It wasn’t completely news to Pat Cotton that her mother had been in a laundry. Her mother had mentioned it when Cotton was in her late teens, but she hadn’t understood.
“I was young, I didn’t know what it meant,” she said, sat on the wicker sofa in the sunroom of her house in Sheffield on a recent Wednesday. She is blonde and dressed in a trouser suit with blue and purple flowers on her top.
Sometimes when her mother was upset, such as when Cotton’s father was ill in hospital, it would dislodge the memories. Her hands were often raw from boiling water and bleach, she told her daughter. But Cotton didn’t really pay attention.
In 1997, her mother passed away. On her death bed, she told Cotton that she was the only person she had told about that part of her past.
It was six years later that Cotton opened a Sunday magazine of the Daily Mail and noticed, in a group photo with an article about abuse in a Magdalene laundry, a girl who bore an uncanny likeness to a picture of her own mother, Catherine “Kitty” Cahill.
Cotton began to piece together memories from when she was younger. “Well you can imagine what it did to me, I was in total shock,” she said.
Cotton looks sad but determined as she tells the story. She felt guilty that she hadn’t grasped what her mum had been trying to tell her, she said. Parts of her childhood started to make more sense.
Her aunt Evelyn, her mother’s twin sister, was also pictured in the laundry. She, too, seemed to have been affected by it.
“I truly believe that whatever happened to my mum in the laundry affected her all her life,” said Cotton. “She was not able to show any affection to me, never actually told me she loved me or gave me a kiss. I now know it was not her fault. She did not know how to.”
Searching for the Truth
Cotton needed answers.
She knew the address of the laundry from the photos she had, which were stamped: “St Marys Training School, Stanhope Street”.
It was spring when she arrived in Dublin, she says. The weather was mild enough that she didn’t need a coat as she walked around the Stoneybatter streets, trying to find the right place.
“I just started knocking on windows, on doors, anything that I thought was relevant, and asking people, and they all kept saying, no, nothing, can’t help you,” she said. Eventually, she stopped a couple and they drove her there.
“Well, I knocked on the door and this nun came out and I said, ‘My name’s Pat Cotton I’m from England and I understand that my mum and her twin sister were in the laundry.’”
“She just said, ‘The laundry was over there, it is long gone, goodbye,’ and she closed the door.” Upset, Cotton knocked again. “Look I’ve got proof they were here, I’ve got photographs and they were here,” she recalls saying.
The nun gave her the contact details for a Sister Christina Gorman, a representative of the Sisters of Charity, the order that ran the convent. (Sister Gorman didn’t respond to a voicemail or efforts to contact her through the Sisters of Charity’s website, Facebook, and solicitor.)
She said that Sister Gorman, based in Mary Aikenhead House in Donnybrook, would have access to any available records.
Cotton took a taxi to the convent in Donnybrook, a complex with a small hospital, some bungalows and several other buildings. She found Sister Gorman, dressed in ordinary clothes, not a habit, and asked her, she said.
Cotton recounts her memory of the conversation that took place when she asked Sister Gorman for the records.
She asked for the records of Evelyn and Catherine Woods, using her mother’s maiden name. “She said to me, ‘How do I know who you are, you could be anyone, you could be a reporter.’ And me crying my eyes out,” said Cotton.
Cotton told her a couple of things that she had remembered her mother telling her.
“My auntie was very ill apparently at one point and my mother couldn’t find her, she had searched high and low and then eventually she found her in the attic and crawled into bed with her,” said Cotton. “Then a sister came and dragged her out of the bed and gave her a good hiding.”
Sister Gorman told Cotton to go home to England and send her a copy of her own birth certificate and her mother’s death certificate and then she would post her mother’s records. She left to check if she had the records, said Cotton, and came back and said that the twins had been 14 years old when they entered the institution.
Cotton says her mother and her auntie were difficult to get along with at times. “I’m sure they were traumatised by their time in the laundry, absolutely sure they were,” she says.
Cotton always felt that other children got more affection from their mothers. She would feel jealous when she visited friends, and saw their mothers baking with them.
“My mother never did things like that with us,” said Cotton. “We had a rotten life as kids, I now know why we had the life we had.”
In 2012, Cotton told her cousin Geoff Middleton, Evelyn’s son, that their mothers had been in the laundry.
For him too, something clicked.”It makes sense now the way she was. I think it toughened her up. She had to fend for herself from a young age,” said Middleton.
Cotton says: “One thing that I really can’t understand, is why I was sent to a convent primary school with violent nuns, while my brothers were sent to the local school.”
But perhaps, looking back, there other signs her mother had a bad relationship with the church. Her father, who was also Irish, took her to Mass every Sunday, says Cotton. Her mother never went.
Back in Sheffield, Cotton posted Sister Gorman the documents that she had asked for. She got a one-page letter with six lines of information about her mother, Catherine Woods, and a refusal to release anything about her aunt, Evelyn Woods.
“It was nothing really. Just that they were brought there by Sister Teresa of Birr, County Offaly, and that they were there from 1935 to 1938 and then they were disposed of to England. And it’s that word disposed of,” she said, on the phone the first time we spoke. “You dispose of shit off your shoe, excuse my French, you don’t dispose of children.”
The twins were described as “small delicate children” and “both very good girls”.
But although Cotton now had confirmation that her mother and aunt had been in the laundry, she still had questions. The letter she got back from the Sisters of Charity seemed to show a lack of care or confusion.
They called Cotton’s mother Kathleen, when her birth certificate – and her family – name her as Catherine. They called her aunt Eileen, rather than Evelyn.
Other survivors of the same institution would later say that the files they were given were not accurate accounts of their times in the laundry.
And Cotton still had no idea how her mother and aunt, these “small delicate children” had ended up in the laundry at Stanhope Street.
A Return to Dublin
About a month after her first visit in 2003, Cotton says she came back to Dublin. A postman showed her the site where the laundry used to be. At Donnybrook, she tried to get more answers.
Were they abused? To this, she says Sister Gorman answered, “I’d like to think not.”
How can there be no more records when they were there for three years? Were they allowed out? Did they get any visitors? If they were being educated, what books were used?
But, as Cotton tells it, she was only told the same thing by Sister Gorman: “I can’t answer that.” (Sister Gorman did not respond to attempts to contact her.)
Cotton does not believe that the nuns did not keep any records. “They have to have some records,” she says.
The Search Continues
Cotton says that once she got back to England, she started to write letters.
“I wrote to the Health Department, Education Department every TD, and nothing.” They all told Cotton that they did not have any records of Catherine and Evelyn Woods.
She wrote again in 2003 to the Sisters of Charity, asking for more details about that period in her mother’s and aunt’s lives.
“Unfortunately we don’t have any records relating to your mother and aunt other than those sent to you on the 3 April, 2003,” said a letter back from Sister Gorman. (The same letter noted that all girls in Stanhope Street were admitted voluntarily, not by the courts.)
Cotton wrote back, again and again, on and off for a decade. Sometimes, she would try to move past it, put it aside. But then she would see something, another article about the Magdalene Laundries perhaps, and would start to write again.
In a file at her home, she has copies of the letters sent and received in the last 13 years, with copies of photos and the original Daily Mail article that triggered her search into her mother’s past.
In September 2011, she wrote: “You say Stanhope Street was a training school, what were they trained to do apart from work in the laundry? Do you have a training manual I could see? Or her training records?”
In October 2012, she wrote again to tell Sister Gorman that after nine years of searching, she had found four other women, still living, who had survived the laundry in Stanhope Street.
In December 2012, she got a solicitor’s letter on behalf of the Sisters of Charity. “To my knowledge the Sisters of Charity do not have any further documentation or information that can assist in answering the queries that you have raised,” it says.
She even wrote to Pope Benedict in 2011, calling on the church to “unreservedly apologise to all the girls in the Magdalene Laundries before it is too late. (…) The nuns took away not only her childhood but mine as well,” she says. She got no response.
Back to the Beginning
In 2012, Cotton was eight years into her search and had lost hope that she would get answers by writing letters.
She went back to where the story began, in Crinkle, outside Birr in County Offaly. First, she checked to see if they had been in the local industrial school in Birr, and had been sent on from there – but they weren’t on the register.
Next, she and her husband Alan went to the village of Crinkle, to ask around about the Woods family. The head teacher of the local national school had records to show that the twins had been in primary education there.
“So at least we found out that they were born in Crinkle and they went to the local school there up until they were 14,” says Cotton. For her, it was a relief that they had been with family until they were 14 years old.
But she still had no idea how and why they had been sent to Stanhope Street. Cotton says she rang her two elderly uncles, told them she was doing a family tree and asked why the girls had been sent to Dublin.
One said he didn’t remember anything. Her older uncle told her that the girls had never been in Dublin, but they had been to a convent school, said Cotton. Nothing was clearer.
What Was Stanhope Street?
While Cotton knew where Stanhope Street was now, she still had little idea of what life had been like for girls who found themselves there.
In 2012, she got an email from the Department of Justice. “The Sisters of Charity have advised that the Stanhope Street centre was a Training School and Orphanage. It was not a Magdelen[e] Laundry.”
“We are told that the school provided a two year training course for young girls in Cookery, Needlework, Laundry, Drill, Dancing and general deportment,” says the email from the Department of Justice.
Dancing? Cotton doubts that. Her mother could barely read or write, she says, and she couldn’t cook either. Her aunt was the same.
“She definitely couldn’t cook or sew! So what did they teach them?” asks Geoff Middleton, Cotton’s cousin, of his late mother Evelyn.
The old convent on Stanhope Street sits on a quiet tree-lined residential street of terraced brown-brick houses.
Off Grangegorman Lower and close to Stoneybatter, it is a grand three-story building with a statue of the Virgin Mary looking down from the third storey. The entrance to the grounds lies through a large arch with a cross on top.
In 1987, the building was donated by the Sisters of Charity to Focus Ireland and is now used as supported housing. It is connected from one side to the national school on Manor Street, which used to be the convent school.
When Cotton went back to Stanhope Street in 2012, she met the project manager, who agreed to take her around the building, she said. She saw the dormitories where the girls would have slept and the gardens where the laundry used to be.
“It’s like a big grey prison with a statue of Our Lady looking down on you,” she says. “I just stood there for a minute and then I started crying.”
Through the author and journalist Stephen O’Riordan, Cotton was introduced to two women who had survived the laundry at Stanhope Street.
While Cotton’s uncle was adamant that his sisters had been sent to a convent school, and the Department of Justice says that Stanhope Street was a training centre, some of those who lived in the institution say that is a lie.
Kathleen Legg was admitted in 1950, 12 years after the twins left. “They used to call me ‘spawn of the devil’, because my mother wasn’t married when she had me,” says Legg. “They said, ‘You came from nothing and you are nothing.’”
As Legg tells it, she was admitted to Stanhope Street voluntarily. “We were interviewed in a very posh parlour, she gave my mother a list of the things that I would need, like toothbrush, flannel and all this stuff, naturally my mother assumed that I would be continuing my education.”
A promotional photo taken at around the time that Evelyn and Catherine Woods were there shows young girls dressed in chefs’ hats and taking cookery classes. It looks like a photo from a private school at that time, or an Enid Blyton book.
“The nun that interviewed us said, ‘Oh Kathleen do you sing?’ Because I used to sing during Mass or whatever,” said Legg. “‘Sister Bridget will be very pleased to have you in her choir,’ she said, and it was all waffle.”
Nothing was mentioned about the laundry at the admission interview, Legg says. “I couldn’t believe it when I was put in the laundry.”
She never took any classes or learned skills such as sewing while she was in St Mary’s. She says there was no choir. Instead, she worked and worked. “I never saw a book, or a clock or anything while I was there,” she says.
“My mother was regularly getting certificates, I still have some of them. One of them said, ‘Kathleen is an excellent pupil, ninth place in class,’” she says.
Mary Condon has a similar story. She was admitted to St Mary’s in Stanhope Street in 1960, but had no education while she was there, she says.
Instead, she worked in the laundry, washing sheets labelled for the Gresham Hotel and Maynooth College. “The fingers would be burned off you,” she said.
She says the work was hard for a small girl, and she remembers the fearsome nun in charge. “She’d cut the heels off you and rushing you was dangerous. It’s a miracle that nobody cut their head off with that machine,” she said.
There was one serious accident she remembers, when a girl named Theresa Sexton had her arm squashed by a large machine. “It was terrible” she says. “It was so shocking that I fainted.” Condon also thinks her father sent her to Stanhope Street to get an education. Her father was illiterate though, so she doesn’t know whether he received certificates.
She had done well in primary school and says that a teacher in her national school thought it was great that she got into Stanhope Street. “Everyone thought it was a school,” she says. “It was slavery, that is what unpaid labour is.”
Legg says she was not called by her name in Stanhope Street, but by a number: 26. Condon says that when she attended, some ten years after Legg, a small number of girls who were favourites of the nuns were being taught to type.
Condon left in 1964. “They offered to find me a job when I was old enough to leave, but I didn’t think they would get me a good one, so I told them no. I’d get my own job,” she says.
Legg received a similar one-page record to what Cotton got for her mum, but she says the sisters recorded her dates incorrectly. She was really there for longer, she says.
Despite the complaints about the records, the administrators of the Restorative Justice Scheme relied on them. Legg received less compensation than she says she was due.
Condon received no records at all, she said. They told her she was never there.
She had to prove she was, by finding evidence that the sisters had started to pay a stamp, a kind of social-insurance contribution, for her when she was aged 16. It was proof she lived and worked in the laundry.
For Cotton, the accounts of others in Stanhope Street make her think that her grandparents, whom she adored, didn’t know that they were sending their children to work in a laundry.
She wants the compensation that her mother and aunt should have been paid. “I want their wages, they worked three years for nothing, 12-hour days, with their hands peeling,” she says.
The Money Trail
When former Senator Martin McAleese issued his 2013 report into the state’s involvement in the Magdelene laundries, Stanhope Street wasn’t mentioned.
At the time, the Sisters of Charity continued to insist that it was a training school and not a laundry. (It was only later included for redress.)
“There were 10 Magdalene laundries that were the subject of the McAleese Report. Stanhope Street was not a Magdalene laundry, it was a Training School and had a laundry attached,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, Cathal Redmond.
“After lobbying by a number of groups the Government decided, as an exceptional measure, to include the Training Schools at Stanhope Street and Summerhill (in Co. Wexford) in the ex Gratia Scheme,” he said.
That meant that Kathleen Legg, Mary Condon, and other still living who had been victims of forced labour in Stanhope Street were able to get compensation. But Cotton, as a relative, is not eligible.
Redmond says the scheme “is intended to address the current needs of the women concerned. Relatives of deceased women are not covered …”
The Sisters of Charity – earlier known as the Irish Sisters of Charity and now as the Religious Sisters of Charity – refused to answer a series of questions about the Stanhope Street laundry, about what records were kept, how Evelyn and Catherine Woods ended up there, how much money the laundry made, and whether parents who sent their children there had been misled into believing it was a training school.
“The Sisters of Charity are not in a position to provide you with the information or responses to the queries you have raised,” said a response through a solicitor Joanelle O’Cleirigh, at Arthur Cox solicitors.
In 2013, following the McAleese report, the Sisters of Charity apologised “unreservedly” to any woman “who experienced hurt while in our care”.
“In good faith we provided refuge for women at our Magdalen Homes in Donnybrook and Peacock Lane. Some of the women spent a short time with us; some left, returned and left again and some still live with us,” a statement said.
But despite this apology, and the gains made by selling land during the economic boom, all four religious orders have refused to contribute to compensation for survivors of laundries.
In 2013, the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), an umbrella group for the religious orders, issued a statement saying that the Magdalene issue “was and is not just about religious, but also involved many other strands of Irish society”.
CORI described the laundries as “an inherited service and system widely used throughout Europe and elsewhere at that time”.
“This care system, designed essentially for women who were destitute, was basic and inadequate when viewed in the 2013 context, but in its time was provided in good faith.” But if it was provided in good faith and was fitting with the times, why do some say that their families were tricked into sending them there?
In early November, red and brown leaves covered the path outside Cotton’s house in Sheffield. Cotton looked out at her autumn garden as a robin landed on the bird house.
“I still need to know the truth. I now need closure and to get on with the rest of my life and so my mum and auntie Evelyn can at last rest in peace,” she said.
Cotton says she wants the Sisters of Charity and the Department of Justice to say that Stanhope Street was a commercial laundry, where young girls were exploited for their labour, and not a training school. “I cannot understand how the nuns have got off the hook,” she says.
Cotton has left the Catholic Church and has no interest in an apology from any religious order. She and her husband have their funerals planned already: humanist services. “They can stuff their apology I wouldn’t forgive them anyway. All I want now is the truth,” she says.
Middleton says he acknowledges that times were hard for everyone in the 1930s. In England, children of 14 were leaving school to start work down the mines. But his mother and aunt weren’t paid for their work in Stanhope Street, he says.
“Personally I think this was a way of getting free labour, and I suspect they were making money from it,” he said. “I want to see the wrong doings brought to light. I’m not interested in money but I want to know the truth and get closure.”