A plaque dedicated to Magdalene Laundry survivors in St Stephen's Green in Dublin. Photo: PA

Magdalene testimonies in RTÉ documentary

Independent [Dublin, Ireland]

August 22, 2021

By Lynne Kelleher

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were synonymous with unmarried mothers, but girls working in the steaming wash rooms were as young as seven or eight .

As part of a new two-part RTÉ series called Ireland’s Dirty Laundry, which contains testimonies from survivors, one woman reveals how she was forced to work at such a young age for being disruptive in school.

Girls in the lower rungs of society in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s were dropped at laundry doors simply for staying out late at night.

Survivors of the shameful system created by the State to lock women away tell how they could spend years imprisoned on the word of a priest. Some of the girls became so institutionalised they never managed to get out.

In testimony that will be part of an education module for the Junior Certificate, the women, now in their 60s and 70s, have recorded on camera the details of their lives behind the walls of the laundries.

“What surprised me to some extent was the insight into the harshness and brutality of the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s,” said director Gerry Gregg, who is conscious of a generation growing up unaware of this brutal episode in Irish life.

“One of the film’s strong points is to have the testimony of these women who had the harshest experiences at the hardest of times.”

One of the women who speaks in the documentary was only a few years into primary school when she was sent to the laundry.

“She was actually taken in to do light work helping the women at the age of seven or eight,” producer Nuala Cunningham said.

“She wasn’t there absolutely full-time, but she was in there. She was in care, and she was causing trouble in school and they basically didn’t want her in school any more, so they sent her into the laundry.

“She would have been unusual. A lot of the women that we’re talking to are going in there in their teens and their early teens.”

The reasons were multiple, both sinister and arbitrary.

“In some cases, there were dreadful stories of sexual abuse. In one case, one of the women said the nun had said to her they didn’t want her going around and talking to the other children about what happened, so she was put away.

“In other cases, it was generally dysfunctional families. It would be a girl going out with friends and coming home a little bit late.

“There was a sense almost of a social kind of monitoring going on. We found, societally, it was people in economically disadvantaged areas.”

The two-part documentary series will also be broadcast in France and Germany.

Ireland’s Dirty Laundry will be shown on RTÉ as part of its autumn season.