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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 28-May-15 15:25:15

Nancy's story

On 19 February 2013 the Irish Taoiseach Edna Kenny apologised to the women who had been incarcerated in Ireland's Magdalene laundries. Here, one of the women who grew up there, Nancy Costello, gives her account of being plunged into the strange and cold environment.

Nancy Costello

Nancy's story

Posted on: Thu 28-May-15 15:25:15


Lead photo

The women of the Magdalene laundry and (right) Nancy today.

I don't know where I came from, or who my parents were. I was found lying in a basket in a grotto in the Mount orphanage in Limerick. Back then, in the 1930s, babies were regularly left there. Or so the nuns said. 'You're not so special Nancy. There were many other babies found there, besides just you.'

The nuns say that I arrived at the Good Shepherd Sundays Well Magdalene laundry in Cork in 1949. But their records weren't in good order, and that can't be right. I think it must have been four or five years later. I had been in fourth class, so I would have been nine or ten.

The first thing that Mother Monica did was to take me to a big room, with glass all the way round it, that she called the ship. There were shelves and shelves of clothes stored there.

She handed me a brown frock made of horrible stiff material and told me it was my uniform. It came down to below my knees. She gave me a white apron to go over it and some old black shoes that were worn and too big. 'You'll soon grow into them,' she said.

Next she cut my long hair up to my ears, and gave me a band to keep my hair neat. Looking at my long brown hair fall in clumps on the floor, I felt sad.

Mother Monica was very cross looking, and didn't seem at all pleased to have me there. I was miserable. I didn't know what to say.

'Come now, and I'll show you where you'll be working,' she said, dragging me down some corridors to a room where lots of women were scrubbing clothes. Nobody said, 'Hello.' Nobody said a word. I didn't know why.

'This is a mangle,' said Mother Monica, showing me a noisy machine with big rollers on it. 'You will get your turn pulling the sheets out of the washer, and then you will put them into the wringer. And you will get your turn folding the sheets with another girl, and putting them into a big roll, and you will stand with another girl pulling at the sheets and folding them again, and you will do this several times until the sheets are dry. Then the sheets will be folded again. You will get your turn doing all of this.' She made it sound as if I was in for a real treat, but the women in the room didn't look one bit happy.

When I first saw that we had these green curtains round our beds I thought it would be nice. But it kept us separate, so that we could never make friends.

Next she showed me the dormitory. This wasn't so different from the one in the orphanage. There were about 20 beds, but this time we had curtains between each one.

I hadn't been happy at the orphanage, but at least I knew the other girls. Here, I didn't know anyone. When Mother Monica said I was to be in Miriam's circle, I didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but I knew soon enough. There were 12 women in every circle. The head of the circle, Miriam, was an auxiliary. That meant she had been in the laundry for years and years and was more holy than we were. She wore a bonnet on her head, and she was treated better by the nuns.

The nuns kept telling us that we were penitents. And as part of our penance, we had to live in silence. And if you dared to open your mouth, even to whisper, you would have to stand at the servant table for three days. The silence was hard to get used to.

At the time, being so innocent, I didn't understand why anyone was sent there. I didn't know what a fallen woman was. The nuns called them prostitutes sometimes, and said maybe my mother was one. I didn't know what that meant either.

Some girls were sent in because their families didn't want them. One girl wanted to be there. She said it was better than being at home because her father beat her so badly. I met a girl, later, who said she was sent into a laundry at 15 for no reason at all.

We would be woken up at six o'clock every day. First thing, we had to go to Mass. We had no tea, and nothing to eat before Mass and often we would feel weak. Sometimes we fainted onto the floor, but we had to get up again. Fainting was never an excuse; however bad you felt you still had to get on with your work.

After Mass, we would go to the refectory for breakfast. It was lumpy porridge every day. Then we could have bread and dripping. I never complained about the food. I didn't dare. Some girls did, but it didn't do them any good. They were given a beating in front of us all. I remember watching one girl as the nun laid into her. She didn't cry or shout out, and that made the nun so cross that her face went redder and redder. Watching, I was trembling with fear. Sometimes girls were sent away and we never saw them again. One minute they were there, the next they weren't. We never knew where they went.

When breakfast had finished, at about 8.30 am, it was time to start work in the laundry. We would work hard all morning, heaving sheets in and out of the machine, doing whatever we had been asked to do. After dinner we had to go back to the laundry until about 6 pm, and then we would have our tea. Sometimes we might get a fried egg, but we never got a big fry-up; I don't remember ever seeing a sausage. There was never enough food. Some girls would go into the refectory at night where they would rob the place of bread because they were so hungry.

When we had finished our (evening) work it was nine o'clock, and time for bed. We'd wait for our number to be called, then go up to the dormitory and change into our nightgowns. Before we could get into bed, we had to go down on our knees. The nun on duty would walk up and down the dormitory, saying, 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.' Then she would shout out another prayer. Then, without taking a breath, she would say, 'Not a word! Don't let me hear any of you talking; you know it is your penance, and you should not talk.' She would walk up and down like a sergeant major.

When I first saw that we had these green curtains round our beds I thought it would be nice. But it kept us separate, so that we could never make friends. We never dared to talk. I’d go to bed lonely, and wake up lonelier still. There was no one in the world who cared for me.

Whispering Hope: The True Story of the Magdalene Women by Nancy Costello, Kathleen Legg, Diane Croghan, Marie Slattery, Marina Gambold and Steven O'Riordan is published by Orion and available from Amazon.

By Nancy Costello

Twitter: @orionbooks

elena Thu 28-May-15 15:37:38

Oh my goodness.....this is a story that deserves to be told. I hope Nancy went on to find some happiness in her life.

KatyK Thu 28-May-15 15:38:15

This is so sad. Such a harsh life. I am from an Irish Catholic family. I was taught by nuns but in England in the 1950s. I have witnessed some cruelty by nuns but obviously nothing compared to what these poor girls went through. The order of nuns that taught us were called The Sisters of Charity - I never witnessed much charity. Nancy and others like her should be proud that they have come through such terrible times and are brave enough to tell their stories.

Fid Thu 28-May-15 18:24:09

The Magdalene girls' stories need to be told. Nancy was about my age. It is so hard to believe that such cruelty was dealt out in our lifetime. We had no knowledge of all that went on. I should like to have been able to ask my mother if it was, or wasn't, common knowledge.

inishowen Thu 28-May-15 18:28:39

Yes it was a harsh life. I remember going to see a film called "The Magdalene Laundries" which opened my eyes to what had gone on. The Catholic church has a lot to answer for. By the way gransnet, you spelt the name of the Irish president wrong. It's Enda Kenny, not Edna! Enda is a popular Irish name for men smile