Magdalene Laundries now a state scandal
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.
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”.
“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.
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.