Despite being defunct since 1996, the notorious Magdalene Laundries of Ireland have left long lasting legacies. Etta Thornton-Verma shares her story of finding out that her own mother was a victim of one of the workhouses.
A 1,000 page report submitted to the Dail last week about the happenings at Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries tells stories of near slavery for the women that lived there. The Irish government’s use of the Laundries has many calling for an official apology and perhaps even compensation for the some 1,000 survivors.
The laundries were “a mechanism that society, religious orders and the state came up with to try and get rid of people deemed not to be conforming to the so-called mythical, cultural purity that was supposed to be part of Irish identity,” Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter told RTE this week.
From the laundries came some 2,000 illegal adoptions to the United States. While Etta and her twin sister Samantha were adopted within Ireland to Sligo, their story is similar to many others - that is, the ones who found out the truth about their birth mothers.
Etta Thornton-Verma was just six weeks old when she and her twin were taken from their birth mother in Ireland in 1972. At the time, her mother was living with her newborn twins in a mother and baby home, not in the laundries. The twins’ mother had grown up in state care, and was bounced into the Sean MacDermott Laundry in her mid-teens.
Growing up in Sligo, Etta and her twin Samantha Long had always known that they were adopted, but it wasn’t until they were 23 years old that they found out what kind of life their mother was subjected to after they were adopted.
In 1995 when they were 23, the twins finally got the chance to meet their mother, Margaret Bullen. By that point, Bullen was no longer working in the Sean MacDermott Street Laundry in Dublin, but was living with the nuns there.
“It was very shocking,” says Etta of having met her mother, then 42 years old, for the first time in 1995.
Etta explains that she and her sister had grown up assuming that they were probably conceived as a mistake when their birth mother was just a teenager or in no place to raise children. (They would later find out that their mother became pregnant twice while in the care of the religious order who operated the laundry, and her pregnancies were probably a result of sexual abuse.)
Etta and Samantha were optimistic that their mother had grown up to get married and have children again.
“We hoped for a happy life,” says Etta of what she imagined her mother had gone on to do after she and her twin were adopted.
In a New York Times article, Etta’s twin Samantha Long recalls meeting their mother for the first time when the twins were 23 years old.
“She was very disheveled and looked more than 20 years older than she was. She was 42, but we were looking at a pensioner’s face. It was hard work, poor nutrition and forced labor.”
Less than ten years later in 2003, Etta and Samantha’s mother passed away from Goodpasture syndrome, a disease associated with exposure to toxic chemicals used in the laundry.
In a heartbreaking elaboration, Etta explained how she and her twin Samantha were taken from their mother when they were just six weeks old - their mother had been given no warning that her children were going to be adopted.
“The idea of children taken off women is horrible,” says Etta, who now lives in New York with her own two children and husband.
Etta and Samantha’s mother had another daughter four years later, which Etta assumes is her half-sister, but she doesn’t know where she is now.
Etta and Samantha’s story is but one of thousands. Many advocacy groups for the Magdalene Laundry survivors are outraged with the lack of apology offered by the Irish government.
Etta does admit that she “isn’t surprised” that no official apology has been offered, but does add that it is “disgraceful.” She goes on to say that she thinks the government is afraid of the very real possibility of a demand for compensation.
While Etta admits she is not as much as an advocate for the Magdalene Laundries survivors as her twin sister Samantha is, she does try to make an effort via social media, such as Twitter.
Further, she’s written several letters to the Irish government and spoke on BBC radio about her experiences.