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Nun horror Magdalene survivor reveals how she was kept in padded cell for three days

One particularly cruel nun would regularly strip her, beat and taunt her. Sometimes the nun would grab her by the hair and swing her around the room

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Elizabeth Coppin (right) at event in Mansion House in 2018 honouring survivors of Magdalene laundries, alongside business woman Norah Casey

Elizabeth Coppin (right) at event in Mansion House in 2018 honouring survivors of Magdalene laundries, alongside business woman Norah Casey

Elizabeth Coppin (right) at event in Mansion House in 2018 honouring survivors of Magdalene laundries, alongside business woman Norah Casey

Elizabeth Coppin was relatively new to the Magdalene laundry in Peacock Lane, Cork, when she was wrongly accused of stealing sweets.

As punishment, she spent three days in solitary confinement, or the "padded cell" as it was known, a bare room with no light, blanket or bed.

"It was while I was in there that I was at my lowest," she recalls now.

"Reality dawned on me that I would be there forever and die like I had seen women in there die. They could be working there and get sick, be taken away and we would never see them again.

"When I look back now it was like a prison.

"All you could see were old women, frightened, sad and humble, trying to make the best of a life of drudgery.

"It was just a life of drudgery, abuse and silence. I knew I had to escape."

More than 50 years later, in body at least, Elizabeth, now 70, is free. She lives in Cambridgeshire, in England, but she was born to her mother, who was unmarried, in St Columbanus's county home in Killarney in 1949.

In 1951, aged two, she was put into an industrial school by the courts and was later sent to the Magdalene laundry in Cork's Peacock Lane, run by the Sisters of Charity, at 14.

She escaped in 1966, but was tracked down and forced to return, and then moved to a laundry in Sunday's Well, Cork, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters.

The following year, she was moved to St Mary's laundry in Waterford, also run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, before she was finally released in 1968, aged 18. The next year, she emigrated to England.

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Since then, Elizabeth has been trying to right the wrongs perpetrated against her through every available avenue.

She initially reported the abuse she suffered in the industrial school to gardaí in 1998, but it was never followed up.

A year later, in 1999, she filed a civil action against the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the industrial school, and two other orders - the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd - who ran the Magdalene laundries she had worked in.

However, the case was struck out in the High Court due to the statute of limitations.

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A Magdalene Laundry

A Magdalene Laundry

A Magdalene Laundry

While others might have given up, Elizabeth became even more determined in her pursuit of justice.

In more recent years, Justice for Magdalenes Research, an advocacy group for survivors, took up her cause and is in the process of having it heard on an international stage.

In February 2020, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) agreed to hear Elizabeth's accusations of systematic human rights violations in the industrial school and the Magdalene laundries.

This time, in what amounts to a test case for all survivors of the laundries, the main target of her complaint will not be the nuns but the Irish State itself.

"Ireland has not faced up to the horrendous crimes it committed against its own ­citizens," she said.

"And I want it all to come out how they've treated us and still are treating us".

Like all the other women who received compensation through the Magdalene redress scheme, Elizabeth had to sign a waiver preventing her taking future legal action through the Irish courts once she accepted the money.

However, UNCAT has stated that individual judicial remedies "must always be available to victims", regardless of collective reparation schemes they may avail of.

Through her case at the UN, Elizabeth is arguing that despite having paid roughly €25m to 700 women who survived the laundries, the State has never admitted its role in supporting the laundries.

Yet, according to the McAleese Report in 2013, thousands of inmates of industrial schools, like Elizabeth, were sent to laundries from state care.

In a landmark case, that will be of huge interest to survivors, hers raises the issue of accountability and the State's failure to adequately investigate institutional abuse in the laundries.

From an early age, Elizabeth's life was one marred by cruelty, void of any human warmth and kindness.

She was a bright child, passing the Primary Cert at age 11 while at industrial school, with innocent hopes of continuing her studies at secondary.

"The principal of the school said I wasn't going to secondary school," she says.

"She told me I was going to stay behind and help look after the babies.

"I knew then that my life was going to change for the worse."

There was one particularly cruel nun who would regularly strip her, beat and taunt her. Sometimes the nun would grab her by the hair and swing her around the room.

"I can only speak for myself, but I believe she put us in three different categories," she said of the nun, who has since died.

"You had 'the specials' and they were allowed to call her Nana. Then there were the mediocre ones. Some of them would go to secondary school and become teachers. And you had the third category, the ones she despised."

As one of the "despised", the many chores Elizabeth was tasked with included looking after the fire while the other girls studied.

"Every day I had to chop wood," she said. "I had to look for newspaper, lift big boxes of heavy coal, buckets of slack and of turf every single day when everyone else was in there doing their study between four and five."

When one of the other girls accidentally burned herself after Elizabeth asked her to man the fire while she went to the toilet, what was a barely tolerable existence became utterly unbearable.

"The nun in charge hounded on me after that," she says.

"She doubled the abuse. I was scrubbing the floors, sanding the tiles.

"I was on my hands and knees scrubbing, wiping, looking after fires, washing the babies' pots, out weeding the garden, when the other children were all inside."

So desperate was Elizabeth to get away from her sorry existence that at the age of 12 or 13 she tried to kill herself by setting fire to her clothes.

"I couldn't take any more," she said. "I thought, 'I'm going to kill myself. I can't cope with this anymore'. I was so ostracised from everything."

Although she was severely burned, leavings scars that are still visible today, she didn't get any medical treatment. Instead, a retired nun was summoned to burst her blisters on a daily basis.

From there, she moved from the school to a Magdalene laundry at Peacock Lane, the first of three such laundries that she would be confined to during her formative years.

She was placed in a cell of approximately six square metres, which contained a small bed with one blanket and a shelf with a jug and basin for sanitation, the door to her cell was bolted, there were bars on the window. Her lights were switched off every night at 9pm.

"It was a prison," she said. "It was probably worst for us women because very few of us committed crimes. It was about the Church and the State controlling women.

"It was degrading. I was 15, there were women there, older than me now… and they had to use a pot."

At 17, she and another girl jumped from an upstairs window into the street. They remained at large for three months, working in a nearby hospital, until one day child protection inspectors retrieved them.

"So then I went back to the second place [Sunday's Well, in Cork], and they changed my name to Enda," she says.

"Enda was the name of my first abuser in Tralee, the nun in charge of the industrial school.

So I knew straight away there was a connection there.

"And I said, 'No, my name is not Enda'. I discovered afterwards it was a man's name."

In Sunday's Well, her head was shaved by the nun in charge. Five months later Elizabeth was taken to a different laundry, in Waterford city.

"I was there for one year. I had my own name and my own clothes, we used toilets and slept in dormitories and even though I was locked up and still doing laundry, I found this place more tolerable."

When she was almost 19, two kindly nuns in Waterford helped get a job for her as a hospital cleaner in Tralee. Eventually she left the laundry system, and settled in England, where she married and had children.

In her submission to the UN, Elizabeth "alleges that she was subjected to arbitrary detention, servitude and forced labour without pay for six days a week in all three of the Magdalene laundries and that the State party was complicit in her arbitrary detention and mistreatment".

Elizabeth's lawyer, Wendy Lyons, said it will be "some time" before there is a final ruling from UNCAT.

"Every day is a step closer to justice," added Elizabeth.

"They thought I would just go away but as long as I have fight in me I will keep going."

In relation to the allegations made by Elizabeth Coppin and the case she has taken against the State, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy said: "We have fully co-operated with and responded to the state authorities in their enquiries into all such matters. We have nothing further add."

The Good Shepherd Sisters said: "We responded to all such matters before various official state inquiries. We do not respond publicly to matters relating to individual persons." The Sisters of Charity did not respond.

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