Truth hides, buried behind a dour stone grey wall, and only a stench of its silence reveals it ignominy, a mass grave of forgotten children, now lie vulnerable, the dead corpses were piled, naked, one on top of the other, in an unmarked hidden barrow, a dark place of Catholic shame, where broken and discarded women and children hide, consigned to oblivion. A secret undercroft, a mound of dirty secrets and a shameful Church’s criminal acts and unscrupulous misdeeds, their grievous sins, prepared and buried by christian apologetics. Burying their guilt is an important factor by the Catholic Church in perpetuating their obsessive compulsive disorder, there is always the crushing guilt. A small stone Celtic Cross, droops into the gravel pit, and the two black mirror marble tablets on either side, listing some of the names, lies also in ruins, knocked in half by some furious grieving family member, or a wanton act of enraged vandalism.
It is crucial that each child’s and each woman’s final resting place is accurately recorded. Thousands of children and women died behind Magdalene Laundry enclosures, never stopped to see the outside world again. It’s hard to believe that some of the destitute women, spend well over 70 years in these horrendous Religious Institutions, as slaves. The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were Institutions run by Irish Nuns, which first set up shop in 1922 when Ireland became independent. Until the last laundry closed in1996 around 50,000 to 60,000 women were forced into these brutal workhouses in which they were often referred to only as a number. Long before the Nazis in Germany’s death camps, used tattooed numbers on the inmates in their work camps, the inventive Irish Nuns introduced a new series of registration numbers which was introduced in 1920’s and remained in use until 1996 when the last Magdalene Laundry closed. In some cases, the Nuns even wrote the numbers in ink on the woman’s arm or her child’s arm. The numbering scheme was divided into “regular,” 1001 for example 1002..and onward, covering all the women and children in their Magdalene Laundries. The “regular” series consisted of a consecutive numerical series that was used to identify the women, their children.
The numbers were then entered into a hand- written ledger by the duty Nun, against the handwritten name of the woman or child. Following the introduction of other categories of women, like older women, teenage girls or if their was a child with her, be either a boy or girl into the Magdalene Laundries, the numbering scheme, became more complex. In many cases the number was sown into her work apron and would in all cases, she would be address by that number. In addition the ink ledger which was 18 inches by 12 inches, and 4 or 5 inches thick had other information about the women, for example her county, village or town, her crime, her children, her new job within Magdalene Laundry, even her attitude, for example, was she difficult, rebellious etc…then her date of birth, religion, secret codes the Nuns used within the ink ledger for themselves, about the inmates, for example her appearances, whether she would read or write, type of family, lower classes or middle class, and most important her supposed crime.
The use of the serial numbers in the Magdalene Laundries on the women and their children, was the way the Nuns used the numeral system of un-making and dehumanising the impecunious women and their hapless children as normal human beings. Yet the numbers the Nuns used in the Magdalene Laundries also became the routinisation and rationalisation of the large bureaucracy that was our Magdalene Laundries system. The Irish Nuns numeral ideas were based on conformity, and the suppression of personal individuality by being a number, and wearing the Religious Institution’s uniform, removed the woman’s identity, she would forever be trapped in the matrix of the Magdalene Laundries. What a brilliant way to underscore the depersonalisation of Magdalene women and their children, so powerful. The serial numbers were used as a way to dehumanise the women and their children, as was the whole shearing of a flock of waiting women and other special victimisation including, beating, forced rape and sexual slavery. In addition sterilisation experiments targeted some of the women, and their children in the Magdalene Laundries by the medical drug companies, while many other of the medical experiments, also subjected the captive women to inhumane and degrading treatment.
The Nuns knew the value some of the women placed on their beautiful hair and features, so the spiteful Nuns sheared the women's hair with glee within a few days of their entry into the Magdalene Laundries, and that, with the effect of a starvation diet on their menstrual cycles added to the humiliation of the Magdalene Laundries experience. Particularly striking and beautiful, looking women, also received special targeting for brutal treatment at the hands of a few of the vindictive Nuns in the Magdalene Laundries. The punishment of shaving a woman's head had biblical origins, so the envious Nuns were told by the Magdalene Laundries visiting Priests, this evil practice dated back to the dark ages, with the Visigoths, and approved by God and the Catholic Bible, the Nuns were told.
During the middle ages, this mark of shame, denuding a woman of what was supposed to be her most seductive feature, was commonly a punishment for adultery, which was melted out gleefully in all the Magdalene Laundries, with the approval of the visiting, agitated Priest. It’s the correct punishment for these impudent and immoral hussies and prostitutes in your wonderful care, was the encouragement shouted out from the pulpits by the imbecilic, sexually frustrated Priests in the Magdalene Laundries Churches, that the humiliated women were also forced to attend. So shaving women's heads was a mark of retribution and humiliation, endorsed by the wider Irish Catholic Church which was a standard feature of all the Magdalene Laundries, run by the Nuns. For the Nuns that ran the Magdalene Laundries shaving the heads of the fallen women, was a sacred duty and acceptance in treating the women as nothing more than mere prostitutes, and that was the norm.
Incoming new women and their children were assigned a Magdalene Laundry serial number which was sewn to their laundry uniforms and as I said earlier some of the women had hand-written numbers by ink brio, on their arms, written by the Nuns. If a woman or child died in the Magdalene Laundries, the bodies of the women or child was stripped of their clothing bearing the Magdalene Laundries serial number. Any and all person letters of the dead, mementos, like a locket, gold rings, gold or silver crosses and photos and any history were confiscated, the letters and photos were burned, the jewellery was either kept or sold by the Nuns, another lucrative side business for the Nuns, stealing and selling of stolen jewellery from the dead. Its even more grotesque, when learning about this evil of the Nuns that ran the Magdalene Laundries, this species of evil, was a further exploitation of the dead. To add further insult, the woman or child’s family were never informed, and if by chance they were, it was because the Nuns wanted money from the grieving family to pay for the burial of the woman or child. Other personal effects like clothing, shoes and handbag of the dead person had great value at the time, and would now be sold for profit in their charity shops. Wallets with photos, other engraved rings, or fashion jewellery, hats, shawls, scarfs, and overcoats, skirts, blouses, stockings, knickers, etc.. The women were usually allowed to carry the few things they had on them at the time of their imprisonment in the Magdalene Laundries.
Many personal belongings, the grotesque theft, that were taken from the women when they arrived first at the Magdalene Laundries, were the so called “personal effects. Many personal belongings generally have little material value but a high sentimental value for the woman and her family members. More often than not they are a last personal memento they had, all the rest of the person’s assets were immediately sold on by the Nuns that ran the Magdalene Laundries, another highly lucrative business.
Given the mortality rate at the Magdalene Laundries and practice of removing all clothing, there was no way to identify the bodies after all the clothing was removed, and this was the intent of the Nuns as the Nuns dumped the women or children into mass graves, behind the Magdalene Laundries with no name, no identity, and certainly no serial number, total dehumanisation was the intent.
The hand-written ledger with the dead woman or child serial number was then altered and maybe her death noted, normally, entered would be, “she died from flu”, or some other known medical condition, and not the beatings in which she or her child usually died from. The Nuns knew it was an affront upon personal dignity of the women and their children, in particular, humiliating and degrading the women and their children so as to gain total control over them. This is why, when mass graves are found in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, the newer Nuns who came into the Magdalene Laundries system, were unable to identify or name the person in the mass grave, years later, how could they, the buried women and children had no identifications or serial numbers, or any other identifications on them. All personal identification, including jewellery were removed by the Nuns.
Any correspondent numbers with initial names or full names in the ledger never matched, any and all other documents were similarly destroyed by fire. The wily Nuns intended to erase not just the body, but any lingering memory of the women, or child haven’t been in the Magdalene Laundries. The alteration of all documents was to confuse all and anybody who would research or ask questions, years later. So a few hundred bodies dumped in a mass grave at the back of all Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, when discovered, would never have an identity, or any DNA, to match. The now outraged Nuns when they learnt about the mass grave would show their indignation that others, outsiders, found the mass graves, and the peeve Nuns would then lie, like the pros they are, the lies would tip right of their righteous tongues with furious indignation…
Most of the women in the Magdalene Laundries were denied adequate food, forbidden from making friends and suffered hard labour for 14 hours a day. Half of the women were under 23. Named after the Bible's redeemed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, the workhouses were ostensibly run to reform 'fallen women' but their remit widened to house girls who were considered 'promiscuous' along with unmarried mothers, the criminal, mentally unwell, and girls who seen as a burden on their families. Most Survivors say that they were treated as mere slaves, and in many cases the girls' families were told by the Nuns that ran the Magdalene Laundries, that their daughters were studying at school and many families even received falsified reports from the Nuns.
Babies born to the unwed women were taken from them at birth and illegally adopted, or harvested, most of the women found themselves imprisoned and unable to leave the Magdalene Laundries. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 but it took until 2003 for the Government of Ireland to issue an apology to the thousands of these women and their children, it was to late, the enormous damage had begun. The Irish State was directly and fundamentally involved in the Magdalene Laundry Institutions with the conniving of the Irish Catholic Church, even the Irish State awarding the Magdalene Laundries, lucrative Government contracts. Sadly the large majority of the women spoke of the deep outrage they felt due to their loss of freedom, they were not informed why they were there, they had no information on when they could leave and were denied all contacts with the outside world, including their children, family and friends. The legacy of the ineradicably evil Magdalene Laundries of Ireland since the 1920s, was that over 378,000 women and their children, one time or other were imprisoned and humiliated in these State run Religious Institutions, sanctioned by both the misogynistic Irish Catholic Church and the spineless and easily led Irish State, all to control women bodies and their reproduction rights.
Owen Felix O'Neill
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017