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Magdalene Laundries

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Irish Films Discussion:     Magdalene Laundries

A very Irish sort of hell

Mary Norris lived in one of the barbaric Magdalene laundries, a place for "immoral" Irish girls, and now the subject of a film. She tells Angela Lambert reality was "a thousand times worse" than the film.

"Those places were the Irish gulags for women. When you went inside their doors you left behind your dignity, identity and humanity. We were locked up, had no outside contacts and got no wages, although we worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. What else is that but slavery? And to think that they were doing all this in the name of a loving God! I used to tell God I hated him."

"Those places" were the Magdalene laundries: convents throughout Ireland that contained huge washing workhouses run by nuns, which were originally set up in the early 19th century as a refuge for prostitutes. A hundred years later they had become prisons to which Irish Catholic girls and young women "in moral danger" could be sent by their parish priest - the term covered anyone from single mothers (who had often become pregnant as a result of rape or incest) to girls who were simply high-spirited or "bold". Eventually the laundries would spread to England.

Many never saw their families or the outside world again but lived their entire lives behind walls until they were buried in unmarked communal graves. They, in their tens of thousands, are "the disappeared" of Ireland.

Peter Mullan's film, The Magdalene Sisters, has for the first time provided a detailed account of the brutal regime suffered by the women working in the laundries. Mary Norris was one of them. Taken away from her "unsuitable" mother (who was having a relationship with a local farmer) when she was 12, Norris later spent two years at a laundry run by the Good Shepherd Order, in Cork, which closed down only in 1994 (the last Magdalene laundry, in Dublin, closed in 1996).

"Plenty of people will think the events in the film have been exaggerated to make it more dramatic," Norris says. "But I tell you, the reality of those places was a thousand times worse. There's a scene in which a girl is crying in the dormitory and another goes over to her bed to comfort her. That could never have happened. You weren't allowed any private conversation. Again, in the film the girls get glimpses of the outside world and even ordinary people who don't live in the laundries. In reality, we were totally incarcerated. You could see nothing except sky.

"Many survivors refuse to talk about what they went through, but I've never been ashamed to have been in one of those places. The shame is not mine; the church should be ashamed. They say now they're sorry - what they mean is, sorry they were found out."

Today Norris lives with her second husband, Victor Norris, in a tiny cottage in the west of Ireland. It is an idyllic landscape of green fields and rolling hills, the Atlantic visible as a faint grey line on the horizon. Her living-room basks in the warmth of a log fire - a far cry from the forbidding stone walls and prison-like building where she spent her teenage years.

Now 70, Norris is a lively, youthful woman with a smooth complexion and cropped, silky grey hair. Once she begins talking, memories and anecdotes pour forth in an unstoppable flow.

"You had no rights, they even took your name away. The day I arrived at the laundry, one of the nuns said, 'You can't be called Mary' (because it was a holy name), we'll call you Myra, and so for two years, Myra became my name. You had no contact with your family; you weren't even allowed to speak. When we sat in a sewing circle, or at night in the dormitory, they always put older women between us.

"They were the eyes and ears of the nuns, and if anyone tried to have a conversation, they'd report you. We had to pray and pray and pray, all day long - to stop us talking to the other girls, I suppose. There was no spark of light or hope - it was just living hell. I felt like a caged animal.

"We worked long hours every day, scrubbing, bleaching and ironing for the whole of Limerick - hotels, hospitals, schools, colleges - for which the nuns charged, of course, though we never saw a penny. It was an industry and they were earning a fortune from our labour. The local people condoned this, or at least swept it under the carpet. They knew damn well the nuns weren't doing the washing."

Norris, the eldest of eight children, was born in Sneem, in South Kerry, in 1932. After her father's death from cancer in 1945, Norris's mother, Brigid, formed a relationship with a local farmer.

"He was nice to us so we were happy," says Norris, "and if he did stay late some nights, we children never saw or heard anything. But one day the local priest came to my mother and said that either she and the man must be at the church door at eight o'clock the next morning or she must give up the relationship, but she refused.

"About two months later, as my mother was breast-feeding the baby, a car drew up and a police officer and a child protection officer got out and told my mother they'd come to take us away as she was a bad example. We were all crying but it was no use; we were taken in front of a judge and made wards of court. We went to the orphanage that same night. It was called an industrial school, though all they ever taught us was Christian doctrine. My two brothers, crying and crying, were sent to a different place run by the Christian Brothers.

"We six sisters were all put into different dormitories and given disinfectant baths. One of the Sisters said, 'You should be glad to be here. Your mother is a tramp and I sincerely hope you won't turn out like her.' To my eternal shame, I answered, 'Yes, Sister.'

"When I was 16 they got me the job as maid at a big house in Tralee with the sister of one of the nuns, but after I'd played truant one evening to go to see a film I was taken back to the orphanage. The Sister who opened the door said, 'I always knew you'd be a tramp and you've proved me right'." Next day they took me to a doctor who examined me painfully - I saw blood on his fingers - and then said, 'I don't know what's wrong with those nuns up there; this young woman is intact'.

"I didn't even know what the word meant; I was a good girl and had never messed about with boys, but all the same they sent me to the Magdalene laundry in Cork. My sisters stayed in the orphanage and I wasn't to see them for another four years."

Norris was made to wear the Magdalene laundry's regulation clothes: her breasts flattened with a calico strip tightly knotted at one side and a long, shapeless dress to conceal her shape. She wore thick stockings and hob-nailed boots. It would be hard to imagine a more degrading institutional uniform, but its purpose was "to denote you as a penitent and a sinner".

"Once I refused to work and that evening I was made to lie prostrate, arms outstretched, in front of everyone to show penitence."

Norris herself was never beaten but she saw the effects on others: "I remember one woman who created havoc and was taken away and that night she wasn't in the dormitory. The nuns said, 'Oh, she's in the infirmary, she isn't well'. So you knew.

"I could have coped with a beating - the pain goes away after a while. But you don't get over the emotional pain of being constantly put down, told you're no good, your family has abandoned you, you're a sinner and must do penance. It was made very plain that we were low-life, whether or not we'd done anything like having a baby. The psychological effects are with me to this day.

"Although I've no proof, there's no doubt in my mind that some girls committed suicide, even though it was a mortal sin. One morning, they'd just have disappeared; nobody ever told us why. There was a wall beside the laundry with a long drop that I could have climbed up and jumped from and I often thought about it. The thing that stopped me was the thought that I might not kill myself; I might just break my neck and end up crippled for life."

Tears come to her eyes as she remembers. "At night when I couldn't sleep I used to go to one of the toilets that had a skylight above it and look up at the moon and stars, trying to keep in touch with the outside world. I think it kept me sane."

Norris escaped after two years when a letter arrived from an aunt in America, asking what had happened to her niece. The nuns feared outsiders, especially from America, and Norris, by now 19, was released. "Probably some money changed hands," she says cynically.

A year later she was reunited with her mother and sisters, who had been released from the orphanage.

Her mother had by this time married the farmer, but the relationship had broken up. Eventually she moved to London with Norris.

"My mother and I both lived on the same street in Battersea for 14 years. She died in 1989, surrounded by her children."

"Going to England was my salvation," Norris adds. "It got me away from Ireland and its church. But in the end, I came back because I'm Irish, for better or worse, and this is my country.

"Two of my sisters are now in Texas, one in Canada, one in Germany, and none of them would ever come back. My two brothers, who were put with the Christian Brothers (a notoriously abusive order, also recently exposed) both became alcoholics. One was later murdered, the other died in a fire."

Norris had a brief, early marriage that didn't last. She has a daughter from the marriage but doesn't wish to discuss her, apart from saying she is now 46.

Although she still feels bitter about the way the nuns treated her, after years of therapy she can concede: "They may have come into the order believing they were saving souls for God, but the church made them sadistic.

"If you give people absolute power they always abuse it, whether they're nuns or priests or government officials. I dare say a few nuns had enough humanity to feel doubt or even guilt. "They weren't all evil. I remember one, Sister Dorothea, who worked in the laundry - she was kind. But she's the only one."

"I've had a lot of counselling," she adds, "but it doesn't take away the pain. Telling people about it is the best therapy I can have. I'm not doing this just for Mary Norris, but for the women in their graves who had nobody to speak for them, and for the people still alive who still can't speak and still feel shame.

"We were not riff-raff or children of a lesser God but children from a decent family whose lives were ruined. I was deprived of the possibility of solace - and yet this Christmas, for the first time in 30 years, I went to midnight mass. Jesus, if he exists, is still my Jesus."

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