friend wanted one too so my mum (at 8!) cut a fringe in her friends hair for her. Standard kid stuff. A nun (I have her name) cut off my mum’s long pony tail as punishment. My mum says she remembers running down a long corridor crying for her mum. It never fails to make me cry even though I know it’s the tip of the iceberg, but my mum won’t tell us what happened there as she doesn’t want to hurt us. Despite them, she grew into a kind, loving mother.

    • Battle Ax.

      Your dear mother, gained the victory. Defeating the ‘Evil’ with the ‘Good’!!

  • Battle Ax.

    We were 11children, my sister died while very young. Our father left our mother, both were at fault, I suppose conditions at the time were not very conducive to happiness. It was the dreary 1950s we were beggars, begging for coal to keep warm, mother making ‘Goodie’ main meal of poor people at that time, some eat ‘sheeps heads’ we were the better off ones we could afford a ‘Pigs head’ from time to time. The Priest of the town was the King, he could get anything if we were nice an humble. But our mother never gave us away to the ‘Cruelty man’ to be taken away to a ‘home’. We nearly drove her demented at times, all those hungry mouths, at school the girls got ‘Cabbage water’ vitamin drink of the day. Our grandmother took two of us in, she had British Army pension from First World War, she got us the shoes, and when I told her we had no cooking pots at home she sent new ones up to or mother, so all in all I could go on writing about the time we had in 1950s but now looking back, so blessed we did not end up in one of those ‘Homes’ that were not homes.