Undertakers exhuming the bodies of 133 women at a notorious Sisters of Our Lady of Charity convent found 22 other remains. And almost 60 of the deaths at one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries in Dublin were never registered. The shocking revelations did prompt calls for a Garda probe into who these women were, and how they died.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off land at their High Park convent in Drumcondra, Dublin, to developers in 1993.. Part of the land included a graveyard containing the remains of 133 women, many of whom had been locked away for years without pay in the laundry hellhole. The Department of the Environment granted a licence for the removal and cremation of the bodies at nearby Glasnevin cemetery. But undertakers who began removing the coffins found an extra 22 remains. Many of the bodies were buried with their broken bones still in plaster-casts on their ankles, elbows, wrists, and hands when they were taken out of the ground. One of the bodies was headless. Why these bodies had casts on them is no mystery as these women were serving penal servitude for life because they were found to have had sexual relations without the express permission of the Catholic Church.
It is claimed that when they were discovered, the department simply issued an extra licence covering the other remains and did not launch an investigation into who they were. Failing to register a death is a criminal offence. But of the 133 original bodies, just 75 death certificates existed. All 155 bodies were removed and all but one of them cremated. They can now NEVER be identified in the event of a investigation into their deaths.
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The then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell was asked to initiate a criminal investigation into the unregistered and unexplained deaths. A spokeswoman said: “That’s a matter for the Gardai.” A Garda spokesman said: “There is no investigation into these unexplained deaths at the moment.”
The Department of the Environment was reported as saying that “no trace” forms were issued for 34 of the dead women and it could not search for the identities of 24 others because of “insufficient details” . In the case of the 34 women, the department added: “It appears that the statutory registration procedures were not complied with at the time of their deaths.” Of the 22 extra bodies, it said it only had details of 14 of them. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity yesterday defended its actions. Spokeswoman Sister Ann Marie Ryan that the exhumation and re-interring of all 155 women was “approved by all relevant authorities”. She added: “We have had no queries from families about our decision in the intervening time. One family took the remains of a deceased relative to a family plot at the time. The remaining 154 were respectfully cremated and laid to rest at a public ceremony.”
The secret of the unidentified women, and many others whose dignity was ignored both in life and death, lies in a double grave in Glasnevin. It may never be known who they were. A grey headstone marked “St Mary’s High Park, In Loving Memory Of” features 175 names and dates of death, the first in 1858, the last December 1994. But the names on the headstone bear little resemblance to the list supplied to the Department of the Environment by the nuns to secure the exhumation licence.
Only 27 of the names and dates correctly match up.
The nuns’ willingness to opt for cremation has also been questioned. They had been told it would be massively expensive to bury them. The Catholic Church has always frowned upon the practice of cremation preferring burial instead. Canon law banning cremation was only lifted in the mid-1980s.
The nuns did not even appear to know the names of many of the women, listing them as Magdalene of St Cecilia, Magdalene of Lourdes, and so on and on. The final number so callously disturbed from their resting place was 155. All had died in the service of the nuns, working long hours in their large commercial laundry for no pay, locked away by a patriarchal church and society ruthlessly determined to control women’s sexuality.