The Woman Who Exposed Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries

Mari Steed was two years old when she was adopted from Ireland by a Flourtown family. Years later, her search for her birth mother turned up the Magdalene Laundries’ horrifying legacy, and Steed wants justice—along with an apology from the Catholic church.

Years passed. Eventually, Mari had a name. She found Josephine Fitzpatrick’s phone number in England and called her. But suddenly overcome with an­xiety—would Josephine be frightened by an un­expected call? Angry? Dismissive?—she hung up the moment she heard the voice on the other end say “Hello.” Still, that one word convinced Mari she had the right woman. “Her voice was exactly like mine,” she says.

She asked for advice from Judy Campbell, an adoption researcher in London. Campbell offered to approach Josephine’s former landlord, a friend who regularly saw Josephine and her husband, Les, at Sunday Mass. Campbell asked the landlord to relay that an American woman was searching for Josephine. The landlord reported back that Les’s excited response was, “That must be the baby she gave up!”

Mari’s phone rang one day at 5 a.m.

“Josephine’s husband is a doll!” Campbell told her. “He says Josephine is getting her hair done, but she’ll be back in an hour and a half. He says to call her then!”

“Oh my God,” Mari replied. “Is this happening?”

For 90 minutes she paced, wondering what she would say to the mother she hadn’t seen in 50 years and did not remember. She dialed the phone.

“Hello?” said Josephine tentatively.

“Hello, Mom,” said Mari, holding the phone so tight that it would be hard to uncurl her fingers later.

“Oh, Mari, my Mari!” came the voice that sounded so much like her own. “Is it really you? Oh, my dear, dear Mari!”

The two wept and laughed for 45 minutes, introducing themselves to each other, marveling at similarities, hungry for details of lives that had played out 3,000 miles apart. “The feeling, oh my God,” recalls Mari, hand on her chest. “It was so close, like we’d been speaking every day of our lives.”

By then, she had become a bit of an expert on Irish adoption issues. Scheduled to speak at an upcoming conference in Dublin, she told Josephine that she and her children would make a stop in London first, so everyone could meet.

“So we’re walking out of Heathrow Airport, and this van pulls up,” says Mari. “Les is driving. And there was Josie. I can’t even describe what it was like to see her. She gets out of the van and she’s tiny. She’s not even four-foot-10. I’m like a giantess next to her. And we fall into each other’s arms. She’s crying, Les is crying, the kids are crying. People are honking their horns, because they know something great is happening.”

Holding Josie close, Mari felt a shock of familiarity that let her know, in case there was any doubt, that this was indeed her birth mother.

“It was her smell,” she says. “I recognized her smell.”

 

Before beginning her search, Mari Steed had never heard the term “Magdalene.” She soon learned that her mother had been one. From the mid-19th through the late 20th century, Ireland dealt with its most desperate citizens—abandoned and orphaned children, the mentally ill, unwed mo­thers—by locking them out of sight in industrial and reform schools, mental asylums, mother-and-baby homes and, perhaps most infamously, what came to be known as the Magdalene Laundries.

These last were industrial laundries, run first by Protestant lay organizations, then by Catholic nuns. An estimated 10,000 women lived and toiled inside them. Some were “wayward girls” sent by family; others were orphans, or abandoned, or crime victims sent to the laundries by the courts, church or police. The girls ate paupers’ meals, suffered unspeakable neglect and abuse, and worked backbreaking hours doing laundry and sewing for no pay for hospitals, government agencies and the like. The laundries were named for Mary Magdalene, the biblical prostitute reformed by Christ. The wretched who suffered behind their walls were referred to, simply, as Magdalenes.

They were treated as slaves, beaten with straps, denied food, forced to lie prone in prayer for hours, sometimes sexually abused by groundskeepers or visiting priests. They lived lives fit for a Dickens novel. “Life was brutal for them,” Boston College associate professor James Smith wrote in his 2007 history of the Magdalenes. “Ireland was a new state and very concerned with forging a national identity of moral purity. So they hid away anyone who might be seen as shameful or lacking in respectability.”

Josephine was the fourth-born child of a single woman from County Wexford whose fed-up family finally told her to move to England, marry a good man, tell him nothing about the children she’d left behind, and settle down already. The first three of the woman’s children were raised by extended family. But Josephine was sent to a children’s home and, when she hit her teens, transferred to a Magdalene laundry in Cork run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Identified as a talented seamstress, she was put to work sewing and embroidering.

After 10 years, Josephine was sent to work in a Catholic hospital. Unprepared for the larger world and naïve around men, she became pregnant. Sent by her employers to Bessborough, a mother-and-baby home in Cork run by the nuns, she gave birth to Mari, who was cared for in a nursery while Josephine again sewed and embroidered, visiting at night to rock and sing her daughter to sleep.

“It was understood that she wouldn’t keep me,” says Mari. “Josie never felt she had a say in the matter. You have to un­derstand—she’d been treated like property. She was a broken person.”

When little Mari was 18 months old, she was deemed ready for adoption. Josie wept as she sewed clothes for her little girl to wear to meet her new parents in the United States. On the day Mari was taken, Josie stood outside the home as the sedan carrying her daughter drove away. “She told me she wept and wept for days,” says Mari. “I knew exactly how she felt.”

Josephine moved to England. When her first husband died, she married Les. She had no other children. “Josie told me that she was terrified to ever lose another child,” says Mari. “She wouldn’t be able to stand the pain.”

Hearing her birth mother’s story did more than incite empathy in Mari Steed. It served as a call to action. She would get justice—for her mother, for every one of the forgotten Magdalenes.

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  • Anonymous (still)

    I was so happy to read such a comprehensive article about Mari. .Athough I know her personally,,, anyone who doesn’t will certainly gain a wonderful perspective about her, and the important work she has done, and continues to do. She is a shining example of resillience, intelligence and compassionate activism. The author lets us know Mari and invites the reader to consider the many issues that affect so many to this day. Bravo,, well done.