The Magdalene Women
Wednesday, September 3, 2003, Hollywood, FL
“The Magdalene Sisters”
My Irish husband Tony and I went to see the new movie, The Magdalene Sisters. We have been reading about this film since it caused a stir in Ireland last year for its in-depth look at the young women who were sent to live and work in the “Magdalene laundries” in Dublin, either because they got pregnant, or sometimes just because they were too pretty. The last of these laundries, believe it or not, closed in 1996.
When I first met Tony he told me stories of the Magdalene laundries, how one day he had actually been in one and seen the Magdalene women. All through the movie I had lots of questions I wanted to ask him, and I thought you might too. So after we came home and had a couple of glasses of wine, I taped an interview with him. This is an edited transcript of it.
K: Tell me again about when you were working at the Montrose Hotel. You were how old?
T: 17. The machinery broke down at the Montrose laundry. The Montrose had a laundry that did all the sheets for The Scarlet hotel, the Tara Towers Hotel. But I worked at the Montrose. Something happened at the Montrose laundry so everything was packed up in these laundry baskets. These wicker baskets.
K: In the movie they showed a basket with “Father Fitzroy” printed on it, with the priest’s laundry in it.
T: They were big square baskets with handles on each end. We loaded them into Jimmy’s truck. He was the guy who carried the laundry between the hotels. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day. It must have been in the summer and somehow I was designated to go down to Donnybrook. We were on our way down and he was saying, these women are all nuts down here. These women in this laundry are all crazy, you know.
K: Where was it? How far was it from the Montrose?
T: It was only in Donnybrook, south of Dublin, which is really up class. Upscale. I used to go by the laundry every day on the bus. It had these huge walls. There were a couple of those laundries around Dublin. There was one on the South Circular Road as I remember. But the one that I went to was in Donnybrook. I’m not sure but I’d say that that was one of the last ones to close. I had passed it every day for like four years and always noticed the big gray walls.
That particular day had a profound effect on me. I remember John Martin who was the organizer telling me, Bring that down to the Donnybrook. The nuns are going to do it. The nuns are going to clean it. I didn’t see any nuns. I can’t remember seeing a nun that day. To be honest with you, to me it was like, I was out of the confines of the Montrose, I was in a truck, I was going down a mile and half to Donnybrook.
K: It was a change from the routine.
T: Past RTE, down to Donnybrook Road, past Ballsbridge, straight on into Donnybrook. And then on the left hand side, as you were going down by the Magdalene, there were very, very obtrusive high walls, big gates. We went by the walls and we went in to the gate. And we went into the laundry to deliver the couple of thousand sheets from the various hotels.
I remember walking in and it was like when you walk into a party and nobody knows you. There were all these women with the same hair cut, the same clothes, brown smocks, and brown tights and big black shoes. And they all had this look that said, get me fughin’ out of here. That was like 1969, 1970, and it just had this effect on me. I thought, Wow what’s wrong with them? They do look weird, but they don’t look fughin’ crazy.
K: Before you went there, what did they tell you about them? Did they tell you why they were there?
T: Jimmy said they were all mad.
T: Mad. They were all mad. All mad. It was an institution. They didn’t look mad. They looked weird, but they didn’t’ look mad.
K: How many?
K: In one room…
T: A big room. All looking the same.
K: Of all the characters we saw in the movie, The Magdalene Sisters, which one looked…
T: Crispina. She was the one that looked the most like them because of her hair. Everything about that movie, the clothes, the smell of the soap. I could nearly smell…
K: Tell me about the smells.
T: The smell of the soap when you walked in. In the movie, when she had this bandana around her face, I thought, that’s a good idea because that soap, the smell of that fughin’ soap.
K: How would you describe it? What kind of smell?
T: It was antiseptic. Antiseptic. Everything was antiseptic. You could feel it. You smelled soap. Soap and steam. You could smell soap and steam. There was a lot of steam. They worked in steam all day. And they wore these brown clothes, in the middle of the summer.
K: I want to try to get the picture. You pull up in this truck with Jimmy, and you go through the gate, and you go around the back. Were you like the guy in the movie who was handing her the laundry? I thought it was interesting that he just took it out of the van and then the women had to carry the heavy stuff in.
T: No, we actually went in to the laundry. I carried it into the actual room and dropped it. I went out and got another and each time I went in and looked and there was this look on their faces. This look of despair on these women’s faces. And they weren’t that old. They were young women. There were some of them who knew nothing else. But there were some of them there who were just a few years older than me, who were in their early 20s with that same fughin’ haircut. Straight haircut and brown smock with blue overalls. I always remembered these brown stockings with big hob nail shoes. It was the summer. You don’t need to wear those in the summer.
K: Did any of them look up and make eye contact?
T: Yeah, they did. They looked as if they were amazed, as if to say, “It’s an amazing creature.” I remember making eye contact with a few of them and they looked as if they were thinking, “Oh, there’s something out there…There’s something else out there.” As tho they were remembering something that they had had, and it was gone. And it would never come back.
It’s amazing that somebody can kill your spirit, can kill your fughin’ spirit. Can kill everything that lives in you. Suppress it and eventually kill it. There must have been a few women in there who tried to break the system. But they were broken, you know. Those nuns…broke them. I was thinking about it all night. It was like this Catholic fughin’ shit that had nothing to do whatsoever with God. Can you tell me in the Bible where there is anything related to that? There’s nothing. It’s just this fear of women being equal to them. Amazing.
K: Did you get the feeling that part of it was because you were a guy walking into this room full of women?
T: No. I didn’t. I just got the feeling that this was the highlight of their fughin’ day. Or the highlight of their week. There was finally something different going on. Here were these two guys, one a bald, 50-year-old, short, fat guy who had a job to do and me, his helper, this 17 or 18-year-old guy with long black hair. Walking into this room full of these women and they were all dressed the same. I came out of there with this feeling that there’s something fughin’ wrong here. You know, this is like a 19th century workhouse scenario. Women who have no hope. And I remember thinking that I should ask them, why don’t you walk out? Why don’t you just walk out that gate? They couldn’t, you know. There was nowhere for them to go.
K: When you walked in did you feel like, oh, they’re being punished. I remember from Catholic school thinking, well, that person is being punished.
T: I just remember that I felt that it was sad that they weren’t enjoying the 60s. They weren’t enjoying whatever we were enjoying.
K: They were cut off.
T: Yeah. And I remember saying to my friends, “I was in the laundry today, the Magdalene laundry. There were these women who didn’t really look like women, who all looked the same.” Maybe I didn’t verbalize it right but I was trying to explain to them that every one of them had the same fughin’ hair cut. They had the same shoes, they had the same brown bulletproof fughin’ tights. They had the same brown skirts and they had blue overalls, every fughin’ one of them. There were like 30 or 40 of them and they all looked alike.
K: They stared.
T: Yeah. Every one of them stared.
K: At you.
T: At me. You know what it was like? It was like, Oh look at him. It’s like a duck, like a white duck, and everything else I’ve seen that day was chickens. I’m sure there’s a whole load of these women who remember that day but never want to talk about it. But they saw this guy in the laundry who was never there before, who had never been there before, and I wasn’t dressed the same as they were. I was in a khaki fughin’ uniform. My hair was down to my fughin’ chest.
You know, you get a moment. You just get a moment in time and you say, this is not right. You know there’s something wrong with this. I can’t verbalize it. It was like they all seemed to be focused on me, which made me uncomfortable.
K: Did any of them talk to you?
T: No. No, no.
K: When you would pass this place on the bus, before you had been in, what would you think? Did you think it was a prison?
T: I thought it was an asylum. A place where they keep mad people.
K: And after you‘d been in there, and you would go by on the bus, what would you think when you saw it?
T: When I’d go by on the bus I’d feel that, you know, there were human beings in there. There were human beings that maybe were not mad.
I had a neighbor like Mr. O’Connor in the movie. In the late 60s his daughter got pregnant by the next door neighbor who was married. And he sent her off to the Isle of Man to pick tulips.
K: (Laughs.) Is that really where she went or do you think she went to one of these…
T: No, actually I think she went to Jersey. She went to the Isle of Jersey in the Channel Isles to pick tulips.
K: Is that what they said in the neighborhood?
T: Yeah, she’s picking tulips. She got a great job in the Channel isles.
K: What did you figure out later?
T: About two years later I found out from word that got around that she got pregnant by sleeping with the married neighbor, who was like this weird absolute joke of a man.
K: When you say sleeping with…
T: She had sex. Right.
K: But do you think it was her idea?
T: Yeah, it was her idea. I’m sure she was attracted to him in some way and made a mistake, got pregnant.
K: Do you think it was his idea?
T: I think it was both their ideas. And you know if she had got pregnant maybe five or six years earlier her dad could have literally put her into this Magdalene home.
K: And when she came back what did she say? What did people say?
T: She gave up tulip picking.
K: (Laughs.) When she came back, did people really believe she had been picking tulips?
T: I did. A lot of the neighbors did. I’m sure they did. I did
K: I think she was down the street giving birth.
T: No. Who knows? She could have been in Inchicore. She could have been in the Magdalene laundry.
K: But if she was in the Magdalene laundry she wouldn’t have been back at the end of the year.
K: How did she look when she came back?
T: She looked great. She married a guy from Offaly. They have a great life. They’re happily married. I’m sure he doesn’t know. But you know there’s this part of her… She would have this like 30-year-old, 32, 35-year-old child now. Who has never met her. But you see this wouldn’t happen if women were in charge, you know. This wouldn’t happen.
K: That’s a whole different discussion. Besides the day when you went to the laundry, what did you hear about the Magdalene women?
T: I heard about women who had gone astray. You know, women who were too sexy, or women who men were attracted to. I heard that they had to go to England or they had to go to the Isle of Jersey or they had to go somewhere.
K: But they wouldn’t say why?
T: No, it was like shhh. Shh. Shh. I knew that there was something wrong. I didn’t want to fughin’ know at the time.
Like our neighbor, she’s married now. Her husband probably doesn’t know that she had this experience. But there’s this baby in Jersey now who has no idea that he has this whole network of people who I know and he doesn’t, that his grandfather died 15 or 20 years ago. He doesn’t know his uncle Andrew, he doesn’t know that his aunt died of breast cancer when she was 35. He doesn’t know all of this stuff. He doesn’t know what I know and he’s missing out on this. That’s what bugs me about this. It’s like they killed links, you know. They took babies away. They killed links.
K: What bothered me the most was that anyone could take a baby from a mother.
T: I was e-mailing to my sister Liz tonight and I was telling her that I had gone to see the Magdalene Sisters. I said to Liz, thank God that mam and dad were somewhat protective of us. When our sister Mary got pregnant, what if my dad had been like our neighbor, who just said, No. I don’t accept that. Send her away. My sister Mary married Brian and they’re still married. And both of these incidents happened at the same time. Our neighbor was like 20 years older than my dad. He came from a different generation, you know. He came from a generation where that doesn’t happen to your daughter.
K: But it did.
T: But it did.
K: So he sent her to pick tulips.
T: In Jersey. He sent her out of the house. He sent her away from any support that she had.
You know, looking back on it, and what I saw in that movie tonight, I wish I had been more sensitive. Because when I saw these women all looking the same, I thought, there’s something wrong here. That movie summed it up well. It didn’t actually go far enough. The two women in the movie got out, they got out of it. But there were women there from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. There were women there from the 40s until it closed in the 90s. Women who knew nothing but life inside it.
K: Let me ask you something else. When we came out of the movie you said that you had thought, there you were with all those women and why couldn’t you have done something. What made you feel that way about them? What could you have done?
T: First of all, I probably would have never done anything. In hindsight, who was I to make these women move? They had been institutionalised for so long. But I mean, if I had just gone over and said to one of them, Why don’t you leave? Why don’t you get out of here? And the thought stuck in my mind that I could save them, that I could save just one of them.
K: Thank you, honey.