Just two decades ago this brave Irish woman ran away from the nuns who held her captive. Here she tells the traumatic effect it had on her later life.
“I wish they had given me a clatter, the emotion takes a lot longer to heal than beating the s**t out of you," so says Jenny, who at almost 40 years old is one of the youngest from an era of women in Ireland confined to a Magdalene Laundry.
Known simply as Jenny, the woman recalled her early years in heart rending detail.
In 1993, she made her break for freedom from the Sean McDermott Street Magdalen Laundry where she lived, seizing an opportunity to sprint past a nun when the bread man made his weekly call.
“I had images of a nun coming after me down the road. But I was young and I could run. I was halfway up Grace Park Road before I stopped running. I had not looked back,” she told the Irish Times.
She had ran continuously for 3 km before she stopped. Once in Dublin city centre, she stole a pair of jeans and a top from a clothing store to avoid being caught in her recognizable laundry uniform of “horrible granny trousers”.
That night she slept rough in a park, before going to Dublin Port the next day and buying a one-way ferry fare to Holyhead with two banknotes she had stolen from the nuns.
One of three daughters, as her mother was dying she was sent to St. Anne’s Reformatory for Girls in Kilmacud, Dublin. This was one of three institutions she would live in. Her mother too, spent her childhood in industrial schools for girls, and the extremely regimented way of life that was ingrained into her psyche was then transferred on to her own children.
“You weren’t allowed to move in your bed. That sounds absurd. It was like she could hear you. Our own home was like a little institution,” Jenny said.
One day, a nun called at the house (under the instruction of Jenny’s mother) and took her away. When she was eventually allowed home years later, the same nun arrived to collect her once more.
Jenny was sent to An Grianán, an area for youths within High Park Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra. While she was in High Park, her mother passed away and Jenny witnessed her older sister be taken into care.
Jenny, then-11-years-old, was forced to remain at High Park, as her father raised her youngest sister. She describes High Park as “frightening” and regimented: classes, chores and praying. Washing was allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Often, if someone asked a question, or to wash outside of the set times, they were punished, she said. At the time, she did not comprehend that she was in a laundry.
She remembers the senior nun saying, “You’ll end up next door should you don’t stop sinning and behave yourself.”
Horrifyingly, Jenny said that children would vanish from the area suddenly, often in the middle of the night. She speaks of a pregnant 14-year-old girl being pulled by the ear by a violent nun, the girl was later sent to another laundry and her baby given up for adoption.
As often as she ran away, the Garda would bring Jenny right back. A social worker told her that nobody wanted her at home, and the laundry was the only place for her.
“I wanted to go home. We weren’t allowed to cry or laugh. There was no emotion in that place. Though back then I wouldn’t have known what emotion was,” she said.
When she turned 13, a nun told Jenny that she was “uncontrollable” and “the devil” had her as she informed her that she was being moved to Sean McDermott Street.
“No one spoke to one another, they’d nod heads as if to say hello.”
Jenny was put to work with women in their late 50s and 60s, pressing sheets into rollers all day every day.
“I never saw a nun hit anyone. But their day-to-day life was kind of abuse.
People didn’t talk. You had to ask to go to the toilet. They were filthy, they stank. The very old people had bags and cases they held onto for dear life, and kept within their sight. Some of them didn’t work at all, but just roamed the place chatting away to themselves.”
After her escape, Jenny lived homeless in London.
“London on your own . . . The convent was a breeze compared to living homeless in London,” she said.
“When you’re homeless you move from one person to the other. You’d be begging. I prostituted in London for a while. I have no shame saying that. On my fifth night I had linked up with a girl; she was 17, and that’s how she survived. She said, close your eyes.”
“I realised you got more money the more you did. London was a big, badder world. The men were horrible. Sometimes I didn’t have to do . . . Some people wanted to talk and they’d see how young you were,” she added.
Jenny credits a charity, Centrepoint, with saving her during this dark time, helping her with counseling and other resources.
At 18, Jenny went to Manchester. Here she met a 45-year-old doorman when he rescued her from being assaulted. After 11 weeks, they married. They had children together but the marriage broke down due to his alcoholism. Harrowingly, she later found out that he was a paedophile.
Speaking to the Irish Times, Jenny said that after years of therapy her life is “calmer”.
She now lives in a small town in rural Ireland with her children.
“I hate all nuns. They rile me up. But the convent isn’t all my life, and it was the most normal and safest part of my life, until the past four years. These institutions are closed but the knock-on effects are onto the next generation," she concluded.
The Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean Mc Dermott Street was the last of all Magdalene Laundries to close its doors. At the height of its productivity, 150 women worked there, and 40 women were in residence when it closed, the eldest being 79.
Hundreds of Magdalene Laundries survivors will be honored by the City of Dublin at the Mansion House on June 5th and 6th.