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Interview with J. Kennedy June 2011

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Interview with J. Kennedy

June 2011.

John Kennedy has a long connection with the Good Shepherds in Limerick. His family were, for many generations, involved with the Good Shepherd Order. He visited his aunts who were Sisters in the Order in Limerick many times as a child and in adulthood John managed the Good Shepherd Laundry from the mid 1970s. He eventually took over the business as a private enterprise in the 1980s. He has an immense knowledge of the Laundry, the women who were there and the nuns. Here John shares stories of the women, gives a detailed account of how the Laundry operated and shares a unique insight into the Good Shepherd Institution and how it functioned.
My name is John Kennedy. I am a County Limerick man born and bred. There is an awful lot of history, a sad history, and a happy history tied up in these walls and I am acutely aware of a lot of it because my family were, for many generations, involved with the Good Shepherd Order.
My maternal grandfather had an aunt in the Good Shepherd Convent called Sr. Camillus Curtin, who came from Tournafulla and she was the first member of my family to join the Good Shepherd Order and she was in charge of what they called The Class. The Class was primarily the group of women who were working in the laundry or associated with the Laundry, in maybe working in the kitchen or working in the lace room etc. and they used what was referred to as ‘classrooms’ for recreation. They were downstairs in the St. Mary’s building adjoining the Laundry. They were never used as classrooms in my time. Also being in charge of The Class meant she was in charge of writing up the records on the background of the girls coming in. These are all on archive with the Good Shepherd. So Camillus Curtin was the first member of my family in the Order. In turn her two nieces Sr. Josephine and Sr. Petronilla joined up. They were sisters of my grandfather. I have vague memories of being taken to visit Sister Josephine in Waterford when I was a child. She was Reverend Mother in the Good Shepherd Convent in Waterford and they also had a Laundry. She was seemingly a small woman and very jolly. My mother was very fond of her. Unfortunately Petronilla, Birdie as she was called by the family, contracted TB and died young. I have the newspaper cutting of her funeral in 1914 in Waterford. So her other sister Josephine went on to become Reverend Mother and did a lot of good work in Waterford and modernised the laundry there. In the early days when these Laundries started they were very primitive and they literally were a big basin of hot water with a bar of soap and a scrubbing board and that is literally how the laundry was washed. It was tough hard work until mechanisation came in. The real advances in mechanisation didn’t take place until after World War II.
The next connection then was with my parent’s generation. My mother had one older sister Anna, and Anna followed in her two aunts footsteps and she joined the Good Shepherd Order here in Limerick. I had two other aunts in the Order as well, sisters of my father. One was my auntie Una, Sister Perpetual and she entered at 29 years of age with her younger sister Maud who was called Sr. Monica.
Limerick was the Motherhouse for the Good Shepherd in Ireland and at that stage they were a very strong Order in the country. They had a large Convent in Cork with a Laundry attached. They had a large Convent in Waterford with a Laundry attached. They had a Convent in New Ross with a Laundry attached. They had three Convents in Northern Ireland with Laundries attached. When these Laundries closed they had very good quality equipment, which I purchased from some of them to upgrade the plant in Limerick. I am told around the 50s when their numbers peaked that there would have been about 200 Sisters here in Limerick. It was a big complex covering a few acres with a whole lot of support systems. For example they had their own bakery here. They had their own farm here supplying their own vegetables, cows supplying their own milk etc.

My aunt Anna qualified as a teacher in Carysfort and she taught in St. Georges, which was a residential primary school (the children slept in dormitories above the school). St. Georges is a building slightly removed from the main building. The Health Board now occupies it and it is a little known fact but when the school was closed down it was given by the Good Shepherd Sisters as a gift to the then Bishop of Limerick, Jeremiah Newman for the diocese. He quite promptly turned around and rented it to the Health Board as an income for the diocese. Now the Good Shepherd Sisters could have done the very same thing and spent the money on their social work (at the time they had purchased private houses in Roxboro and Southhill). I thought it was quite ironic. Now in St. Georges the Sisters taught children in the primary school system. I am led to believe that some children came from the Mount Convent in O’Connell Avenue in Limerick where unmarried pregnant women were sent to have their babies. Seemingly the babies were kept in the Mount Convent or fostered until they were approximately 3 to 4 years of age. And on the ground floor in St. George’s were the classrooms where they were educated. And if they were promising they would go on to a secondary education. Very few went to third level. It was my understanding that the unmarried mothers had their babies in the Mount and they were then sent down to the Laundry. Their babies were not brought down to St. George’s until they were around 4 years of age and that it was a nursery/school. Now you will have to verity those facts. I am going back now to the 40’s and 50s. St. George’s also got in orphans and children from broken homes or children that had been fostered as babies.

Some of the women who worked in the Laundry then would have had children in St. George’s school. The only time they could catch a glimpse of their children was at morning mass as they were not allowed any contact. Standing in the nave facing the altar the church was in the shape of a cross and the left hand arm of the cross contained the women from The Class and the right hand side of the church contained the children from St Georges and their mothers would have a crick in their necks my aunt said at communion to watch the children going up to the rails to see which one of them was their child. To the right of the church between the St. Georges side and the nave there was a small room looking on to the altar that was reserved for the residents of St. Joseph’s. A similar room on the left hand side of the church beside St. Mary’s was used as a mortuary. Underneath the church there was a large basement, which contained the boiler house for central heating, a room for the air blower for the organ, a storeroom for the painter and the entrance to the tunnel leading to the front garden and to St. George’s. This was used on a daily basis by the Sisters going to and from the school and by the children going to and from the church.
I always assumed that any children that came over to the Laundry from the orphanage to work were over 14 years. I always assumed that. In later years Shalom and number 60 in Clare St. replaced St. George’s. The children in these houses were cared for in a family type atmosphere. First of all brothers and sisters were kept together. You had children going to national school and secondary school living in the same house and very importantly the ratio of children to carers was very small. The carers lived in the house with the children. Outside visitors were encouraged. Some of these children came from homes where they had been abused and would be there under the auspices of the Health Board. I know of one family where the children were badly traumatised from neglect (one had a Roches Stores bag on him as a nappy) when they were sent in to Shalom. They went through national school and secondary school and went on to lead normal lives. I gave some of the children in Shalom and 60 Clare St. summer jobs in the Laundry when they were in secondary school. The St. Mary’s women doted on these children.
So how did I get involved with the laundry? Well in the 40s my fathers two sisters, Maud and Una were being professed in Limerick. On the same day my mother, Marjory McDonnell had her only sister Anna being professed. And my Dad met my Mum, they are both dead now, in the Good Shepherd and love blossomed. Seemingly I was brought in here as a baby in a Moses basket and they said I was the first male ever to enter the Novitiate amongst all the virgins even though I was only a baby. While my aunt Anna was in the convent in Limerick, my mother and my three brothers would bring my grandmother to visit my Aunt Anna many times. I have fond memories of the lovely afternoon teas in the convent parlour, running around the front garden, chasing the goldfish in the pond. I could hear the children in St. George’s playing in their playground over the railing. The difference between their lives and mine never crossed my mind. And we used to be taken by my aunt over to the Laundry and Boiler House to visit the women there. Initially when we were very small they used to frighten us because they would all crowd around us and all we could see was a sea of faces. But as we got older we got over our shyness and used to love running around the place.
My aunt Anna was actively involved in recreational activities with St. Mary’s. They had a very fine hall and stage built on to the classrooms where they had their own plays and musicals and also brought in many by outside groups. And they would show films there and so on.
So I knew a lot of these women as a youngster coming in here already. The one thing that I noticed as a child initially was that they were always singing hymns in the Laundry when we came in and it frightened the wits out of us. But they were lovely people. When the oil crisis came in the 70s the nuns weren’t really prepared for the change in the running costs of the laundry and their tradition was they had very cheap labour but they charged very little for what they were doing. So the people of Limerick were really subsidised in the prices they were paying for their laundry and the hotels were being subsidised. They did all the hospitals – they did St. John’s, Barrington’s etc. and suddenly they had to raise their prices because the price of oil went over the moon and the biggest input in the Laundry is oil for to make steam, for heating the water and for the ironing, tumble drying and pressing. They were also faced with the fact that the women in St. Mary’s were not getting any younger and that many of them were facing retirement age and for a good many years there were fewer young women coming in. They were looking around for a solution to their problem and my aunt suggested to the Reverend Mother that I take over the running of the Laundry. So I agreed to come in and run the business for them - see if it could be turned around and made profitable on the promise that if I could make a go of it commercially I could buy it from them.
So the year my son was born in September 1976 I came into the Laundry as a raw recruit. And the agreement was that after 12 months they would review the situation, look at the figures and I would put a proposal to them. But the nuns being tough as they are dragged it out for 6 years. And they got the 6 best years out of the business before they would agree to sell but I was happy with it and they agreed that I would take over the business from them under very generous financial terms. They allowed me to pay it in stages. I took over the business and I ran it for 27 years. To allow me time to recruit outside staff and train them properly the Sisters agreed to a very generous one and a half year transition period. I was delighted with that arrangement and the phasing out of the St. Mary’s women went very smoothly. It was a lovely time with them. During the transition period I paid the Sisters at the going rate for the labour of the St. Mary’s women. I took over the business on the 1st of November 1982. The thirteen or so Sisters who had a full or part-time involvement with the Laundry finished working for me on the 27th of May 1983. They never charged me for their labour during that last 6 months but their contribution in helping me get established was immense. The last of St. Mary’s finished on the 1st of June 1984 – roughly twenty women. Some of them then came to work for me independently on a full-time basis. During the summer holidays I continued to employ the teenagers from Shalom and 60 Clare St.
Now I should say that when I came in here in 1976 there were over 90 women in what we call ‘The Class’, that is, St. Mary’s. Now there was a stigma attached to the name St. Mary’s because it was St. Mary Magdalene, giving the impression that they were ‘fallen women’. A lot of them had never been pregnant. And I don’t refer to a woman who gets pregnant as a fallen woman anyway. A lot of the women who came in here were taken advantage of in a very horrible way. I was told of one young woman who was hired out to a farmer on an 11 month ‘fed and found’ contract basis with one payment at Christmas. She was made to sleep on straw that she would put down in the front hall when everyone was gone to bed at night. She was expected to be up first in the morning, have every trace of the straw cleaned up and have the fire lighting in the range before anybody else in the house moved. She would then have to go out and bring in the cows for milking. She was taken advantage of by the so-called man of the house and then sent in here.
Many of the women who were sent in to St. Mary’s were not sent in for so called ‘sins of the flesh’ and had done nothing out of the way. The reason why families allowed this to happen in the first place and then did not want them back, escapes me.
A good percentage of the women sent in here were, as gaeilge, shimplí. And they were easy prey for men. I know of one woman in the 60s that went back out and got pregnant again and she was brought back in again. She has three children. The woman was intellectually challenged and needed to be accommodated in a sheltered environment for her whole life. These women needed protection so they were given a sheltered environment here. And the Good Shepherd had a very good mentoring system. They watched the person when they came in and saw whom they would pal with and they would pair them off with a capable person who would take them under their wing. So that in their work in the Laundry or if they went up town shopping there was somebody to mind them. So the system worked very well. And they were like one big family, all these women. They really looked out for one another. Now they had their rows like anyone would but they were one big family and they looked out for one another.
So to go back to the reasons why the women came in here. Some were horror stories. Some had been made pregnant by their own priest. Some had been made pregnant by their own father, their own brother. And at the time the Catholic Church had enormous power in the country, especially in the rural areas and they were loaded up sometimes in the dead on night, shipped in here and they were never heard of again. These poor women were whipped away from their neighbourhood, their friends, their neighbours, their acquaintances and in many instances they were never heard from again. They were given an assumed name. The trauma must have been incredible. And the pity was that when the good days came after Vatican II in the 60s and they got their freedoms and they were allowed to go in the world very few took the opportunity because they were institutionalised and they didn’t have the qualifications or the social skills or the courage to go out there. Some who did go out became alcoholics and some ended up badly. Some ended up in broken marriages. Few enough of them succeeded. Some of them came back. One lady was a receptionist for many years in England and when her employer died she came back here. But she had nobody. She had no family. She had no friends. She had nobody out there because she had been shunned so many years ago. So I say shunned is a good word for it. They were shunned by their families and by society.
To go back to the Laundry: That is my background to qualify me for what I am saying about the operation. I will be able to give you a guided tour of all the buildings and of where everybody worked and so on at a later stage.
Just to tell you about some of the stories. All of these women, I loved them all. They were saints, every one of them. Now some of them were bold. Some of them had their moments but I loved them dearly. They were all characters. I could write a book on them and I will just give you some snippets of some of them. One particular woman from the North West was sent in here as a young girl. And the reason being was she was thought she was a bit flighty. She was an orphan and her aunt I think was raising her. And she was sent in here and she told me herself that she was so small they had to put her up on a butter box – In those days the creameries had butter boxes for storing the butter in – and you turned the butter box upside down to get up to the sink to wash the collars on men’s shirts on the washing board. And she was here all her life and never got as much as a postcard from her family not to mention a visit.
I remember there was a swing outside in the yard belonging to the young children in St. George’s and it was never used and beside it was a thing called the Ocean Wave and it was kind of a circular seat on a frame suspended from a central pole and when you sat on one side the other side would tilt up. And one of the old dears was sitting on one side one day and the person on the other side got up in a hurry and it tilted up and she fell down and broke her hip. So the Sisters requested that I get my fitter to cut down the ocean wave with a gas torch because it was a danger to them in case another one would break their hip. So we put in a fishpond there with gold fish but a wily old sea gull began to steal the goldfish. They were easy prey in the pond. One of the older women took it upon herself to mind the goldfish. So every day you would see her sitting outside at the edge of the goldfish pond with a stick in her hand in case the seagull would come. But apart from washing men’s collars, her job was washing teddy bears. And women would have teddy bears that were heirlooms in the family in Limerick and they would be filthy with an ear missing or an eye missing and they would be sent down to the Good Shepherd to be washed. And she would lovingly wash these teddies and bring them into the boiler house to dry them. Because the problem with the teddies was they were stuffed with all kinds of materials - There was no foam rubber then - little bits of cloth and so forth. They would stink to the high heaven if they weren’t dried quickly. So she would dry them on the boiler and then she would comb them and brush them to get the fur and the little teddy like new. That was her favourite job and she was a lovely lovely person.
There were many more people like that. A Sister in the packing room told me one day a man came in to her. Now the Packing Room was at the end of ‘the cycle of the laundry’. The soiled laundry came in at one end and then you had the marking and the sorting process, then the washing process, then the ironing process and then you packed the laundry into a parcel with the persons name on it and that was in the packing room. And that is where the public had access. And this man came in with a grey suit and a black armband and she could see that he was very emotional and that he had been crying. He had buried his father that day in West Clare and he discovered he had an aunt in St. Mary’s that he was never aware of. He was very good to her and regularly took her home on holidays. Now she was a little bit shimplí but a lovely lovely person. There was another woman who ran the tumble driers in the Crescent room and she had an uncle in the Columban's and he visited her when he got out on holidays. I could replicate those stories many times.
What was it in the people in the past that made them shun these lovely people because of what the priests called ‘the greatest sin that man could commit, the sins of the flesh’ was so wrong. It was cruel. It was awful. I will never get over it. But thank God now things have changed. The Good Shepherd Sisters come in for a lot of stick for certain acts of cruelty. I don’t deny that there were certain Sisters that were over zealous and were cruel. But the vast majority of them were wonderful people. They worked in the laundry side by side with these women. They also went through very tough times with them. They were also in some instances treated very harshly by their Reverend Mothers. Some were sent home as Postulants in disgrace for not behaving, for merely asking questions for why things shouldn’t be done differently. I should say that these nuns were subject to the local bishop and they were in fear and dread of when the local bishop would come. They were also subject to government inspectors and the big question I have is why didn’t the government take more interest in these places. Why didn’t these inspectors take more of an interest? They just didn’t want to know because these nuns were fulfilling a huge social need. These people were in need of help. The government should have given them that help. The nuns were there. They were given no financial assistance and they filled the void and the government were quite happy, thank you very much, and didn’t want to know about it. Only for the generosity of certain benefactors here and from the income from the Laundry the nuns would not have been able to make ends meet. And the question I ask is – had the Good Shepherd Sisters not been there at the time, what was available to these poor women. They would have been put on the mail boats to England and they would have ended up on the streets in England or worse. Simple as that. They were being cast out of their family homes, never to be seen again. Their families didn’t care a whit what happened to them or where they went to and the government of the day had the same attitude.
To go back now to the Laundry end of things. Now the old Laundry was very primitive by today’s standards and the machines were what we would call washing machines only. They had no spin. They were driven by a pulley system that in turn was driven by an engine. There were a whole series of pulleys along the wall and each pulley had a belt coming down from it to drive each individual washing machine. The wet clothes were then transferred to a spinning machine called a hydro (which was also belt driven) and you had a lever system with an idler pulley so if you wanted to stop the washing machine or hydro from rotating you pushed the lever against the belt and it pushed the belt across onto an idler pulley so the shaft stayed spinning the belt while the machine came to a stand still. The machines had very few safety systems and there were some bad accidents. I am told one woman lost an arm. Another woman lost fingers on a hydro (spinner). They were very primitive but they did wash the clothes. They had no programmers, no automatic valves and no safety system. You let the water in by opening a tap. You let the steam in by opening a valve. You put the soap in out of a bucket and you estimated how long you should wash. Then you opened a lever and the water flowed out full of the suds, dirt, lint etc. You closed the outlet valve. You filled it with cold water again to a high level to give a rinse and then you gave a second rinse and a third rinse. And you gave a look in to see did the rinse water look clear. If it did you let the water drain out again. You then had a spinning machine, which was like a washing machine turned on its back and they were called hydros and they were a very powerful centrifuge with four pockets, which had to be balanced by weight.
So these poor women (nuns also) had to lift out this dripping mass of clothes - cold, wet, and very very heavy. You had to lean in over the side of the washing machine because I should say these washing machines were like a cylinder turned on its side and unlike the modern washing machine didn’t have a door seal with a rubber on it. There was no door seal. The bottom half of the cylinder retained the water. And the upper half had a door that hinged upwards. So you had to lean in over the side to lift out the clothes. You put these dripping wet clothes into a trolley, which was made of wood. Plastic wasn’t heard of then. The modern trolleys are lightweight, about 4 feet by 2 feet and about 3 feet high. And these old trolleys had heavy cast iron wheels that were rather squeaky with rust from all the water leaking on them. And you pushed these heavy trolleys down to the hydros. And you had to balance the four pockets. Now if these four pockets weren’t balanced properly the hydro could be very dangerous if the out of balance switch wasn’t working because it could go out of balance at high speed and do serious damage. So you’d give it a spin and if it went out of balance you had to stop it, open the safety lid, open the inner lid and put more clothes in again.
And one day one of the women was trying to stop the hydro because one of the brakes wasn’t working and the safety lid wasn’t working. It had a brake but the brake used to burn out very quickly and she used her hand tipping off the divider of the four pockets, caught her hand and whipped a few of her fingers clean off. Now there should have been a safety interlock on that hydro to prevent that door from being opened until it was at a complete standstill.
In the late 50s the Reverend Mother brought in a consultant to look at the entire Laundry operation and give her advice on how to modernise it. She got funds and she got it modernised - the entire Laundry including the building. The large new machines were a revolution in those days because they washed and spun the clothes like our everyday machine now. The one difference being these machines took in a 200 lb weight of clothes instead of the average 8 or 9 lbs of the domestic washing machine. They were gi-normous. And the second revolution they had was they were fully automatic with a programmer. Now this was in the days before electronics so these programmers were mechanical timers and they were very sophisticated for their day in the 60s. And they worked very well. I remember they were Fisher – the kingfisher was their emblem. They were Fisher controls and they were marvellous because what they also did was they automatically dosed in the correct amount of liquid soap.
In the old days the girls could get burns from pouring in soap, splashing into their eyes or pouring in bleach, raw bleach, which they would dilute by 50% in a bucket and then pour onto the clothes to bleach them. Now this bleach came in huge big containers called carboys, which held 10 gallons. They were made from glass and they were inside a wire cage with a sort of raffia fibre between the glass and the cage. And sometimes these carboys would break and the bleach would go everywhere and it was a nightmare. And the fumes of the bleach alone were dreadful. And it was no good if the bleach wasn’t active, in other words if you didn’t have fumes from it. It was sodium hypochlorite. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Anyways these machines were a revolution. She then went to the ironing end of things and she brought in Tullis from Clydebank in Scotland, steam heated roller irons, which were a revolution as well as the automatic folder for folding the sheets after ironing. She got an automatic machine for pressing the white coats and another one to fold them.
Now there were huge amounts of cotton white coats coming in from the meat factories, hospitals, butchers and doctors surgeries in those days and they were dreadfully hard to get the meat and blood stains out of number one, but number two to iron them. So in the past the women had very old rotating tables that were steam heated for pressing the white coats. It was like the cuckoo clock, one heated side of the table would be facing you and you would position the coat on it for pressing and it would rotate in under a hot plate, which the table with the outstretched coat was pressed up against. Meanwhile the other pressed garment would rotate out. You then removed the garment, which was piping hot with steam from the table, which had rotated out. She got modern automatic ones of these, which were a revolution as well. She got a shirt unit which at the time even when I was there, was processing about 2000 shirts a week from all the schools and so on and all the professional people sending in their shirts. And this machine pressed the body in one go and the collars and cuffs on a different machine and lastly the folding on a different machine. In short she revolutionised the Laundry to make it as modern as any in the British Isles.
She also got in marking machines called polymarks which put a little piece of material with an indelible ink code number on it to identify each customer, which also was a revolution because in the past this was very labour intensive. Because every item coming in be it a sock or an underpants or a sheet or a shirt or whatever had to have a thread marking put on it and sometimes 2 or 3 thread initials on it to identify it. Now this permanent marking system was great if it was the same customer coming in again and again. It saved the marking a second time. The boys from Glenstal, Pallaskenry, St. Munchin’s, Villier’s all had to have cashes marks on their clothes on specific places for identification. So all that labour intensive work of stitching the code marks on the clothes was done away with over night with the polymark machines. She also put a non-slip very strong industrial vinyl covering on the floor, which cost a fortune. In the old days you had a lot of slippages because of wet floors, clothes on the ground etc. These were huge improvements in safety. Nowadays you have health and safety inspectors. You didn’t have them in those days. And this was a dramatic improvement and also in the working conditions for the women. It was a huge improvement because prior to that it was hard working conditions and what I say is the nuns worked in the very same environment as the girls as well but they all survived it funny enough. But my God it was hard hard work. It was men’s work – physical, and they all came through it but it was tough.
So from the 60s on things changed dramatically. They also became more open. The women were allowed out. They were accepted home on visits. Many of the families had the next generation in the home and, I couldn’t put a figure on it but I would say the vast majority of the people remaining then were welcomed home for a holiday once a year. It never went beyond that. And a lot of them never went home. Some went home for 12 months or a year and realised they were being used for babysitters or as help on the farm and so forth and they would come back. So it was kind of a mixed blessing for some of them. But there was always an open door here for them. Then in the 70s on to the 80s the Sisters were constantly making improvements in their living conditions. A big improvement about the 50s or early 60s as well was the dormer type accommodation was changed into cubicles. Now that was huge. It gave them their own privacy, their own sense of place.
There were a whole lot of other changes made too. They purchased in the 50s a holiday home in Foynes. The flying boats used to come in to Foynes from 1937 to about 1946. And in 1947 Shannon airport was opened. The pilots and crew from the flying boats when they would come ashore from these aircraft had to be accommodated. So there was a place called Boland’s Meadows outside Foynes where nine or ten concrete chalets were built for accommodation purposes. Anyway these houses became available and they had been idle for a few years and the Good Shepherd Sisters bought them and renovated them as holiday homes for themselves, St. Mary’s, St. George’s and St. Joseph’s. Not alone for the women and children, this was also a big step forward for the Sisters. For example when my grandfather died in 1961, my aunts were not allowed home for the funeral. I remember when these nuns were allowed home for the first time. So until then they were like pretty much an enclosed Order for all intents and purposes. So they purchased Boland’s Meadows and built a recreation hall etc. I remember going there as a child of 4 or 5. They even built a little paddling pool that the tide would come in and fill every day for the children from St. Georges so they could paddle in and so on. And for years, I suppose 30 years or more they used that as a holiday home for the girls and for the Sisters as well. They all loved going out there. Of course my aunt Anna in particular because it was home from home for her.
The Sisters had a minibus for transporting them to and fro and this minibus had to have curtains on the window imagine in case the local people would see the Good Shepherd nuns out driving. I was told that the St. Mary’s girls were transported in the laundry vans. Now there would only be back windows in the laundry vans. Can you imagine the conservative nature of the public in those days? Oh it wasn’t seen as fitting to see nuns driving in public out to Foynes in a minibus. So the minibus would have curtains on the window and it would be the laundry van driver or the gardener that would drive them. And my poor aunt had to beg of him one day would he make a detour to drive past her mothers house so that she could get a look at it. But she couldn’t go in. They couldn’t stop and she couldn’t go in. Anyways that was Boland’s Meadow and it worked extremely well. Then as the years went on and the nuns got more progressive the women were getting fed up going to Boland’s Meadow every year. It was getting boring for them. Then they started to take holiday homes in Ballybunion and so forth and it progressed from there. But in the 50s this was a huge thing for these people. It was a nice thing for them and they looked forward to it so much.
If I came back then to the Laundry end of things: When I came in here the Laundry was very well equipped and they turned out excellent quality work. To tell you the type of people these women were – when the Glenstal boys and the Glenstal priests laundry would be finished they would stay back in the Packing Room at night and if a boy or a priest had a hole in their sock they would darn the hole in the sock or they would sew in the button of a shirt if a button was missing. This was the kind of dedication these women had. I never, before that, or since then came across it and I have been around. I have run 12 different types of businesses. I have employed many many people and I have never seen the dedication that the women and the Sisters had here to their job. And their job was to turn out commercial, industrial and domestic laundry. They did all the mental hospital work; all Limerick Prison and the shirts from the prisoners in Limerick Prison were treated the very same way as the shirts from Glenstal or anyplace else. Hospital work would be treated very carefully- work that would have to be sluiced and so on in case of cross-contamination with the general public. They were very good on that. And also of course the ironing process had a sterilising role to play as well in that you knew the high temperature of the steam had that effect.
Now to tell you about three lovely women in the Boiler House: The Boiler House was the powerhouse of the Laundry because that generated the steam and without steam you had no Laundry. The old boilers were just literally a large tank, which was filled with water and heated by a coal fire to make steam. They were generally made in Scotland in Clydebank where all the ships were built and of course the ships all had steam boilers as well and the original boilers would have been vertical but the later ones were horizontal because you could fit them into buildings much easier than the ships vertical boilers. And in these boilers, you had a coal fire in a separate steel chamber surrounded by water inside a bigger container - the boiler. But the danger was when the boiler got up to say 100 lbs pressure and the fire was still burning vigorously you had to have a safety valve and the safety valve would spring open to release the pressure – otherwise the boiler would burst.
So you had to have a very astute person minding the boiler that could gauge the demand of steam and gauge the heat of the coal so the safety valve wouldn’t lift. Because first of all you’d wake the dead with the noise of the steam coming out but number two you would be wasting coal as well. So the reason why you have the tall red brick chimney here is you needed oxygen for the combustion and to burn coal to that temperature to get that much steam you needed one heck of a draft. And how did you get the draft? The height of the chimney dictated the draught. So that was the highest chimney in Limerick and this had a beautiful corbelled big top on the chimney, a most beautiful chimney and unfortunately I had to get Collins’ Steeplejacks to take it down. I took about 30 feet off the top of that chimney because the bricks came loose and began to fall and one of them was found one morning in what we call the Long Can, that little lane at the back of the boiler house and we were terrified one could fall on one of the public so we had to make it safe.
But anyway you had a damper and the damper was the steel shutter at the front of the boiler so you controlled the draught with this shutter and if you wanted steam fast you opened the shutter. And the draught would literally roar in because that chimney was so high. The second tricky part – If you have a boiler and it’s at 100 lbs pressure and you are drawing off steam the water level will go down. If the water level goes down below the level of what we call the furnace chamber, which is lined with bricks you will melt the steel in the furnace chamber and the boiler will blow up so you have to keep the water level above a certain height. Now you can pump water in to it at zero pressure no problem but at 100 lbs pressure how do you pump it in? So there was a special pump called a weir pump and the weir pump was for all intensive purposes like a gi-normous hospital syringe. This was operated manually, So Cora had the job of opening the steam valve and the pump would go tchit, tchit, tchit [noise of pump] because you would exhaust the steam every time to allow the piston to go back up and down again, and she then had to manually check the water level to check the level didn’t go too high because if the water level went too high you got water coming over in the steam and you got spots of water coming out in the form of boiling water on the clothes you were supposed to be ironing. That was Cora’s job. Cora was a dear.
Then you had Vera. Vera was as strong as any man and her job in the old days was shovelling the coal into the boiler. And during the war they couldn’t get coal and had to use turf. And I am told the turf man said when they used to deliver the turf from County Clare, that she was as good as any man unloading a truck. Vera’s job was to shovel in the turf or the coal and take out the ashes and also to go up on top of the boiler to open and close the big steam outlet valve. So when the steam was up in the morning and maybe 10 or 15 minutes before the women would start work she would turn in the steam so that all the machines would be pre heated. The problem with Vera was she was so strong she would turn the steam in too quickly some times and you’d get what you call
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