She was carrying a handbag but it was completely empty

One story of one woman who was sent to a Magdalene Laundry at age 16 and never got out, but died there after 35 years of slavery.

Samantha Long’s mother Margaret Bullen was placed in Gloucester Street (now Sean McDermott Street) Laundry c.1967 and died 35 years later, never having been released into society and her own home. Margaret died of an illness known as Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease of the kidneys and liver – one of the causes is exposure to industrial-strength chemicals such as those used in the Laundries.

So that would be 2002. Just twelve years ago, Ireland – the Celtic tiger – was holding a woman in slavery until she died of a disease probably caused by the slave labor she did for 35 years. Twelve years ago. Ireland.

Margaret Bullen was sent to the notorious High Park industrial school and Laundry in Drumcondra at age three, then to a special school at age thirteen after she was certified mentally unfit for education, but fit for work. Then at around sixteen she was sent to the Magdalene Laundry where she was enslaved for the rest of her life.

(In Ireland, from c. 1967 to 2002.)

She became pregnant – twice – with Samantha and her twin sister Etta, and later with another daughter, while officially under the care of the Gloucester Street nuns. The circumstances of these conceptions are again shrouded in mystery but Samantha says her conversations in later life with her mother when they were reunited led her to believe that Margaret had been the victim of sexual abuse and predators several times.

There was no education, no education and I, you know, I honestly believe for a long time she didn’t know how she got pregnant, she just knew that somebody hurt her once and then she had babies. I really believe that. She didn’t make that connection, I know that for sure. She was no, she didn’t have a boyfriend, let’s put it that way. And that’s the politest way that I can say that.

Some of the more harrowing details of Samantha’s testimony recount how her mother was denied society, education, wages and other basic rights for most of her life. This extract recalls Samantha and Etta’s first meeting with Margaret in the Gresham Hotel when they were 23 and had traced her as their biological mother. (Samantha and Etta were adopted by a loving couple in Dublin and later moved to Sligo in childhood.)

Margaret was only 42 at the time but looked much older. She was carrying a handbag but it was completely empty, because she didn’t own anything nor did she have any money. Samantha recalls:

And, she was just lovely, and she was asking extremely innocent questions like, she, it was the first time she ever had coffee and it was very exciting for her to have coffee and she hadn’t seen brown sugar before either and obviously in the Gresham there was brown and white sugar cubes on the table and it was all very fancy to her. And she was just overjoyed to be there and absolutely wowed by everything.

She looked, she looked like a pensioner. I couldn’t believe she was forty-two, I kept looking, I kept looking into her face to find a forty-two year old and I couldn’t, because she had the face of hard work, that face that you see in so many women that have just had to work too hard and have never had a rest and have never had anyone to take care of them or tell them to put their feet up, and who have just, just worked too hard. Because, as I said on the radio a few years ago, this was slavery and I don’t use that term lightly and I’m not an emotive person but slavery is a form of work for which you get no pay and you can’t leave and these were the white slaves of Ireland and they were never emancipated. And nobody stood up for them until now, until you guys (Justice for Magdalenes) did.

Those laundries were run by the church. The church pocketed the profits. That’s how the church treats people.

Updating to add: Justice for Magdalenes is here.


  1. Erp says

    It does put a different aspect on certain 19th century novels and parliamentary debates. See for instance the arguments over the Factory and Workshop Acts Amendment Bill in 1901

    Such as by Asquith:

    I am not making any charge against the conventual laundries in particular, but with regard to many of these laundries conducted in connection with so-called charitable institutions I have looked into the matter recently, and I am satisfied, from the correspondence I have had on the subject, that there is a vast field for inspection. The sanitary conditions which prevail in many of these laundries are disgraceful, and so long as they are not subject either to inspection or legal control it is very difficult to find any leverage which will effectually operate on the minds or affect the conduct of those responsible for them. In France they have extended the system of inspection to all institutions of this sort. The first result of that inspection was to disclose the existence of enormous and widespread evils in these very places. I quite sympathise, I will not say sympathise, but I quite understand the reluctance, particularly of institutions conducted by Roman Catholics, in which the work is mainly done by nuns or by persons more or less under religious control, to accept the ordinary system of inspection; but I cannot help thinking that the grounds on which that objection rested have been enormously weakened, if not altogether removed, since we have had lady inspectors. I cannot possibly see, if these institutions are well conducted, and no doubt the majority of them are, why they should object to a lady occasionally coming in and seeing how they are going on. I cannot feel sanguine, or indeed entertain any expectation whatever, of good resulting from the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman that managers are to name their own inspectors, and that the persons who are to report whether the legal standard of requirements is or is not being observed are persons who have been appointed by the managers themselves.

  2. Al Dente says

    The religious orders who ran the laundries are refusing to compensate the victims of their slavery.

  3. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    If the church had any sense of decency they would shutter the religious orders out of shame and sell everything to compensate the victims.

    Same should happen to the UK Tory party: make it pay compensation to the victims of their Elm Guest House pedophile brothel that they covered up for years.

  4. kage says

    This is fucking heartbreaking, and way too close to home for me. My family is from Ireland a few generations back. My Mother was taken by Nuns 60 years ago and adopted to a violent family, her Mother was taken by Nuns and raised in an orphanage. It feels like a stroke of luck that it wasn’t my Mum carrying around that empty handbag and being worked to death.

    Thank you for constantly amplifying this, Ophelia. These stories need to be told.

  5. Anton Mates says

    after she was certified mentally unfit for education, but fit for work

    I’m pretty sure that even having an official category of “mentally unfit for education but fit for work” is a human rights violation. Seriously, why not just tattoo “SLAVE” on her forehead?

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