July 1, 2013
I hear Martina Keogh before I can see her. She’s yelling at her two small dogs, Princess and Tilly, to pipe down and they are happily ignoring her, an interaction that will replay several times over the course of our two-hour conversation. The dogs, plus a two-week-old kitten she’s fostering for the local animal rescue, keep us company that day. Their periodic interruptions—begging for attention, meowing to be fed—relieve some of the darkness of the story I’ve asked Martina to tell.
Martina is one of several hundred living survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, and as such she’s an important player in the ongoing fight to hold the Irish government accountable for colluding with what were essentially slave-labor operations run by the Catholic Church. Inmates wound up in the Laundries in various ways; one of the most common paths was through Mother and Baby Homes (another exceedingly dubious Church institution), which is where unwed mothers were sent until their babies were born and the Church could send the children to adoption agencies. Needless to say, maternal consent was not a factor in these transactions. After their children were born, poor women were often transferred from Mother and Baby Homes to the Laundries to work without pay, for unspecified periods of time.
But Martina didn’t get to the Laundry through a Home; she was arrested and sent there because, as a minor, she couldn’t be sent to jail. That was how in 1968, at the age of 16, she found herself in the Gloucester Street Laundry for a street fight she says she wasn’t even involved in—she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. By her description, life in the Laundry was extremely grim. In her two years there, she both witnessed and experienced incredible brutality. Women were verbally abused, beaten and underfed, and treated by the nuns with a casual cruelty that belied their religious vocation. I’ll let Martina describe it:
“The nuns was always telling us we were no good and that’s why we were there, and that we would never get out. The women lived in fear. And in those days [the Church] got away with so much that you kind of had to be careful, you know? They had no compassion whatsoever. They were cruel, even their tone of voice when they’d speak to you. I got many beatings with leather straps and rings of keys.”
One incident that still stands out in her mind was a time she became seriously ill during a concert all the Laundry inmates were made to attend. She said she’d been unable to eat and was having sharp pains in her stomach and side. Fearing she would vomit, she ran out of the concert, only to be chased down by a nun and beaten for disrupting the assembly. Luckily for her, an outside visitor happened to pass by where Martina was doubled over, retching, and urged the nun to take her to the hospital. She had an emergency appendectomy later that day, no thanks to the Sisters.
When Martina talks about life in the Laundry—the abuse, the cruelty, the deprivation—she is matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant. It’s when she talks about what her life was like after her release that she really starts to seem angry. She explains that the nuns drilled into inmates the idea that they’d be monitored after they got out, and that even a tiny infraction could result in their return to servitude. Martina believed it, so much so that she refused for years to take a steady job or live at a fixed address. She worked as a prostitute for a time, sending money each week to her mother, who was caring for Martina’s infant daughter. Even then she kept her location secret, for fear the nuns would use her mother to track her down.
“My mother never knew where I was, so if anything ever happened to the baby she could never contact me. May God forgive them for doing that, because it meant that I could never bond with the baby because I was always afraid, if I was in the house with her, that they’d come and take the two of us. I always had that fear.”
Eventually Martina was able to put the fear behind her, and now enjoys a close relationship not only with her grown daughter, but with her grandchildren and great-granddaughter. Today, whatever residual anger or sadness she feels is channeled into activism. She’s worked closely with the group Justice for Magdalenes, dedicated to getting the government to fess up to its role in the illegal incarceration and abuse of so many Irish women. After decades of denial the government (with some prodding from the EU and UN) finally issued a formal apology to survivors in February.
I wish I could capture in words the eloquence of Martina’s eye roll and dismissive snort when I asked her what she thought of said apology; she’s really not having it. She’s very clear that what’s needed are reparations to support the surviving victims, many of whom unsurprisingly have physical and/or mental health problems. Just last week the Irish government announced a plan for reparationpayments, so it looks like advocates’ hard work is bearing fruit. Martina can never get back the years she toiled in the Laundry, or the time with her child that was stolen from her, but she may yet live to see some justice done.