In Honor of Brigid, In Honor of the Magdalenes

Yesterday was St. Brigid’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. Brigid has long been revered in Ireland, and her day is marked with many special rituals and traditions to honor her. This year marks the first time her day will be recognized as a public holiday in Ireland (on February 6), a recognition surely long overdue.

Outside Ireland, many Catholics and Christians know little to nothing about her and may not even be aware there are other Irish saints (patron or otherwise) beyond Patrick. Maybe it’s sexism or maybe Brigid’s devotees just need some better PR.

There’s no shortage of great stories and miracles about her to spread around. Some stories claim she was originally a Celtic fertility goddess whose cult was Christianized and whose pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the coming of spring, was turned into a Catholic holy day. The Church says she was a real, historical woman who lived in the 5th century and founded an important abbey in Kildare. Irish folklore tells of Brigid liberating women from servitude and concubinage–though maybe it was really Brigid who was sprung from slavery, since her mother was said to be a slave and her father a chieftain. A more unusual legend tells of Brigid healing a blind nun, who asked to return to “beauty of darkness” after realizing “the clarity of sight blurred God in the eye of the soul.”

In honor of this day, I’m sharing a story I wrote about recently for an article in the January issue of Sojourners magazine. It’s a piece on the Magdalene laundries in Ireland–specifically, an advocacy group that seeks justice for the survivors of the laundries: Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).

For the article, I interviewed all five members of the group. I also interviewed a woman involved with Clann Project, a JFMR joint initiative, Mary Harney. Mary’s mother had been incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, which resulted in Mary being taken away from her and incarcerated in an industrial school. She grew up to become an activist for many causes, including the cause of justice for her and other survivors of Ireland’s religious and institutional abuse.

Another woman whose story was included was that of Catherine, who had been in a Magdalene laundry as a young woman, before emigrating to England and then the United States. Catherine passed away several years ago, but not before forming a friendship with one of JFMR’s members and finally sharing her story that she had long kept a secret.

Mary and Catherine’s stories were both left out of the final version of my article. As someone who has worked in publishing for years, in many different roles, I understand why such decisions get made. There are space limitations in any print publication, plus different angles get highlighted and centered depending on the readership. But of course, it’s still disappointing. Mary and Catherine’s stories are important to know not least so that people in the Church–and anyone concerned about human rights–understand that church and state abuse in Ireland is not a problem of the past but very much still impacting survivors’ lives and Irish society.

A vigil outside the Dáil in Dublin on February 19, 2013, organized in conjunction with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, after the release of the Inter-Departmental Committee Report (McAleese Report). Photo credit Mark Stedman/

It’s also not exclusive to Ireland. Catherine’s story alone tells us there are women who survived the laundries living among us in the U.S. The experience of JFMR’s founder Mari Steed, who was born to a Magdalene survivor and trafficked from a religious institution in Ireland to a family in the U.S. as a child, as well as Mary Harney’s tells us that thousands of their children live among us too. Steed’s life story in particular is a reminder that there were Magdalene asylums for “fallen women” in 20th-century America.

The experience and testimonies of Ireland’s survivors of church and state abuse should also be known to any American concerned about the future of reproductive rights here in the U.S. Our own federal law that gave women reproductive freedom was overturned last year, and more and more state laws are being overturned or changed to severely limit women’s freedom. These changes in laws have occurred due to the relentless efforts of so-called “pro-life” groups and individuals who claim to be doing God’s will. (Never mind, I guess, the rights of our fellow Americans who don’t believe in God or who have a very different conception of God than the fundamentalist Christian one.) Now that the “pro-life” movement has finally gotten its way, many of them are assuring the rest of us that adoption is the answer to all our concerns. Well, Ireland’s past and present can tell us something about how that tends to work out too, once church and state start to get too cozy.

When I spoke to Mari Steed, it was only a few days after Roe v Wade was overturned. It felt pertinent to ask her about the significance of the work she does through JFMR and the road ahead for activists in the U.S. On the so-called solution of adoption, Mari said, “At what point do we stop commoditizing women and children and childbirth and satisfying the desire of childless couples? We’ve got to get away from this mentality that, number 1, everyone has a right to a child.” She also pointed out that Ireland’s system stripped the choice away from many mothers in more ways than one. Of the children who were taken away from women in laundries and mother and baby homes, “many of us were not unwanted. They weren’t given the choice to do that.” Is this really what pro-life America wants? Do they have any clue?

In honor of St. Brigid’s Day, I thought I’d share those stories that got cut from my article here. I don’t have the reach of a national magazine, I know, but maybe a few readers will find this and be inspired to learn more about this issue in Ireland and in the Catholic Church. Maybe they’ll be inspired to lend some support to survivors in Ireland or the U.S. or to activists for reproductive rights anywhere. Working or writing for a number of religious publications over the past few years (even those that consider themselves progressive and centered on social justice), I’ve become accustomed to seeing women’s voices get censored or “polished” for tone. (The published version of an interview I did for one Catholic magazine with the novelist Louise Erdrich was edited to cut her comments that she supports women’s reproductive freedom and the authority of women to serve as priests in the Catholic Church. I’m still incensed about it.) Meanwhile, simplistic stories of “hope” and “endurance” serve to mollify anger about religious abuse and rightful demands for effective redress.

I think about St. Brigid’s reputation in Ireland as a woman born to another woman in bondage, as a woman who liberated other women, yet also as a woman who sheltered another woman from seeing the world clearly so she could see God more vividly in her soul. I think Brigid’s story is an eternal one of someone who rises to do mighty work. I think if there’s one certain blessing, it’s that there are people in modern-day Ireland still doing mighty work. You can read about them below.

When Mari Steed began searching for her birth mother in Ireland, she knew little about the system of secrecy and abuse that would lead her to co-found a social justice group to right its many wrongs. Born in 1960 in a convent-run mother and baby home in County Cork, Mari was one of more than 2,000 “banished babies” adopted from Ireland to the United States beginning in the 1940s. At 18 months old, she was taken to Philadelphia.

As a teen, Mari became pregnant and was put in a Catholic-run home in Philadelphia and made to give up her child. In the mid-1990s, after raising two more children, she decided it was time to find her adopted daughter and birth mother. Her American family were “decent people,” she says. “I don’t have any serious qualms with my upbringing. But I did begin to search for my mother to find out more about where I’d been.” She created a website to connect with other adopted people of Irish birth.

Eventually, she learned her mother, Josie, had given birth to her out of wedlock and was born to an unwed mother herself. In Ireland, such circumstances put Josie on the full “merry-go-round” of church-and-state institutions before the age of 30: a county home, an industrial school, then 10 years in a Magdalene laundry, then the mother and baby home. Steed, now living in Virginia, recalls she at first had no clue what all this information meant. “‘What are laundries?’ I didn’t even know what that was at the time.”

The answer led her down a rabbit hole of secrecy and obstruction. Originally founded as places of refuge for “fallen women” in the 18th century, Magdalene laundries evolved into institutions where women and girls labored for no pay as penance for transgressing Catholic Ireland’s moral and class codes. Unwed mothers, poor women, orphaned girls, women and girls who were seen as “promiscuous” or a burden on their families. The laundries were run by four religious orders in Ireland, with state oversight and funding. Survivors testify to having had their names changed and their hair shaved off. Their children were boarded out or adopted or sent to industrial schools. Some of the children, like Mari Steed, were subject to vaccine trials (conducted by the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation, now GlaxoSmithKline) while in the mother and baby homes. More than 10,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries between 1916 and 1996, when the last laundry in Ireland closed and when Mari was searching for her mother.

She found her in 2001. “She was overjoyed and had been waiting patiently for the day I would find her,” Steed wrote in Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, a book published in 2021 by the members of Justice for Magdalenes Research, a survivor-led advocacy group with the mission of helping Magdalene survivors and other Irish institutional survivors find their truth and gain justice.

Steed co-founded Justice for Magdalenes in 2003 with two other Irish adopted people: Angela Newsome, whose mother had spent nearly her entire adult life in Magdalene laundries, and Claire McGettrick, an adopted persons’ rights activist. In time the group shifted members a bit. Newsome is still a committee member, but two academics and a human rights lawyer signed on—James Smith of Boston College, Katherine O’Donnell of University College Dublin, and Maeve O’Rourke of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway—and the group of five is now known as Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).

JFMR’s tireless advocacy has led to a state apology for Magdalene survivors in 2013, a “guerilla archives” of testimony and information that counters the Catholic Church and Irish State’s secrecy, and a greenlighted project that will turn a former laundry into a national site of conscience. JFMR’s members most recent book, Redress: Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice, edited by O’Donnell, O’Rourke, and Smith, includes the testimonies of eight survivors in Ireland, the United States, and the United Kingdom, with all royalties going to the Dublin-based nonprofit Empowering People in Care.

How does an advocacy group that blends survivors and academics maintain its balance and keep their eyes on the prize of justice? And how do they persist when, as anyone paying attention to the ongoing reckoning of abuse in Ireland can see, the Irish church and government continue to throw so many hurdles in the way of survivors’ demand for redress? The answer may be in JFMR’s “melding of deep skills and personal experience,” as O’Rourke describes it—a mix of political activism, formal academic research, and grassroots organizing.

Claire McGettrick was born in Ireland in 1973 and adopted in-country at 6 weeks old. Since Ireland operates a closed, secret adoption system, in which adopted people have no effective right of access to their birth records, McGettrick grew up with no knowledge of her origins. “I had no information about myself whatsoever, including my original name, for example,” she says. Like Mari Steed, she went looking for her personal information in the ’90s and began campaigning for adopted people’s rights with Mari and Angela Newsome in a (since disbanded) group called Adoption Ireland. But McGettrick says their interest in Magdalene campaigning was ignited by a 2003 exposé in the Irish Times about 155 Magdalene women whose bodies had been exhumed.

In 1993 in Ireland, outrage erupted over revelations of a rushed exhumation of women buried in a mass grave on convent grounds in Dublin. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, who operated a Magdalene laundry in the inner north side suburb of Drumcondra, had petitioned to sell some of their land after the congregation fell into debt. But the Magdalene women who had been buried on their grounds, in an unkempt area entirely separate from the nuns’ cemetery, were in the way of the land deal.

Memorial bench in St. Stephen’s Green dedicated in 1996 “To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities–reflect here upon their lives.” Left to right: Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, and James Smith. Photo credit: Bryan Meade

The plan was to exhume their remains, cremate, and rebury them in a public cemetery in Glasnevin, which required an exhumation license from the Department of the Environment with a list of the names of those scheduled to be reburied. Despite discrepancies between the number of remains found and the number of names on the license, the exhumation was rushed through. After this travesty, the Magdalenes Memorial Committee (made up of survivors and advocates) organized to install a bench in the women’s memory in St. Stephen’s Green, with a ceremony attended by then-President Mary Robinson.

But as Steed says, it felt as if more needed to be done. “It kind of felt like, ‘Is that it?’ That just seems so little for women who were literally slaves.”

Ten years after the exhumation, investigative journalist Mary Raftery took another look for the Irish Times. She discovered that unbeknownst to the public, an additional 22 remains had been exhumed in 1993 and there were numerous discrepancies between the names on the exhumation license and the names on the headstones at Glasnevin Cemetery. Even worse, some had been cremated and bundled two or three to a grave to save on costs, resulting in commingled remains (a practice outside of Catholic teaching). Attempts to hold the congregation accountable proved fruitless.

Raftery’s investigation galvanized Steed, Newsome, and McGettrick into action. As adopted people whose own identities had been obscured or erased, they realized “this could be any one of us,” says McGettrick. “We had to do something.” She adds, “The way I look at it, the same system that took my identity away is the very same system that held women against their will, forced women to work without pay, and let women and children die.”

One of their first projects was the Magdalene Names Project, which offered a narrative honoring those who lived and died behind Magdalene laundry walls. The trio photographed the gravestones at the reburial site in Glasnevin Cemetery and then posted the names as a memorial in an online adoption support group. Later, McGettrick compared them to newly released materials from the 1901 and 1911 census, revealing lengthy periods of confinement. By building a “guerilla archives,” as McGettrick calls it, they gave survivors and families a means to start accessing their information. The archives also documented the truth of what had happened to thousands of Irish women. When JFMR’s political campaign for a state apology and redress got under way in 2009, the archives helped counteract the official narratives that women in the laundries went into them willingly, that none were incarcerated for long periods of time, and that their experiences “weren’t that bad.”

Boston College associate professor James Smith teaches courses on Irish literature in the Jesuit university’s Irish Studies program. Irish literature is known for giants like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, but Smith’s course readings focus on the outsiders in his native country, those who were controlled or hidden away through the system of industrial schools, adoption agencies, mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries. (In full disclosure, I was a student in one of Smith’s courses in 2004, the first I began hearing about many of these places, even after having lived in Ireland in the 1990s.) Smith became involved with JFM while researching his first book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.

When I ask about the group dynamics of involving non-survivors in a survivors’ advocacy group, all members bring up JFMR’s twin core tenets: “It’s about the women” and “Do no harm.” As survivors and co-founders, Steed and McGettrick are the ethical heart, and the other members defer to them and to those who come to them to seek justice.

Smith also points out the benefit of having an academic at a Catholic university on board. For years, JFM’s mission was being stymied by Irish government and church alike. The archives of the Catholic orders in Ireland were—and still are—closed. Through BC, Smith had access to historical archives that proved without doubt the Irish state sent women to laundries and were financially complicit in their abuse and injustice.

Smith’s work also got the attention of a survivor named Catherine Whelan, an Irish woman in her 70s who lived 20 miles from Boston and phoned Smith up at the college one day in 2008 after reading his book. “How do you know my story?” she asked him.

Catherine had been dropped off at a laundry at age 14 by her father. She labored there for four years before fleeing to England and then the United States, where she kept her ordeal in her home country a secret. She worked as a nurse, never married, kept pets, and read avidly, especially books by Catholic thinkers and presses, which may have been how she found Smith’s book. “Her shame was the denial of her education,” Smith says, adding that Catherine had regained her faith after a great deal of therapy and was a daily communicant by the time she met him.

Catherine recorded a testimony with JFRM, who applied for a pension on her behalf. Because she had received no wages while laboring in the laundry, she fell below the full pension threshold and ultimately received only $7.11 a week for her troubles. Catherine became, and remains, a source of personal inspiration for Smith, a human face in a dehumanizing system and living proof that the issues of JFMR’s work is one of concern for the Irish diaspora and the international community.

Maeve O’Rourke was introduced to JFMR while working on her master’s in human rights law at Harvard. “That was our turning point,” says Steed. In her early 20s at the time, O’Rourke “completely dedicated herself to the mission. She was not about to let any minister talk her down or treat her like some young thing who didn’t know what she was doing.”

O’Rourke is also credited with bringing an international human rights lens to their political campaign. But if it wasn’t for survivors’ testimonies, her focus might not have landed on the human rights issues in her home country. O’Rourke says she remembers clearly the evening in 2009 when Michael O’Brien, a former mayor and survivor who had testified in the government’s inquiry into the treatment of industrial school children (which was published in 2009 as the Ryan Report), spoke out live on television about the abuse he suffered as a child and being called a liar by the congregations. O’Brien’s fierce, emotional statement left O’Rourke at a loss for words. Watching at home at with her father in Dublin, she said, “I don’t know why I’m going anywhere [else] to work on human rights.”

O’Rourke also realized there were “gender differentials” when it came to redress for survivors. The Ryan Report focused on child victims of male clergy but ignored the women of the Magdalene laundries and women religious. She began working with JFMR. Her master’s thesis was the legal submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission making the case for human rights violations against Magdalene survivors, accompanying Smith’s research.

After the Irish Human Rights Commission ignored the case, she brought it to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) in 2011. There, JFMR met with success. UNCAT affirmed JFMR’s case and selected it as one of four urgent cases that required action and correction within 12 months. The international pressure for the Irish state to own up to its systematic abuse of women was on. Finally, the Irish government began a formal inquiry. But to really make a legal case for survivors, JFMR needed testimonies.

Katherine O’Donnell was director of the Women’s Studies Center at University College Dublin when Smith got in touch with her to join JFMR’s campaign. Originally, O’Donnell was attracted to JFMR out of admiration for their work. Her advice to her students interested in social justice work on feminist issues had always been, “Pick the good people you want to work with. It doesn’t really matter what issue, there are so many to choose from.” Then she met some of the women. “There’s an Irish phrase called faoi geasa, and it means being under an obligation. It’s a very ancient phrase, and it also means someone has kind of put a spell on you. It felt like a very intense sense of obligation once I met Magdalene women.”

Her role within JFMR has centered on oral histories. She says as the state was conducting its inquiry, it was crucial for JFMR’s campaign to gather testimonies from the women right away, because the government had placed the Ryan Report survivors under a gag order before granting them any compensation, under penalty of a steep fine and two years’ imprisonment. In the event that an apology and redress weren’t won for Magdalene survivors, O’Donnell wanted a bulwark of voices to counter the official narratives of Irish history, which still leave out so many voices. “So even if we lost the campaign to get a state apology, we had a history.”

On February 19, 2013, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny formally apologized to women who had been incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries. Smith says for survivors like Catherine Whelan the apology was transformative. “A cloud evaporated, a shadow disappeared. She applied to the Magdalene restorative justice scheme,” Smith wrote in a tribute to Catherine in the Irish Times after her death.

But the redress scheme saw major bungling and stalling. And the Irish state spoke out of the other side of its mouth, as the saying goes, in its official report released after its apology, the McAleese Report. The report claimed women weren’t held in laundries against their will, were not used as slave labor, were not subject to abuse, did not spend lengthy sentences or lifetimes in them but only about three years on average.

How did JFMR—and survivors—respond? First, in 2018 JFMR organized a two-day event in Dublin to honor Magdalene survivors. More than 200 women participated, many returning to Ireland for the first time in decades from North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, from everywhere the Irish diaspora has made its way. On the second day, O’Donnell led a listening exercise that gathered the women in groups to ask them three questions. What do they want people to know about their experience? What lessons should be learned? How do they want to be remembered?

JFMR at the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event in June 2018. Left to right: Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Mari Steed, and James Smith. Photo credit: Paul Sherwood

Again and again, the women said they want younger generations to know about the laundries so that history won’t repeat itself. It should be taught in schools, they said. They also want the church and state to open their archives and allow survivors and their families full access to their information. Lastly, they want more than just a statue.

On July 4, 2022 in Ireland, the Dublin City Council (DCC) voted unanimously to turn over a former Magdalene laundry to the Office of Public Works for a national site of conscience. Known as the Sean McDermott Street laundry, the 19th-century building was operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity from 1887 to 1996, when it became the last laundry in Ireland to close. Located in an economically struggling neighborhood with a long and layered cultural history in the heart of Dublin, the laundry is also at the center of the Open Heart City project.

Led by O’Donnell and Hugh Campbell, head of the School of Architecture at UCD, the Open Heart City project successfully stopped a proposed sale of the former laundry to a budget hotel chain. Instead, the site will provide a repository for national archives of records related to Ireland’s church and state institutions. Plans include lecture and performance space, a memorial garden, and affordable housing. O’Donnell says the name comes from the idea of opening people’s hearts and intervening to bring an open heart to “the atrophied chambers of our inner cities,” as one would in open heart surgery.

JFMR is hopeful about the future of the project, although McGettrick hopes the national archives at the site will include adoption records, and she continues to advocate for Ireland’s decriminalization of adopted people seeking their personal information. O’Rourke also hopes the recent focus on the site of conscience won’t ignore immediate needs that have still not been met. Among these are effective and swift redress for survivors of all Irish institutions, including those sideswiped by the latest commission into mother and baby homes, which resulted in similar denials of culpability as well as a 30-year seal on the commission’s records. O’Rourke and McGettrick’s initiative, the Clann Project, formed in partnership with the global law firm Hogan Lovells to offer free legal aid to survivors testifying before the commission. Post-commission, they continue to advocate for survivors and push back against the church and state’s secrecy and obstruction.

“That’s really, I suppose, when injustice and I first met.” This is how Mary Harney describes the moment when she learned from “a kind priest” that her mother wasn’t dead like the nuns in the industrial school had told her. When she went back to the nuns to confront them and demand her mother’s name and information, she says “That’s when it began, when I became an activist.”

When JFMR’s members talk about the future for Ireland’s survivors of institutional abuse, they say they believe the Irish state is hoping the issue will go away on its own, as the former Magdalene women die off and the rest just wear themselves out with frustration. But the Irish state clearly didn’t count on Mary Harney.

She identifies as “a resister.” Born in 1949 in the same institution as Mari Steed, Harney was taken from her young, unwed mother at age 2 and a half, on half an hour’s notice, and fostered out to a couple who neglected her. At age 5, she was put into an industrial school that also housed a Magdalene laundry. She was nearly 17 when she got out, soon moving to the UK to find her mother. “I loved her, and she’s my heroine to this day, and she loved me,” she says. But their reunion couldn’t replace the close bond from separation.

In the UK, Harney joined the British army. “I was institutionalized,” she explains. “I was comfortable in an institution because there were rules and you obeyed them and that was that.” After the army, Harney worked as a fire department dispatcher and got involved in trade union activism, then women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and AIDS activism. In her 40s she moved to Maine to earn her BA and learned about JFMR. Harney first gave her testimony during the Ryan Report commission (“an awful ordeal”). When she heard about the mother and baby homes commission, she contacted the Clann Project, who helped her to give her testimony again. She has also shared her testimony in Redress. Even as the state’s final report denied the full truth of what happened to people like Harney, she resists. “I thought when the commission’s report came out that I could hang up my Doc Martens and stop boots on the ground activism. But I can’t. For me, I have to keep going. And it’s with the support of JFMR—we all support each other.”

Today, Harney is back in Ireland, pursuing a PhD in human rights in her 70s. She works with Maeve O’Rourke at the Human Rights Centre in Galway helping people gain access to their records and is the community organizer to a group of students who have developed lesson plans to add Ireland’s history of survivors to school curriculums. “I love all these young people because they’re the future,” she says, her voice filled with affection and pride. “They are the people who will get the word out, the young people who will see that our legacy for justice doesn’t die with us.”

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