The offices of anti-sex work organisation Ruhama are located in the High Park area of Drumcondra in Dublin. High Park is significant in that the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, joint founders and trustees of Ruhama along with the Good Shepherd Sisters, ran a Magdalene laundry at High Park from 1853 until the early 1990s.
Magdalene laundries were institutions for ‘fallen women’ run by nuns as commercial laundries, where the inmates had to undertake hard physical labour for long hours, including laundry and needle work, without pay. The last such laundry, Sean McDermott Street, also operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, only closed in 1996. We are currently awaiting the already long awaited publication of the McAleese Report, which probes the history of Magdalene Laundries, and was completed this month.
Magdalene laundries loom large in the history of sex work in Ireland. The four religious orders than ran Magdalene laundries still dominate over Irish sex workers today, through Ruhama and their involvement in many Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) organisations, like the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI). Magdalene laundries were not only for prostitutes though, women or girls who had become pregnant outside of marriage, had mental health issues, had been sexually abused or were considered promiscuous or too flirtatious were also sent to these institutions.
The laundry at High Park was the largest in the country. It is also the laundry which sparked a public scandal in 1993, when the the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, having lost money on the stock exchange, sold a portion of their land at High Park to a developer. The land they sold included the burial site of a number of ‘magdalenes’ which had to be exhumed, and when it was, it was discovered there were more bodies than declared, and in many cases the women’s names were not known and the death had not been registered. You can read more about this story here.
In the course of researching High Park I found a small book, A Centenary Record of High Park Covent, Drumcondra, Dublin, 1853-1953 published by The Order of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge in 1953. This book contains a number of photographs (normally with captions) I’ve decided to share online as it seems photos of High Park or any of the Magdalene Laundries are quite scarce.
The Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) website is an excellent resource for information on the history of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland. JFM made a submission to the Government in May 2012 containing testimonies from many Magdalene survivors and a redacted copy of this was published in September 2012. Although not captioned the last photo above is clearly an entrance gate, presumably the one a Magdalene survivor in the JFM submission remembers running out of in 1947, only to be caught and returned to the nuns by the police.
The photo above is of significant interest given the scandal regards the burial of Magdalene women who died in High Park.
There are also a number of photos in the book of the ‘Magdalens’. It is presumed that these photos are staged, rather like the Nazis ‘beautified’ Theresienstadt concentration camp for a Red Cross inspection in 1944. The laundry orders were always keen to market their laundry businesses as charitable institutions which helped ‘fallen women’. Indeed Ruhama still do not acknowledge any wrongdoing in respect of the Magdalene laundries, proudly stating on their website today that the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Good Shepherd Sisters have a “long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved in prostitution.”
According to the JFM submission the reality of Magdalene laundries was that all of the women and girls held in them had no choice whether to stay and highlights that this was certainly the case from the 1930s until the late 1960s. The above photos are presumed to be from that period given they were published in 1953. In the the JFM submission one survivor of High Park recalls, “every window in the building, every window had bars on it” and “All the doors, every door was locked”. Another survivor who was sent to High Park at age 17 states in regard to education that “There was no such thing as education. No reading, writing, anything”.
Another survivor in the JFM submission recalls that women and girls were buried “at the end of the green” that the women and girls used to walk around. “The nun that was in charge, Mother de Chantal, she used to have her beehives in there, just by the graves”. The survivor recalls that “they weren’t even marked, the graveyards… There were no markings – there was nothing in the graveyards”. The women were buried “in some sort of cloth or something” with “no priest, no ceremony… they were just buried there.”
One page shows a photo of Gloucester Street (now Sean McDermott Street) where the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge had another Magdalene laundry.
Other buildings photographed include Kilmacud House in Stillorgan in Dublin, which was also the offices of Ruhama from 1995 to 1998.
As I flicked through the book initially I saw a proud page of photographs of women described as ‘Past Pupils’. Two were pictured as nuns captioned ‘They have chosen the better part’, two others were described as ‘Health Visitor, London’, another was ‘Army Nurse’, another ‘Active member of the Legion of Mary, London’ and two were un-captioned pictures of couples, what looked to me like English Registry Office wedding photos. I initially thought these were photos of former ‘Magdalens’ who had ‘made good’, perhaps women who had gone in as unmarried mothers but had been ‘reformed’ and were now living new ‘respectable’ lives in England. However I’d forgotten the Irish laundries were not taking in ‘fallen women’ to train them and put them back out in the world, as many other institutions were at this time, especially in the UK, they were simply using these women as slave laundry labour until they died. The ‘Past Pupils’ photographs were not of former ‘Magdalens’ but past pupils of St’ Joseph’s, an industrial school for girls also at High Park at this time.
Both the Ruhama orders, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Good Shepherd Sisters, also ran industrial schools, and are currently claiming poverty in the face of Government requests to pay further redress following the Ryan Report of The Commission To Inquire Into Child Abuse, published in 2009. Ruhama director and regional leader of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, Sr Sheila Murphy, is quoted as saying “the congregation had no liability to additional contributions as there was no agreement in place regarding the matter”. Their financial advisor acknowledged they had property assets but stated they had shelved plans to sell more property to raise cash because of the poor state of the market.
The land at High Park the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge sold in 1993 went for IR£1.5m, and other High Park land they sold in 2006 and 2009 went for €61.8m.
Ruhama moved to offices in High Park in 2002, not their own property, they are renting from their old friends and neighbours, the priests of All Hallows College. Ever the savvy entrepreneurs, as a Government funded organisation, ultimately the Government is paying their rent. We know from Ruhama’s Annual Reports 2005-2008 their rent was approximately €82k in 2005, €86k in 2006, €88k in 2007 and €93k in 2008. From 2009 onwards all details of how they spend their funding were removed from their Annual Reports. They did however report in their Annual Accounts to the CRO for 2010 they had that year managed to negotiate their rent downwards to achieve best market value.