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Abused, stripped naked and locked up: the reality of life in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

Ruth Wilson stars in new BBC drama The Woman in the Wall – Chris Barr/BBC

“It’s a nightmare that you could never come out of,” says Elizabeth Coppin. “I look back in horror, sometimes in panic, and I think, ‘I can’t believe this actually happened to me, in my time.’”

The 74-year-old is describing her experiences as a girl in Ireland’s religious “care” system in the 1960s, where she was abused and “trafficked”, as she describes it, into one of the infamous Magdalene laundries at the age of 14. There, she was held prisoner, sleeping in a cell that was locked every night, and forced to work six days a week without pay in the commercial laundry business run by the Catholic order the Religious Sisters of Charity. “They didn’t have an ounce of charity in them,” Coppin says, anger still gripping her more than 50 years later.

The grandmother and former teacher, who spent her teenage years in three separate laundries, has pursued the Irish authorities all the way to the UN in her quest for justice, and is one of the survivors who was consulted by screenwriter Joe Murtagh during the writing of BBC One’s new six-part drama The Woman in the Wall. It stars Ruth Wilson as a woman suffering from extreme trauma caused by her time in a “mother and baby home” and Magdalene laundry in the west of Ireland. She’s experiencing flashbacks and hallucinations, acting out her pain in rage-filled attacks on symbols of Catholic authority, including a kitchen knife through the eye of a portrait of Jesus.

‘I look back in horror’: Elizabeth Coppin at home in March, Cambridgeshire – Andrew Fox/The Telegraph

In real life, many of the estimated 30,000 women who were held in Magdalene laundries suffered abuse at the hands of the Church. And the terrifying reach of the nightmare that Coppin is describing becomes plain when she describes what happened after she escaped from the Peacock Lane laundry in Cork in 1966, when she and another girl jumped from a first-floor window and ran.

Coppin spent three months in the outside world working in a local hospital, when inspectors from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children showed up. She was instructed to get into their car. “He was driving,” she recalls. “And he turned around and said, ‘Now, this place we’re taking you to… you try to run away from it, we will put you in a place you will never get out of.’” Her voice breaks into a sob. “There was nobody to turn to.” Every instrument of the state was used to keep women and girls trapped in the laundries, from government agencies to the garda police force, all working in concert. The inspectors took her to a laundry run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd at Sundays Well, also in Cork.

Coppin knew the threats were real. At Peacock Lane there was an older woman two cells from hers, with grey hair. “I’d hear her at night, Bridie was her name. She used to call out, ‘My baby, my baby. They took my baby from me.’ This poor woman. She was just so damaged.”

Bridie was likely one of the women who had given birth in a convent-run mother and baby home, before being confined in a Magdalene laundry. This was what happened to Philomena Lee, whom Judi Dench portrayed in the 2013 film Philomena – the first time that many in the UK had heard of the Magdalene laundries. As in Lee’s case, many of the children were taken from their mothers and put up for adoption. (Some met a worse fate. Next year, exhumation will begin on a mass grave at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway, where the bodies of 796 babies and children were discovered in disused sewage tanks.)

The mother and baby homes were just one element of what has been described as Ireland’s “architecture of containment” – which also included the “industrial schools” that housed orphans and “abandoned” children. Through a succession of convent-run institutions, Ireland could keep a woman prisoner from birth to death. As Katherine O’Donnell, professor of philosophy at University College Dublin and member of the education and advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes Research, explains, “Over half of the women – at least – who were put in [the laundries] from the 1950s on, never got out.”

Elizabeth Coppin (front, second left) aged 13 at the Nazareth School in Tralee, Ireland in 1963 –

O’Donnell was a consultant on The Woman in the Wall, putting Wilson in touch with laundry survivors. She has been collecting their oral histories for more than a decade. Some of the accounts are so harrowing that O’Donnell developed trauma symptoms herself. “There were nuns who were maniacally cruel,” she says. “In 200 years, Irish nuns have done the most remarkable things, but also, at times, they were forces of evil.”

In Catholic Europe, Magdalene laundries had traditionally been a refuge for prostitutes, where they could spend time off the streets and work for their board. When they began to appear in Ireland in the 1820s, however, women were locked up in cells from the start. For a brief period later in the 19th century, they became associated with a Protestant movement aimed at rescuing and rehabilitating “fallen women”, but by the revolutionary period that began in 1912, O’Donnell says, the laundries had entirely become places of incarceration. Poor women, unwed mothers and any child or woman who passed through the religious homes could be taken to one of the laundries and kept there for life.

This was the fear that haunted Gabrielle O’Gorman, who was born in St Patrick’s mother and baby home in Dublin in 1945, the daughter of an unmarried mother who “stayed there with me until I was four”, she tells me. Until the age of 16, O’Gorman was raised in two industrial schools in Dublin, before being sent to work at a convent in London. Her mother, whom she had known only as someone who would sometimes “come to visit me and bring me biscuits”, was now married and living there in a one-bedroomed flat.

Gabrielle O’Gorman with her supporters – Alamy/Alamy

For O’Gorman, now an exuberant, Elvis-mad 78-year-old, London was very different from the repressive environment she had known. “I was very gregarious,” she says. “I love life.” After a year, though, her mother took her back to Dublin to work in the convent where she had lived from four to 12; she was 17. “I wanted to get back to London because I had a lovely boyfriend,” she says. “I was quite cheeky with the nuns. I said, ‘I want you to have my case ready. I’m going to England.’” Instead, after staying out past the convent’s 10pm curfew one night, she found a garda waiting for her in the parlour next morning. She was taken to the notorious Magdalene laundry in Sean McDermott Street, Dublin (the last of Ireland’s 10 laundries to close, in 1996). “All I could smell was carbolic soap, Jeyes fluid, bleach.”

“They tried to take my clothes off,” she continues, “and I wouldn’t let them because they wanted you to put on the uniform – that way you cannot escape, you get brought back. Some of the women were in there for 20, 30, 40 years. And they weren’t allowed to speak. Even at lunch, you’d have this nun watching you. A lot of the people in there, they didn’t even know each other’s real names” – the women were stripped of their identities on entering and given a religious name – “and it was work from early morning. Or it was praying in the church – Mass after Mass. It was awful. I refused to do anything, I refused to work, I refused to go to bed. I would sleep in my clothes.”

Like Coppin, O’Gorman made a break for freedom, but was brought back by the garda and taken to another laundry in Limerick. The nun in charge there, she says, was “wicked, spiteful, she hated me”. She remembers one occasion when the woman grabbed her by the hair, forcing her to the ground. “She said, ‘Get down on your knees’ and she was pulling my hair, and she said, ‘You are here because nobody wants you.’ And that hurt me more than her pulling my hair. It really had a big effect on me, I think, because I’d been brought up in an institution.”

They finally let her go, two and a half years later, aged 19. She and Coppin both moved to England, where they built successful lives; Coppin married, had two children and lives in Dorset; O’Gorman has seven grandchildren and lives in Hampshire. She looks back on her experience as “like being kidnapped”.

Has there been a serious attempt by the Catholic Church to apologise for its crimes? “Absolutely none,” says O’Donnell. “Even when Pope Francis came to Ireland in 2018, he said he’d never heard of these institutions.” In 2013, Ireland’s then taoiseach Enda Kenny made an “unreserved” apology for the state’s role in the trauma and vowed to make amends. Yet, as O’Donnell says, as long as it fails to force the orders who ran the laundries to release the records of the women held in them, “the state itself is still colluding”.

The Woman in the Wall starts on Sunday, BBC One at 9.05pm

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