As a boy I would sometimes see them in the distance. They were older by then but they still stood out.

In my town you were either someone's wife or you were trying to be, so there was no explanation for these persistently single ladies. They weren't nuns, they were never going to be nuns, but somehow we knew they had something to do with the church.

In my memory I always seem to see them with my peripheral vision. They were always on the margins, only just perceptible.

I would half notice them as they passed the schoolyard, say. They were always on their own, without exception. I might have forgotten all about them if the scandal hadn't occurred.

There were no Magdalene Laundries in my town, but there were unknown women working day and night to run the convent. If they were not nuns, what were they doing there?

The answer is, they were performing the same hard tasks, cooking and cleaning, night and day. They had done the work for decades too, their bodies made that clear.

They looked like they were born in their aprons. They were people who knew nobody and who nobody knew.

In the scandals over the abuse crisis the fate of the women of the Magdalene Laundries got overlooked, I feel. But it wasn't so long ago that the Irish church and state colluded to decide which women were unfit to live in our brutally conformist Irish state.

It seems like something that might have happened in a fairy tale almost, where an unsuspecting young girl is banished to a life of toil. But it was actually happening up and down the country.

If a girl got pregnant before marriage (even through rape), or if she was thought so pretty she might one day create a scandal by being too tempting, or if she was too outspoken and challenged the authority of the church and the social order, or if she was mentally disabled, or if she was non-conforming in any way, she could be spirited away, forever. Tens of thousands of Irish women were.

I have been astounded time and again by the unbelievable first hand accounts of people who lived during wartime who claimed they saw and heard nothing unusual.

Trains full of captives passed them day and night, concentration camps were built in their town's shadow, starving prisoners built their roads but they saw nothing. It's amazing how much we're capable of overlooking if our own needs are met, isn't it?

What happened to women in Irish society
who did not conform

It could keep you awake at night, the thought of how quickly things can break down again and how few are prepared to actually see it.

When a society is desperate to promote its own narrow idea of itself it will round up or railroad all the dissenters, and what happens to them no one will know. That could happen tomorrow as easily as it did 70 years ago.

Irish women condemned to the Magdalene Laundries worked in hard labor, in enforced silence and prayer, and their sentences were always open, which meant that the nuns had the power to release or confine them indefinitely, even until the day they died.

In prison you at least had the knowledge of when your sentence would end. But Magdalene women never knew when or if they were leaving.

It wasn't enough that these women were forced to do the most degrading menial work for no pay, day after day, often having their food withheld for punishment, but then they were also made to feel burdensome and dirty. It was their own fault, they were told. The hard work was meant to wash away  their sins. That it also provided a profitable workforce of unpaid labor was just a happy coincidence.

The laundries had got their start 150 years earlier as homes to rehabilitate prostitutes, but by the early 20th century the definition of a fallen women had widened to include unwed mothers and any other young women the church considered to be wayward.

The shame they were encouraged to experience was also liberally spread to their families, the better to keep everyone quiet, the better to keep order and to keep them all in their place. And all of this might never even have come to light if an order of nuns in Dublin had not sold off part of its convent to real estate developers in 1995.

On that property they discovered the remains of 133 women buried in unmarked graves. They had lived and died in servitude, with no one to mourn or even mark their passing.

The only way out of the laundries was to be claimed by a relative who was willing to take responsibility. There were few, then or ever, who did.