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.

Mari Steed in here Philadelphia home. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

Mari Steed’s fingers trembled as she tapped commands on her laptop.

The unprecedented apology was about to be streamed online, projected onto a big screen in the conference room of the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. As the group’s director of technology and new media, Steed had set up numerous live feeds before. But her hands had never shaken.

Today was personal. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny was going to use a session of Parliament to issue an apology, acknowledging what Mari Steed had known for years: that for nearly a century, the Irish government had participated in the imprisonment and abuse of thousands of women whose only crime was that they’d been orphaned, or abandoned by their families, or gotten pregnant outside of marriage. They were known as the Magdalenes. And Mari’s birth mother had been one of them.

The government had long touted a party line about the Magdalenes: They had voluntarily entered the institutions where they’d been treated like slaves, had willingly relinquished their children. But now, the Irish government could no longer deny the disgrace it had abetted.

And so today, Ireland’s prime minister would officially apologize to the surviving women—all of them elderly. And Mari would begin to make peace with the country that had betrayed the child she had been and the mother who had borne her. The conference-room screen flickered to life. Mari leaned in to watch, her co-workers gripping her hands in support.

“What we discuss today is your story,” Kenny said in the televised session that practically all of Ireland was watching. “What we address today is how you took this country’s terrible ‘secret’ and made it your own. Burying it, carrying it in your hearts here at home, or with you to England and to Canada, America and Australia, on behalf of Ireland and the Irish people. But from this moment on, you need carry it no more. Because today, we take it back.”

A month after the announcement, Mari Steed, 53, is curled on the living room sofa in the cozy Levittown home she shares with her grown son and daughter. A short, pretty woman with a husky laugh, thick black hair and dark eyes, she’s a dead ringer for her biological mother, Josephine Fitzpatrick, now 80, whose face is included among the framed family photos on display. Freezing rain batters the picture window that looks onto the backyard; two huge dogs snooze contentedly on the carpet. The aromas of fresh-brewed coffee and just-baked soda bread fill the air. A few Irish musical instruments hang on the wall, a nod to the country Mari left behind when she was adopted by a suburban Philadelphia couple at the age of 18 months.

“You wait all this time for an apology, and you think, ‘I wonder what they’ll say? How much will the government actually admit to? What if they still lie?’” she says. “But it was better than we had hoped for.”

Adoptees never know what they’ll find if they manage to locate their birth parents. It’s an understatement to say that Mari never expected that her reunion with Josephine—whom she calls Josie—would help correct the narrative of Ireland’s past. Like so many others before her, 20 yearsago, she’d gone looking for her birth mother simply to discover who she was.

Her adoptive parents raised her in Flourtown, and “told me the usual thing that parents tell their adopted children: that I was special, I was chosen. They even kept my first name, because they said I walked off the plane answering to it.” Two years later, they adopted a son as well. Mari had what she calls a “wonderful” childhood, attended Bishop McDevitt in Wyncote, marched with the drill team, starred in school musicals: “I wasn’t conscious, growing up, of some hole I had to fill.”

She might never have gone looking for the woman who relinquished her if fate hadn’t intervened in a cruel and ironic way. In her senior year, Steed became pregnant by her boyfriend, a junior. Her parents shipped her to St. Vincent’s, a home in Upper Darby for unwed mot­hers; the days were long and dull, peppered with withering comments from the nuns about her stupidity. On her rare visits home to Flourtown, young Mari was kept indoors, lest her swelling belly attract neighborhood gossip.

Mari fantasized about setting up house with her boyfriend, of raising the baby with him. But the decision had been made for her: Her daughter, to be named Erin, would be given up for adoption.

“I was in a daze,” Mari recalls. “There was a hospital photographer who asked if I wanted a picture. I said yes, but then she came back and said, ‘I’ve been told I’m not allowed.” I got ballsy and said to my social worker, ‘If I don’t get a picture before I leave, you don’t get the baby.’ Giving up Erin was the most wrenching experience of my life. I cried for weeks.”

She lasted a year at West Chester University, devolving into a party girl. She got a job in banking and moved to Florida. There she married an abusive, addicted man and had two children with him before he committed suicide right in front of her. “My husband was a deeply disturbed man, but I couldn’t see that when we first met,” she says. “I felt so bad about myself. I didn’t think I deserved better.”

Mari knew it was time to deal with the shame and pain of losing Erin—and began to wonder if being taken from her own birth mother was something she needed to come to grips with, too. She felt it was too soon to search for her own daughter (“I didn’t want to do anything until she turned 18”); instead, she began to look for the woman who’d packed her off to America clad in a sweet hand-smocked dress, clutching a stuffed handmade doll. Mari’s parents only knew that she had been born at Bessborough, a home for unwed mothers in Cork.

With that scant information, Mari leapt into the adoption-rights river, whose current was growing stronger through the 1990s as adoptees in the U.S. began clamoring for the right to know their origins.

“I don’t remember leaving Ireland,” she says. “But at 18 months, I certainly must have known who my mother was. What was it like for me to lose her? What was my birth mother’s story? I only had Erin for two days. It was devastating to give her up. How do you give up a toddler?”

Her 10-year search twisted and turned like the roads through Donegal. The dead ends were devastating; the obfuscation from church and state officials was infuriating. But after each setback, a “search angel” from the world of international adoption-rights would serendipitously appear to steer Mari to a critical document or an obscure public record. “I felt led—it’s the only way to explain it,” Steed says. “Just when I’d want to give up, I’d get an email out of the blue.”

“Mari is charismatic and dogged,” says Barbie Bowman, a longtime friend. “Where other people see impossible obstacles, she says, ‘How do we get around this?’ If anyone was going to find her birth mother, it was going to be Mari.”

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.

In 1993, a mass grave in Dublin holding the bodies of 155 Magdalenes was discovered. There was not a single headstone to detail who they were or when they had died. Ireland was horrified to learn how little regard the nuns seemed to have had for the pitiable women in their care.

A group of advocates calling themselves the Magdalene Memorial Committee sought to commemorate the dead women, installing a memorial park bench on St. Stephen’s Green and gravestones at Glasnevin cemetary in Dublin for the 133 bodies they were able to identify through records. Mari, along with several other adoption advocates, didn’t think it was enough. All of the Magdalenes, not just the deceased ones, deserved closure.

So in 2003, they formed Justice for Magdalenes, or JFM, a nonprofit with a two-fold goal: to obtain an official apology from the Irish government for its part in violating the rights of the women who lived in the laundries, and to get compensation for those women for their unpaid labor.

For years, the Irish government met JFM’s demands with a yawn. Mari worried that the public believed the wrongs heaped on the Magdalenes were confined to a single laundry, and had been righted by a single memorial bench. So JFM took its allegations to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

In a stunning proclamation, the committee found probable cause and ordered the Irish government to get to the bottom of what had happened in the laundries. “That was the turning point,” says Conall O’Fatharta, a senior reporter for the Irish Examiner. “For 10 years, no one in the government would listen to JFM. But when the UN said, ‘You have to look into this,’ the state was finally backed into a corner.”

On February 5, 2013, the Irish government released its report. Its conclusion was unequivocal: The state did, indeed, have direct involvement in the laundries; it owed the Magdalenes an apology, and the women were entitled to redress.

“What JFM accomplished was extraordinary,” says O’Fatharta. “I think I speak for many people when I say that I can only stand back and watch them with awe.”

Boston College professor Smith—who was so moved by JFM’s work that he eventually joined the group’s advisory co­mmittee—calls their work “staggering.” He’s admiring of Steed in particular. “What’s interesting to me is that Mari was one of Ireland’s 2,000 ‘banished babies,’ who were relinquished to the United States and whom no one expected ever to see again,” he says. “The state thought it could literally export its problem children and never be held accountable for it. No one ever expected those babies to grow up, find the Internet, do their research, and return to fight for themselves and their birth mothers. But Mari did. She and JFM have corrected the narrative of Irish history because of it.”

As for Mari, she feels as though her life has come full circle.  She’s in constant contact with Josie; she’s also reunited with her own birth daughter. “There is so much love,” she says gratefully. “And for Josie, who thought she’d lost the only child she ever had, well, she has me back—plus grandchildren. She is so happy.”

Mari and JFM are monitoring Ireland’s proposed plans to offer compensation to the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 surviving Magdalenes. She worries, though, that the government isn’t doing enough to publicize the redress plan, and that survivors will learn of it only after it’s too late.

“We still have a lot to do,” she says. “This isn’t over yet.”

  • 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.