Escape From The Magdalene Laundry


From the newly published leaflet Remember, Respect and Record: The Magdalene Women of Galway

COPE Galway has launched a leaflet called Remember, Respect and Record: The Magdalen Women of Galway edited by John Tierney.

It focuses on the lives of women who lived and worked in a Magdelene Laundry on Foster Street in Galway from 1870 to 1984, which was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy in 1854, and records how several women escaped.

The publication of the leaflet comes as COPE Galway prepares to renovate the convent building on Foster Street into a centre for women and children who experience domestic abuse.

Maisie Kenny (not her real name), and who was known as number 105, was put in the laundry when she was aged 14 in 1948 and she escaped in 1952.

In the leaflet, she’s recorded as saying:

“I escaped out of it in 1952, the late Christmas of 1951. In a deluge [of rain]. Which left me well over 3.5 years there… I escaped out of it. I went over the roof. It’s as simple as that!

“It took some doing, and I think it was the one time in my life that I knew what real fear was.

“And the fear that was, up on the roof that night, if I fell, I could be killed, that wouldn’t bother me, If I was gone I’d be gone! But if I was caught I’d never get a chance again.”

“I’d get watched around the place, the hair cut, everything. But there was no way I’d get a second chance!”…

“The window sills were very low, you could put your foot on them. Well that window was right beside the drainpipe up to the roof, so I worked up that drainpipe, on to the roof, I had to negotiate a V shape on the top. I was afraid you see, the slates were wet, but, just in case, the Man Above wanted to make sure I succeeded so I did. That’s the way I look at it!”

My immediate thought then when I came out was “I’m out! I’m out!”. But no time for anymore thoughts, “keep going”. But the sensation of being outside, looking in, was something! I’ve never forgotten it!

Áine Hickey and her sister, who owned a shop on Foster Street, told how they saw a mass escape from the laundry at some point in the 1960s.

Aine is recorded as saying:

I came home for lunch one day and there had been workmen with the ladders up to the windows and they had taken out the windows. Maybe it was the frames that had to be replaced but they had the windows taken out, and as I came in for lunch, which we did everyday, from school, we had time to run up and down, and my sister was going, ‘come in, come in quick, close the door and look out the window!’

“Well what was she talking about? So she says ‘look, just look!’ The workmen had gone off on their lunch break and they had left the ladders up to the top windows which had been removed and the girls had taken the opportunity. Aprons on, uniforms on and whatever.

“And she was saying ‘we don’t see them, we don’t see them, nobody sees what is happening. Don’t go out, don’t open the door, just watch and see how many’s going to get out like?’

Well I think it was about 30 got out that day. To the best of my memory. And they were just literally running up the road, or running across Fair Green which was still a fair green at the time. Or it had just started to be turned into a car park.

“And we just were saying ‘Just go, go quick, go as far as ye can!’ Which they did. Now unfortunately some didn’t even know their way around, and might have been back that evening, or the guards had caught a few.

“A good few had made their escape and got helped by people around town who would have seen them and realised, and went ‘aw come on, just come in!’ I know I had a friend I worked with, she used to tell me a story about her house down in Woodquay where somebody came knocking on their door, literally knocking on the door.

“And she was only about my age at the time as well. And the mother had answered the door and immediately saw, realised, ‘Just come in!’ you know? And that person was given clothes and her fare to England. I know it bothers me too and there were several stories like that.

“I think somebody on Magdalen Terrace had taken somebody in as well, that day. If not more than one. Either tried to get them jobs someplace in Ireland, or even in town. They would have come back and say, that’s it, they are settled with that person, they are fine. Looked after, all that sort of thing.

But I know that certainly a lot made their way to England or Dublin, they would have been given clothes and fare and just told ‘Just go!’ rather than go back inside, you know. It was high up. I remember, apron and skirt blowing in the breeze as they were coming down. I can still see them, but they went.”

As I said, I don’t know whether the workmen accidentally or deliberately left the ladders up and vanished off for their lunch. I don’t know who they were, don’t know whether they were local. Or not. Never thought about that. Possibly locals at the time. But that was known by us as ‘The Great Escape’.

The leaflet can be read in full here

Pic: Cope Galway

35 thoughts on “Escape From The Magdalene Laundry

  1. Ollie Cromwell

    Good to read that even in the 1950s England was offering a safe space for Irish people badly let down by their own government and system.
    It would be interesting to know how many of them came back but given the stranglehold the Catholic church had on Ireland until only recently I doubt there were many.
    Like the Tuam babies this was a dark moment in Irish history.

    1. small ads

      I was surprised to find that it was going on in colonial history too; reading local papers from 1902 I read of thousands of woman and children incarcerated in workhouses and reformatories because they were old, orphaned or poor. Perhaps you know the English music hall song – traditionally ending with an old couple being separated as they go separately into the ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ side of the workhouse? It brings tears to my eyes every time: My Old Dutch. Been sweetened up and neutered now into a sentimental song, but if you ever see it performed in the traditional way it’ll run down your spine.

      1. Ollie Cromwell

        There’s good and bad in all country’s histories.
        Britain had an Empire but it also abolished slavery in it.
        But this stuff was happening in Ireland in the 1950s.
        Rather like abortion and same sex marriage Ireland is just a little slow at getting to the modernising party at times.

        1. small ads

          Britain was a true world leader in the 1950s and 1960s: in founding its National Health, then a fair system of healthcare for all, based on an equitable taxation of income and goods; in trade union rights, in equality rights, in the arts – with working-class writers and artists at last having a voice. It was a resurgence of these rights all across Europe, but Britain was superb.
          Countries advance and retreat again, and maybe advance again, in their civilisation. Countries also advance in various ways at different speeds – one country may be flying ahead with one advance and be passed out by others in different rights.

        2. ReproButina

          While this utterly reprehensible stuff was happening in Ireland in the 1950’s thoroughly modern Britain was shipping orphans abroad in their thousands while beating, murdering and sexually abusing the150,000 detainees they had in camps in Kenya.

          Good and bad indeed.

          1. ReproButina

            Did you fail reading comprehension in school david?

            Ollie mentioned how wonderfully advanced and civilised Britain was in the 50’s. I drew attention to human rights abuses by Britain in the 1950s. That was a direct response to his comment and nothing to do with any bias by anyone. He made appoint, I countered it. That’s the very definition of debate.

        3. Spaghetti Hoop

          Britain was one of the main profiteers of slavery. The abolition bill was rejected several times in Parliament until eventually public outrage and lobbyists like the quakers and William Wilberforce pushed for it to pass – and they initially only abolished the trading of slaves, not slavery itself. So commending them for abolishing slavery is a bit rich, given their fierce fondness for it in the centuries previous.

    2. Elm wood

      In this Ollie we can agree , not only our persecuted or different left for the safety of Britain , but also the brightest, the artistic , those with a spark of genius , Ireland was at a loss because of this, and it was Britain’s gain not saying Britain a all pleasant, it was hard and life for the majority of these people began at the bottom of society. But they were at least allowed the aspirations any parent should expect for their children, within a generation their children had entered the professional ranks and life got better , today Britain is in the main better because of them.

      1. Ollie Cromwell

        For all its faults Britain has been a welcoming and inclusive society for a very long time.

  2. Daisy Chainsaw

    I hope those decent “Just go.” people who gave these women and girls help had their goodness repaid to them. It would be nice to think the ladders were left deliberately to give the Maggies the chance to escape their slavers. And above all, I hope the escaped women had good lives after the cruelty of the church and their laundries.

Comments are closed.