Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Magdalene Laundries of Stoneybatter

Stoneybatter used to have at least one Magdalene Laundry: St Mary's in Stanhope Street, controlled by the Sisters of Charity.

It turns up on page 153 of Black Marigolds, the second book in the "Moss Reid" series:
When a new girl or mother arrived they would strip away her clothes and her name. She’d be called a number, taken downstairs to the laundry and told to wash away her sins. 
In recent years they’d rewritten history, said it wasn’t really a laundry in the Stanner, in Stanhope Street – said how could it be, when it was just a training centre? Yet the place had a laundry. It was a laundry. Anyone who worked in the laundry knew full well what it was ...
And that was the State's official line, right up to 2012: St Mary's was "a training centre", not a laundry or a gulag or a Magdalene institution.

"There is no evidence to suggest it was a Magdalene institution," the Department of Justice insisted. Then in February last year the line changed: finally, officially, Stanhope Street was a Magdalene laundry. "In all but name," the official report concluded.

The Army and the Laundry

Yet the historical evidence was all around. The following is one very small example I came across while doing research for the book. It comes from An Cosantóir, the Irish Defence Journal, from the mid-1970s.

At the time adverts would appear in the monthly journal from a "St Mary's Launderers, Cleaners" in Stanhope Street.

The following are three of these ads (click on the following three links to see how the ads appear in the full PDFs of the journals, but bear in mind that the files are quite big) from March 1975, April 1975 and September 1976.

As far as I can see the three ads are  identical - probably repeat orders that re-used the same blocks of type, month after month after month.

These are not top secret documents or obscure pamphlets. They are from the official journal of the State's armed forces. At the time it was published around the corner from Stanhope Street at "Army Headquarters, Parkgate". Tens of thousands of copies of each issue were distributed, in the officers' and NCOs' messes, or by postal subscription, or on sale to the public in the bookshops of the Eason and Eblana chains.

Even today - in these tough times, with print under threat from the Internet - the monthly magazine has 25,000 readers and is sold in 191 outlets across Ireland, including 41 Eason bookshops and 38 Tesco Extra/Super Stores.

A line at the end of the ads refers to the laundry having not one but two "branches at Stoneybatter and Arbour Hill", but I haven't been able to pin down the latter's exact location.

The Army as a customer

The Army itself was a significant customer of the Magdalene Laundries. In the early 1940s some State institutions including the Army switched from "commercial" to "institutional" laundries (i.e. the Magdalenes). Concerns were raised in the Dáil at the time - not about the cruelty and exploitation of the women in the Magdalenes, but that jobs were being lost in commercial laundries.

The Minister for Defence, Oscar Traynor, said the contracts with the Magdalene laundries "contain a fair wages clause" - though how a wage can be fair when it's not paid to the women concerned is impossible to grasp. It was unpaid slavery.

For more, see the late Mary Raftery's piece "State apology is only way to express wrong done to Magdalenes" (the Irish Times, 20 June 2011 - subscription required, or open in an incognito browser window).