Letters to The Irish Times.


Mary Raftery’s commitment to recovering the story of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries is part of her impressive legacy of investigative journalism.

Twice in the past year she wrote opinion pieces on the need to bring about justice for Magdalene survivors. She identified the State’s moral obligation to redress historic injustices. She recognised families’ and society’s responsibility for these women – the daughters, sisters, aunts who were summarily disappeared: the invisible workforce who cleansed our dirty linen. And, Mary Raftery demanded that the four religious congregations account for the women in their “care”.

Back in August 2003, she wrote her influential exposé on the 1993 exhumation of 155 women’s remains at the High Park Magdalene Laundry, Drumcondra. That piece acted as a major catalyst in the rejuvenation of the Magdalene Memorial Committee and, ultimately, the formation of Justice for Magdalenes (JFM). Entitled “Restoring dignity to Magdalens,” the article offered a searing critique of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The issues raised – the discovery of an additional 22 bodies, the lack of death certificates for 54 women, the lack of names for 24 women, and significant discrepancies between the names listed on the exhumation licence issued by the Department of the Environment and the headstone subsequently erected at Glasnevin Cemetery where the bodies were cremated and reinterred – were alarming at the time; they are disconcerting still because as yet they remain unresolved.

These details would have gone unnoticed but for Mary Raftery’s particular brand of investigative journalism. She began the previous April by contacting the nuns seeking to clarify the aforementioned anomalies. She obtained copies of the original and revised exhumation orders, she tracked down death certificates for individual women, compared names on the Glasnevin gravestone with those on the exhumation licence. Ultimately, she submitted a list of 19 detailed questions for the attention of Sr Ann Marie Ryan at High Park.

To read those questions now is to fully appreciate Mary Raftery’s determination to get at the truth – she asked why so many deaths went unregistered, she asked why the order did not know the first and last names of numerous women who spent their lives working in the institution, she sought explanation for the discrepancies between the exhumation order and the headstone, she asked how much “did the exhumation, cremation, and reburial cost? Did you pay it all? Did the purchaser of the land pay any of it?” And, she asked why the order decided “to cremate the remains” and whether they were “aware of Canon Law 1176 in this regard?”

She concluded by referencing the fact that “a number of religious orders have already apologised for their role in the industrial schools” before asking “Has your order done so? Do you feel this is either appropriate or warranted?” Her questions would go unanswered.

Looking back, it matters less that Sr Ryan’s response (a brief statement issued the week the article was scheduled to appear) is notable only for its evasion. Rather, it seems important we recognise Mary Raftery’s work practices as worthy of emulation by everyone interested in better understanding Ireland’s recent past.

Her life’s work was fuelled by the conviction that all human beings deserve dignity and respect. She sought to restore dignity to Ireland’s Magdalene women and in doing so she inspired all of us in the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) campaign to do likewise. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,

English Department & Irish Studies Program,

Boston College,

Massachusetts, US.


13 Responses to “Mary Raftery -Magdalene Laundries”

  1. Nome de Guerre says:

    For the better part of a century Catholic orders disposed of the bodies of the dead as they wished , Such was the deference to the holy nuns and brothers that uncomfortable questions were not asked . There is no proof that children and young women were murdered in these places as of yet , but that could change if forensic investigations are carried out in these places . In order to put these sites on the market they would have to exhume these bodies and it is here Amnesty International through Colm O’Gorman can raise this question . There will always be a lingering suspicion that many murders were committed in these places given the level of violence from the religious and its longevity . I an convinced that many were murdered in laundries and industrial schools , the crux is proving it .

  2. culchiewoman says:

    It is VERY possible bodies have been cremated, moved, destroyed, you name it. While most former laundry sites we can get onto and monitor publicly, some (like Sunday’s Well) are so locked down it’s impossible to keep tabs on what’s going on with the grounds. However, we do know that the nuns tried to put the SW property on the market and wanted to reinter the bodies buried there. Cork City Manager put a stop to it, and then the real estate market took a dive. So thankfully the property has not yet been sold. But we need to get the Dept of Environment and other authorities to take a thorough look at the ground and take soil samples to determine if their are indeed unmarked graves/mass graves, etc.

  3. Christina says:

    My fingers are crossed and I’m watching this space.
    I would guess that the nuns learned a valuable lesson from the High Park incident so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they have already covered their tracks. Is it possible that further cremations of Magdalene women took place after 1993?

  4. culchiewoman says:

    To answer Christina, yes — we are still trying to campaign to not only redress the wrongs at High Park (unreported deaths, inaccurate exhumation orders, etc.) but what was done to survivors of the Laundries in general. Thanks to the invaluable help of people like Jim Smith, and tireless campaigners like Paddy Doyle and Mary Raftery, which inch ever closer to that goal. We are also looking into unmarked graves at other sites, like Sunday’s Well in Cork. Watch this space!

  5. I have always thought this too. Buildings built on grounds from the church should be searched first before building permission is given. thay had lots of places so how many bodies are hidden. when a child disappeared from there thay could decide themselves whiether or not to inform the police.Even perents were kept at a distance. the law knows this too. thay are unable to take on the problem. its the very oldest crime scenes in ireland. I wouldnt like to find out that i am living on someones grave.

  6. nome de guerre says:

    Strange how many graveyards have bodies that can not be explained away , the 22 bodies at Highgate and the secret burial of children in the woods in Letterfrack . Of course these are crime scenes .

  7. The nuns dont seem to have feelings. its thier training i suppose. Since thay feel supierer to other women. When the head Nun wasent obayed fast enough she always had a reason for beating the children and would say I AM THE BRIDE OF CHRIST. it was terrifying. it was the way she thought. it was plain snobism. but thats the way thay were trained to treat others. its also a way of keeping control. but even now its the same attitude as the pope.

  8. Paddy says:

    Your test worked Christina. I’ve approved your comment. Best wishes. Paddy.

  9. Christina says:

    James Smith’s letter is very powerful. It reduced me to tears. Mary Raftery was a brave woman and a thorn in the side of those who thought they were too powerful to be held accountable.
    Is anyone campaigning for an investigation in to what happened at High Park? There were 22 unidentified bodies in the grave, would this not be considered a crime scene anywhere else?
    That those nuns would dump these womens’ bodies in to a pit (like litter in to a bin)is appalling. The nuns held these poor women captive for all or most of their adult lives so it’s not surprising that these nuns would treat these poor women so disrepectfully in death.

    I often wonder what kind of monsters these nuns truly are.

  10. Christina says:

    This is a test. I was not able to send through a comment either

  11. Well since MRS Buckley seems to believe that the commission into child abuse was her doing. I suppose that she would avoid the funeral of mary raftery. this is a problem as any memoral for marys work would give the credit to mary and not to Christine who wants this for her self as mentioned in carmens letter. it might be neccesary to protect this now. As you all know christine has a strong bond with the Irish press.

  12. i seem to be having problems posting comments.

  13. FXR says:

    If James Smith could hear me I’d give him a standing ovation.

    The terrible cancer in Irish society is that there are so few Mary Raftery’s and Paddy Doyles and so many nuns, priests, FF church creeps, crawthumpers, John Waters, silent Bonos and Bobs and a nation of roman church sheep. Ireland is a shit hole.

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