John Kennedy - Abstracts

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 maternal grandfather had an aunt in the Good Shepherd Convent called Sr. Camillis Curtin … 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… 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.

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… I am told around the 1950s 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.

St. George's, was a residential primary school (the children slept in dormitories above the school). 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.

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.

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…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.

[W]hen 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…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 had three children. The woman was intellectually challenged…

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...

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…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 (to reach the sink in the Laundry)…And she was here all her life and never got as much as a postcard from her family not to mention a visit.

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…I could replicate those stories many times.

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.

Download John's Full Oral History