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Magdalene Laundries now a state scandal

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The Forgotten Maggies (2009), magdalene laundries, After the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, another damning indictment of the attitude of the Irish state towards its women.

A report headed by Irish senator Martin McAleese has found that the Irish state and the Irish police force bore a major responsibility for sending women to institutions where they worked for nothing, serving in some cases “life sentences” simply for being unmarried mothers or regarded as morally wayward.

The institutions, known as the Magdalene Laundries, have always been said to have been ‘run by nuns’.

But the long-awaited report released earlier this month, says they were not private, as had previously been stated by the Irish government.

The women incarcerated in these institutions washed clothes and linen for major hotel groups, the Irish armed forces, and even the official home of the Irish president.

Established in 1922, some Magdalene laundries operated as late as 1996.

Girls and young women – several thousand of whom had been sent there by the state  - were homeless, orphaned, deemed to be “troubled” or morally “fallen” – and worked unpaid, washing clothes and bedding.

The vast majority of women and girls were kept there against their wishes, half were under the age of 23, and on admission, each woman had her Christian name changed and her surname was not used.

Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity ran laundries at Drumcondra and Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin, the Sisters of Mercy operated in Galway and Dun Laoghaire, the Religious Sisters of Charity covered Donnybrook, Dublin and Cork, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd oversaw Limerick, Cork, Waterford and New Ross.

The McAleese report was prompted two years ago by the UN Committee Against Torture and has revealed ‘a harrowing picture of humiliation and exploitation suffered by Irishwomen and girls in workhouses characterised as “lonely and frightening places”.

The singer Sinead O’Connor was imprisoned in the Our Lady of Charity Laundry in Dublin at the age of fifteen, after being arrested for shoplifting.

“We worked in the basement, washing priests’ clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap,” O’Connor has written of her experience.”

She spent 18 months there.

Others were sent there after being rejected by foster families, orphaned or abused, while some simply because they were poor.

The report found they were given poor food, often became infested with lice and fleas and forced to do “harsh and physically demanding work” which was both compulsory and unpaid.

The findings have confirmed most of the shocking stories of life in the laundries, which have appeared in print and on screen since the 1990s, including:

  • The 1997 Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate interviewed former inmates of Magdalene Asylums who testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time.
  • Allegations about the conditions in the convents and the treatment of the inmates in an award-winning 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters.
  • Stories published as part of campaigns for recognition of what the women incarcerated in these places suffered.
  • Stories that the UN Committee Against Torture looked in to 2 years ago, and having done so recommended that the State ‘prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed’.

At that time, a government delegation told the committee that “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily or, if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians.”

The report shows that statement to be untrue.

Irish prime minister Enda Kenny said he was ‘sorry for what women had gone through’ but has ‘issued no formal apology on behalf of the state, which was shown to have had substantial involvement in the system’.

Also, Kenny ‘has not yet responded to calls for compensation for survivors.’ and is, according to RTE, waiting for a parliamentary debate on the subject to be held ‘within the next two weeks’.

For, as he explained, we don’t want to rush into things.

But the state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with Fair Wage Clauses and in the absence of any compliance with Social Insurance obligations.

So somebody ‘Stateside’ must have known.

All this time.

The report also says that Ireland’s police, the Gardaí, “brought women to the laundries on a more ad hoc or informal basis” and pursued and returned girls and women who escaped from the Magdalene institutions.

So who authorised that?

All this time.

Over 74 years, 30,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, in institutions run by nuns.

So who financed that?

At least 988 of the women who were buried in laundry grounds are thought to have spent most of their lives inside the institutions.

In “lonely and frightening places”.

How nice. Who planned that?

Fergus Finlay of Barnardos said the report catalogued “how the state turned a blind eye to the appalling conditions in which women lived, while supporting the religious orders who enslaved them in financial and other ways.

“These women were treated like slaves.”

Women were not educated while in the institutions. When their sentences were completed, they were thrown out onto the streets, unable to support themselves.

Survivors stories hold a common theme of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Survivors allege collusion between court systems, business, government, and the church, with cash rewards for each young girl sent to the laundries.

And victims have had to struggle – against a culture that idolised the Catholic Church – to find a voice to express the pain and suffering they endured.
And the Catholic Church has thus far denied any responsibility for the treatment these victims suffered.
The Vatican has said that that the institutions were privately run by the orders and did not answer to Rome and only one of the orders involved in the Laundries has so far apologised.
The Justice for the Magdalenes group said it was time for a compensation scheme which should include “the provision of pensions, lost wages, health and housing services. “

Maureen Sullivan, 60, said: “I feel that they are still in denial, but other parts of this report clearly state that we were telling the truth.”.

And I have not yet seen, heard, read or found an explanation of why and  this was organised and permitted.

  1. Well, if you went to Ireland now and lived there for a few months you would know.
    It is a mixture of religious righteousness and pure arrogance. Women are still second class citizens and themselves do their best to belittle this fact everyday. Role stereotypes are never questioned and constantly perpetuated on a personal and public level. How can you expect a critical mind in a state where the Catholic church dominates every part of daily life?

    • Kelly Davis-Jordan says:

      I’m a woman in Ireland, believe me, plenty of women and men in this country question things, people are outraged and marching on the streets for reproductive rights and other issues, most people pay little attention to the catholic church anymore, its irrelevant to my life, church and state have been legally separate since the 70′s the problem is with the culture but the church has nowhere near the level of influence it had even 20 years ago and it is getting less so with every abuse of human rights that becomes know. I know very few people under 40 who practise any religion, the catholic church is steadily losing its grip. Our politicians are generally cowards and slow to make any changes but the Irish people are now demanding change, in a democracy, eventually politicians have to abide by the will of the people.

      • Hi Kelly
        I am not saying there is not a group of people who question the status quo. What I am saying is that in the normal towns and villages for example women and men still drag their children into the church on Sundays and force them to go to the rituals in church and school. As long as people go through the motions out of fear of standing out or openly be seen to question what is “normal”, things are not going to change. Look at the girls in irish schools, they are more concerned about their make-up and length of mini skirts than their academic achievement and especially their mothers do their best to enforce that behaviour. There might be some who question, but they certainly don’t follow up on those doubts.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    These women weren’t kept ‘like’ slaves, they were slaves – no rights, no wages, brought back by the police if they ran away, locked up and worked for crimes that men would not have been locked up for – ie having a child out of wedlock. We seem to be very uncomfortable in calling female slavery what it is, prefering to call it trafficking or kept ‘like’ slaves. If it looks like slavery and smells like slavery, whatever the gender it is slavery.

  3. I would say that all facets of society in Ireland are accountable for this. Hotel and private business owners had contracts with the laundries, government branches such as the military and Gardai, it is well known that some Irish families fekked their own daughters or so-called “wayward” female relatives into them, the Church of course (anything but Christian) and others. Irish people generally need to have a hard look at the level of denial in their society. I’m a Canadian who married an Irishman and have observed this objectively for a long time. The Pope, whomever takes over for Ratzinger, needs to address this also. To say that the Vatican bears no responsibility, or didn’t know is BULL.

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