‘You were brought up to think you were nobody’
Frances McLaughlin of Stranorlar felt relief after finally sharing the full story of her years in a convent laundry in Derry. Though she spent most of the 1950s there – long days of hard work and prayer– she had never told all to anyone but her family.
“It was a long time to carry that,” Frances said, adding, “I never seen many bright days in the ‘50s.”
She said she probably had not gone public earlier for fear of embarrassing her family.
“I thought it was a wild thing and I couldn’t come forward. I was a nobody – that’s what I was brought up to think,” she said. Still, she said, “Most nights in your head you’ll be thinking of it.”
It was the media coverage of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent apology to the Magdalene survivors, and television interviews with women themselves, that brought everything back.
“I went to my bed crying,” Frances said. “It brought back memories, hearing all the women go through what I went through.”
Her family had long encouraged her to tell her story, but it was not until she rang Highland Radio that she did. She had called for a phone number of another caller and mentioned during the conversation that she had worked in a laundry. When she was asked if she would speak with Shaun Doherty, she agreed.
“I was stressed, but I felt relieved,” she said. She had spoken with Shaun before: Frances and her son Brendan, Ireland’s oldest transplant patient, are well-known advocates for health care, particularly for services for people with cystic fibrosis.
Frances had left home at age 12 and went to work in Letterkenny, doing housework. At age 15 she was walking outside of Letterkenny when she was attacked and raped.
“I can see the same place – I could go straight to it yet,” Frances said. The rape left her pregnant with nowhere to go. A doctor found her a place in what was then called the county home, later St. Joseph’s, in Stranorlar. Near Christmas she gave birth to a son she named Noel Sylvester. Noel lived for a fortnight; Frances was told the baby had heart trouble.
“I don’t even know where he was buried,” Frances said. She said a social worker tried to help her find her son’s grave, but they were unsuccessful.
When Frances, a Protestant, said she wanted to convert to Catholicism, she was sent to a convent on Derry’s Waterside. She thought she would be there for six weeks to receive training in the faith. Instead she was there for almost nine years, working in the laundry.
The women slept 30 to a dorm, with supervisors sleeping on either end of the room. The girls were always supervised, even when they walked the convent grounds after dinner. There was no talking during work or meals; as the girls ate one girl read aloud from a holy book, Frances said. They raised their hands for permission to use the toilet.
The schedule was severe: Up at 7.15am, prayers, wash and dress, mass at 8am, breakfast and straight to work. On Saturdays Frances cleaned and oiled the three pressers she worked during the week. Sundays were for sewing holy badges and scapulars. When the convent had to fill an order from the missions for the needlework, some girls could be working until 2am, at a small area beneath the stairs where they could speak to each other in whispers.
The girls’ items were identified by the number each girl had been given. Frances was number 12. “That was the mark on your clothes, number 12. Your dishes were number 12. You were number 12,” she said.
“Many, many a time I said, ‘Is this me for the rest of my life?’” Frances recalled. “My young life was all gone, like.”
“They didn’t abuse me, I won’t tell lies,” she said. “But they worked you hard.”
She was allowed to write a very occasional letter and wrote to St. Joseph’s, saying she was ready to return to work. She never heard back. Frances later learned St. Joseph’s never received her letters, which she suspects were never posted.
One day when a priest visited the convent, Frances told him of her interest in returning to St. Joseph’s. She never learned his name but presumes he passed on her message, because St. Joseph’s sent someone for her on St. Patrick’s Day. Frances loved working in the hospital and caring for patients. After she left St. Joseph’s, she later worked in a nursing home in Scotland.
Still, she liked some of the nuns in the convent and even brought her children to visit two of them, years after she left. “There are good eggs in each basket,” she said.
Frances fiercely opposes government cuts to benefits for older people and people with disabilities.
But she said the apology Mr. Kenny delivered to the Magdalenes brought a lot of women “a terrible lot of relief. You could see that on them.”
She also said she believes there are many more women who have not told their stories.
“I came out by accident but I know many more said, ‘I couldn’t do it,’” Frances said.
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