In her new prison, she and the other girls were locked into separate cells every night with only a bucket for a toilet. Once, having been wrongly accused of stealing sweets from another girl, she spent three days in solitary confinement in the laundry’s “padded cell,” a bare room with no light, blanket or bed.
“It was in the padded cell that it dawned on me that I would be there for life, that I’d be buried in a mass grave; there were whispers that went around,” she recalls now. “I saw the people who were there, who were broken, institutionalized, illiterate, from living in a dark, dark place with no way out. I remember asking myself the questions, ‘What will I do? How will I get out?’”
At 17 she and another girl sneaked into an unbarred room at the front of the building and jumped from an upstairs window into the street. They remained at large for three months, working in a nearby hospital, until one day the “cruelty men,” inspectors of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, retrieved them.
Elizabeth was taken to a different laundry in Cork, and then another in Waterford city. When she was almost 19, a kindly nun in Waterford arranged a job for her as a hospital cleaner in her native Kerry.
She was free. Then one day, on her hands and knees scrubbing a floor, Elizabeth looked up to see her original tormentor, the nun from the industrial school, standing over her.
“She looked down at me and said, ‘Aren’t you sorry now for all the trouble you caused?’”
Badly shaken, she fled Ireland for London, where she met a young Englishman, Peter Coppin, at a dance in the Hammersmith Palais. They were married four years later. He was her only support as she dealt with the trauma of a miscarried first pregnancy, and then — after the births of her daughter and son — postnatal depression.