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Magdalene Girl

How an Irish hell was for an adolescent Sinéad O’Connor the lesser of two evils
Found refuge where so many had been confined and punished: Sinéad O'Connor. (Credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns via Getty Images)

There were maybe four hospital beds against each wall, with curtains drawn around them. Just like a real hospital. Everything was colored buttermilk—the linoleum, the curtains, the walls. The lights were very low and dark yellow and seemed to shine from behind the walls so that they leaked up the back of the cubicles. Since no staffers were present, I stood waiting, expecting someone to come and say where I should sleep. I heard moaning from one of the beds; someone was calling, “Nurse, nurse.” After ten minutes no one came so I stole a quick peek into each cubicle. Every bed had in it an ancient lady, sleeping. I’d been in hospitals before and seen some dying people, so I recognized this was a tiny hospice. And I recognised these were some of the old ladies I sometimes saw shuffling about the grounds, the ladies we were never allowed to talk to.
                                                                    – Sinéad O’Connor, Rememberings

In the foreword of her 2021 memoir, Sinéad O’Connor writes that she wasn’t going to be winning the Booker Prize anytime soon and wasn’t Shakespeare or even in the class of her celebrated novelist brother, Joseph. Yet there is no denying the Kesey-esque quality to her account of being sent to a Magdalene Laundry as a young teen. Her voice as a writer burns with the honesty of her songwriting.

The Magdalene Laundries are a horrible legacy of the Catholic Church in Ireland, with sexual and physical abuse committed in parishes across the country for decades. One might think this awful history is long behind us, but it’s not. The institution that 13-year-old Sinéad was sent to, An Grianán, was by then a corrective school, but it started as a Magdalene Laundry for “fallen women” and was still run by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Refuge in Dublin.

As a Magdalene Laundry, it was little more than a prison workhouse, an asylum for women and girls that had fallen foul of the moral strictures imposed by the Church in Ireland, stretching back to the 18th century. The last home of this type closed in 1996, and subsequent state inquiries into the abuse revealed collaboration between the Church and the Irish Government. One of the more recent revelations centered upon the deaths of children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway, for unmarried mothers run by nuns. Irish historian Catherine Corless uncovered that 796 children died there, and despite existence of death certificates, no burial records were to be found. Eventually, the truth emerged that, between 1925 and 1961, the bodies of babies and children had been dumped in a disused septic tank.

As Pope Francis says Mass in Dublin, a protestor highlights the grim record of the punitive workhouses run by the Catholic Church in Ireland for women and girls. Sinéad O’Connor was committed to one of these institutions, then called An Grianán. (Photo by Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)

It is bracing to think that Sinéad was sent to An Grianán by her father, trying to help his troubled daughter in the aftermath of splitting from her mother. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that, for Sinéad, the home actually offered respite from the abuse committed against her by her mother. As Sinéad wrote in her book: She’ll make me take off all my clothes and lie on the floor and open my legs and arms and let her hit me with the sweeping brush in my private parts. She makes me say, “I am nothing,” over and over and if I don’t, she won’t stop stomping on me. She says she wants to burst my womb.

Sinéad witnessed the last remnants of the Magdalene legacy, the old women shuffling along in silence, the unkempt graves on the grounds all marked with a single name—Magdalene. The night she had to spend sleeping in the dormitory with the dying, older women, a ward normally forbidden to the younger girls, wasn’t a punishment; it was a warning—behave or you will be one of those women.

A memorial plaque to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. (Credit: Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images)

But there were also acts of kindness and efforts to nurture her interest in music and obvious talent. Sinéad was allowed to see the legendary Irish band the Fureys in the small concert hall, where she heard her favorite song, “When You Were Sweet Sixteen”, and “The Lonesome Boatman”, which front man Finbar Furey wrote when he was 12. That night, after the concert, Sinéad waited behind until the band were leaving, walked up to Finbar and told him he had made her want to be a musician.

Sister Margaret, a nun who had taken to Sinéad, brought her to a music store and bought her her first guitar, a steel-string acoustic, and a book on how to play Bob Dylan’s songs. The first song she learned on that guitar was “To Ramona.”

These happy moments aside, Sinéad experienced many disturbing incidents at An Grianán, and these—along with her rage at the Catholic Church for how she felt it had unhinged her mother, and Ireland as a whole—played a role in her appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while staring down the camera and proclaiming, “Fight the real enemy!”

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Read about rock’s Jeanne d’Arc, the late Sinéad O’Connor (December 8, 1966 to July 26, 2023) being SPIN‘s Artist of the Year this year—now—here.

Learn how Sinéad’s debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, was first recorded as ditzy ’80s pop before the singer rebelled, booted the label’s producer, asked in young Irishman Kevin Moloney, and started from scratch—all with only three weeks of studio time left on the depleted budget. Moloney tells SPIN what went down at the 11th hour to realize O’Connor’s vision.