Until recently women in Ireland who had the bad luck to fall pregnant out of wedlock were regarded as scarlet women who’d brought disgrace to their family, community, church and themselves. The religious orders of Ireland were lurking in the shadows to deal with the ‘problem’. They ran Mother and Baby Homes (or Magdalene Laundries) throughout the country on behalf of the Irish State. The pregnant women (many only teenagers) would go there – usually sent by their families to escape social disgrace; be imprisoned for the duration of the pregnancy; and have her baby snatched by the nuns after birth. The baby would then – if it was lucky – be given/sold to a family abroad. The proceeds from this human trafficking remained within the church. The mothers could then leave the laundry – her secret safe, but separated forever from her child. Other times they remained in the Laundry for the rest of their lives, working as near slaves for the nuns. A Galway local historian named Catherine Corless started investigating the Mother and Baby in Tuam, County Galway some years ago. Between the years 1925 and 1961, she discovered the death records for 796 children, but burial records for only two. Where were the others? It turns out they were buried in an unmarked mass grave, their corpses placed in a disused septic tank. The Mother and Baby Home Commission was set up in 2015 to investigate eighteen such homes. Its final report was to be given to the Minister for Children this week.
The last laundry in operation in Ireland closed its doors in 1996 – the year Ireland legalised divorce – and was located on Sean McDermott Street, close to where I live. The building remains untouched but there is a campaign to turn it into a museum. I decided I would take the scenic route and have a look.
As I crossed the North Strand I noticed something amiss in front of me. A portly gentleman was staggering in the middle of the road in front of the oncoming traffic. As two cyclists passed him he collapsed. I will admit to cynicism at this point. I thought to myself ‘Oh this looks like some compensation scam he’s playing’. I walked over to the scene. One of the cyclists was calling for an ambulance. I told her we were at the junction of the North Circular Road and North Strand on the Five Lamps Corner. Then I noticed the blood pumping from his hand. He seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. This looked alarming. With the assistance of another man, we pulled him off the busy road onto the footpath and placed him in recovery position. The other man seemed to know him. Having had occasion to collapse in a swoon, due to low blood sugar in the past, I asked him if he was diabetic. His friend said no, and gave a gesture of gulping from a bottle. Apparently he was so drunk he’d fallen down. He seemed to be bit more coherent so I asked him if he was epileptic. You can’t assume simply drunkenness. He replied no in an accent of the Polish persuasion. This probably wasn’t a scam then – merely a case of life-endangering public intoxication. The ambulance arrived and I bid my farewell.
At the corner of Buckingham Street I noticed a house decorated with vampires and other hellish characters. I walked over and read the plaque on the wall which indicated that this has been the onetime residence of a Mr. Bram Stoker of the Undead fame. I never knew he’d lived there.
Further up the street was the Magdalene Laundry – boarded up of course, but still an imposing building. I think a museum on this site would be a good memorial to the thousands of women and children abused by the church and state in the twentieth century.
Continuing my stroll I reached O’Connell Street via a route I had never heretofore taken. I was pleased – I enjoy discovering new means of getting places. After collection of my trousers I turned around and made my way back, stopping for a moment to listen to the headbangers protesting about 5G masts and compulsory vaccines outside the GPO. I glared at their unmasked faces while making sure that my own mask covered my mouth and nose.
O’Connell Street – Ireland’s main street was largely deserted. It felt like deja-vu, as if we were back in March.
Luckily I had a stylish new pair of jeans to try on, upon my return home. They fit wonderfully, so it’s been a productive day.