Ronan Burtenshaw interviews Martina Keogh – a survivor of the Gloucester (now Seán McDermott) Street Laundry – about her experiences of incarceration and forced labour at the hands of the Church and state.
Martina Keogh was sixteen when she was arrested for fighting in 1966. Originally from Whitefriar Street in the south inner-city she spent much of her childhood in institutions or struggling with a sexually-abusive step-father. At her court hearing she remembers the judge “roaring” at her – telling her that she was “out of control” and that “if [her] mother couldn’t control her, they would”.
The value placed on control in the laundries was immediately clear, she says. “When I went to Gloucester Street first all my clothes were taken off me and I was put into a grey dress. You were meant to bow down to them. I’d give a little bit of cheek, so I got the clatters. They’d try to break your spirit.”
She recalls the fear which pervaded inside the institution. Older women, some there for years and many who could “barely walk”, would tell on younger girls who tried to spark up conversation. “They’d call, ‘mother, mother, mother – she’s keeping me talking’. I used to kick them in the shins when they’d do that because I couldn’t understand why they were turning on us. Now that I’m older I do – that was a way of not being beaten themselves.”
“I’d give a little bit of cheek, so I got the clatters. They’d try to break your spirit.”
The punishment beatings handed out by the nuns were severe. “If you weren’t working quickly enough they’d belt you with a strap. They always had a strap on their belts – and beads, keys. They wouldn’t care what they hit you with.”
The watchful eye of the nuns extended over dinner break and tea in the evenings, as well as private conversations during the one hour a day the women were allowed for recreation. Martina remembers a young woman from Scotland seeking her out for a chat after work. The next day, after they were reported, nuns quizzed them as to any “impurity” in their discussion. “They wanted to see if we were talking about sex,” she recalls, “they were filthy-minded.”
Days were bleak. Up at dawn to be in work before nine, they could expect hours of hard labour. “We were made to work in the laundry all day ironing priests’ vestments. Can you imagine a little thing like me? Picking up a six-foot man’s vestments and ironing them over and over until they were stiff. Every crease out of them. Then you would have to iron the hankies, underpants, shirts, pyjamas – everything.”
The women were allowed to bathe just once a week, on Saturdays. The water would only be changed after six or seven baths. And the nuns maintained a dress-code – white slips were to be worn. “You hid your body for baths. It was ‘for purity’.”
One of the more controversial aspects of the Magdalene legacy, particularly as it pertains to the refusal of religious orders to compensate survivors, is the amount of money made by the laundries. Those involved in running the institutions deny their profitability. But Martina tells a different story.
“I used to make what we called ‘celtics’. That’s a bánín cloth that you iron transfers onto to. Then you outline the patterns in black and fill in the colours. I used to get £2.50 for one but the nuns got £20. That £2.50 bought me soap, shampoo, toothpaste – really I was giving it back to them. They should have been giving me this stuff but I was buying it. I have no doubt they made money.”
She also remembers how a much-celebrated Irish crooner from the 1960s gigged in the laundry once every year in exchange for incarcerated women minding his children, cleaning his house and washing his clothes. “He thought he was the bees’ knees, so he did. But I hated him and his songs. I’ve noticed in interviews he has done since he never once mentioned the times he sang in Gloucester Street.”
The contempt she carries for the cosy élite which allowed the laundries to survive for so long is clear. It is a feeling she struggled to contain amid the contrived piety of Gloucester Street. “When we finished after five we had tea, which wouldn’t be much. And then you had to pray. Five decades of the rosary. I fucking hated it. Oh my god, it would drive me mad. Pray for the souls, pray for this and that. And the language of me inside. I’d be going, ‘fuck the souls, fuck the prayer’. I wouldn’t even be listening. But you couldn’t let the nuns know that. You’d be killed if you did.”
To this day she still won’t set foot in a Church. At funerals she will sign the book of condolences but stay outside. “Whatever I have to say to whoever is up there I can say at home. Why do they still have these big buildings anyway? They should be made to sell them and give the money to their victims.”
When she was first released from the laundry in 1968 after two years inside Martina struggled on the outside. Finding herself on the northside and looking to get to George’s Street locals directed her to North Great George’s Street, off Parnell Square. It wasn’t until one of them realised that she was a southsider that she was put on a number 19 bus home. This wasn’t uncommon, she says. Moore Street traders from the time have told her stories about women brought for walks in the area, disoriented from years of institutionalisation, with “fear in their faces”.
“February’s much-vaunted apology by Enda Kenny wasn’t accepted by many survivors.”
In the years since her release she has been unsatisfied by the enquiries into and apologies about the Magdalene Laundries. She tells me that February’s much-vaunted apology by Enda Kenny wasn’t accepted by many survivors. Not only was the “two weeks he needed to think about it” an insult, but the state continues to deny its central role in the whole affair.
“I don’t trust the government. Not in a million years would I trust them. They told us these were private institutions and it was nothing to do with them. They lied. They sent us there and they knew we were there. This has come out now. They know if they admit to it then they could be liable for compensation.”
She rejects the McAleese Report – which not only said the laundries weren’t profit-making but also claimed no physical abuse took place in the institutions. “I was very taken aback by them saying there was no physical abuse. In my interview I mentioned three times the physical abuse I had seen. A girl getting her hand burned by a nun – I’ll never forget it. I told them about the abuse I got. And I actually couldn’t believe it when they said survivors didn’t speak about physical abuse. They did. I felt that the government was hiding it again.”
On the back of that report’s conclusion – that the laundries were essentially charitable organisations – religious orders have refused to pay compensation to the women incarcerated. Martina is unambiguous about what should happen. “They should be made to. We should take their property and give it to the people they locked up and abused.”
In trying to find her way to justice Martina began working with Justice for the Magdalenes and the Oral History Project. That, by contrast to the state’s whitewashes, she says, gave her and other survivors a voice.
The project, which concluded in September, conducted seventy-nine interviews with thirty-five survivors as well as relatives, people who had been adopted and other relevant parties. Most lasted longer than two hours and the result is a 5,000-document archive. Religious orders were invited to participate in the process but refused.
Martina Keogh doesn’t mind. Recently diagnosed with cancer she is still fighting the Church and state over its incarceration of her and almost 30,000 other women in Magdalene laundries. And, she says, the most important thing is that the survivors’ voices are heard.
“We can speak. That’s what this project has done for us. There are loads of women who can’t because their families don’t know and my heart breaks for them. But we can speak out and tell people the truth. After a long time and all the stigma we can say, ‘yes, I am a Magdalene’.”
You can find out more about the Magdalene Oral History Project at magdaleneoralhistory.com.