By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
DUBLIN, Ireland – Describing the severe conditions in the Magdalene laundries, one survivor revealed: “In our heads, all we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry.” A report released Tuesday by Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality found “significant” State involvement in their suffering.
The Magdalene laundries constitute an infamous chapter in Irish history in which between 1922 and 1996 more than 10,000 women, aged 9 to 89, were institutionalized in ten workhouses run by several Catholic congregations under conditions described as “cold with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer and many instances of verbal censure, scoldings and humiliating put-downs.” The women and girls worked to exhaustion each day behind locked doors, without wages, from 8:30am to 7pm in strict silence. Some worked to death.
Following the report’s publication, survivor Mary Smyth described her experience: “You got up at six in the morning and went to the laundry, then ate at two o’clock. The food was just horrific – dripping every day. Six o’clock was the rosary, then back to bed we went. Nobody was allowed to talk whatsoever. It was worse than any prison.”
The Irish government commissioned an inter-departmental committee, chaired by Senator McAleese, to investigate state involvement with the Magdalene laundries after the UN Committee Against Torture called on the government to do so in 2011.
The report also found from interviewing survivors that certain allegations such as severe physical and sexual abuse had been exaggerated, except in isolated cases. More often, the inquiry, led by Senator Martin McAleese, found that the women had been subjected to “verbal abuse,” “belittling comments” and “mental cruelty.”
One woman told the inquiry: “The nuns were very nasty. They’d say, ‘Your father is a drunkard’ in front of everyone. It would degrade me.” Another said: “They were very, very cruel verbally – ‘Your mother doesn’t want you, why do you think you`re here.’”
Girls from the laundries gained a reputation as “troubled” or being what were then called “fallen women.” Despite a rumored reputation for such, the report found no evidence that unmarried girls had babies in the laundries or that many of the women were prostitutes.
However, the report did find that half the women shut away in the laundries to do “harsh and physically demanding work” were girls under the age of 23, and that 40%, or more than 4,000 women, spent more than a year incarcerated. 15% of women were kept in the laundries for more than 5 years, although the average term was 7 months. Some were incarcerated more than once. Of the deaths on record, the youngest victim was 15, while the oldest was 95.
Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of the Sinn Féin party, described the findings of the report as “a very Irish form of slavery.”
The statistics were compiled from only eight of the ten laundry workhouses because two, both operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Dun Laoghaire and Galway, were missing a substantial portion of their records. The inquiry committee also stressed that it had interviewed just a small sample of survivors who “cannot be considered representative”, and that the interview data was “biased towards more modern years.”
While according to the report nearly a fifth (19%) of the women entered the laundries voluntarily and one in ten (10%) were sent by their families, more than a quarter (26%) were institutionalized by the state. Petty offences including failure to pay a train ticket, school truancy, and vagrancy were sufficient to land a girl in the Magdalene laundries. Furthermore, if a girl was recalled to the laundries or ran away, she could be arrested without a warrant by the police.
Previous Irish governments had claimed that the Magdalene Laundries were run purely privately, an assertion flatly contradicted by the findings of the report. It also appears that the government either directly or indirectly funded the laundries by providing a significant portion of their business.
Fergus Finlay of the Barnardos children’s charity asserted that the report catalogues “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.”
The Religious Sisters of Charity, one of the orders that operated the laundries applauded the report, while simultaneously apologizing for and defending its actions, saying: “We apologi[z]e unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt while in our care. In good faith we provided refuge for women.”
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, while expressing sympathy for survivors and the families of those who died, stopped short of issuing a formal government apology. Instead, he stated: “To those residents who went through the Magdalene Laundries in a variety of ways, 26 percent of the time from state involvement, I am sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment.”
Survivor advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes rejected Kenny’s statement and demanded a full, frank admission of responsibility from the government and religious orders involved, saying that the prime minister’s statement fell “far short of the full and sincere apology deserved by the women who were incarcerated against their will in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries”.
There have also been calls for compensation for the survivors, to which the government has not responded, desiring to wait until after the lower house of Ireland’s parliament debates the report in two weeks. However, Irish president Michael D. Higgins has expressed his support for compensation and a state apology, saying Thursday, “[W]e need a public response, an institutional response and a State response and the State no doubt will make its own decisions and take its own actions.”
Of the women and girls of the Magdalene laundries, report author Senator McAleese wrote: “None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again.”
For further information, please see:
Irish Times – President ‘Moved by Their Story’ – 7 February 2013
Irish Times – ‘All We Could Think of is We are Going to Die Here. That was an Awful Thing to Carry’ – 6 February 2013
Irish Times – Kenny Under Fire for Failure to Issue Full Apology to Magdalene Women – 6 February 2013
Al Jazeera – Irish PM Says ‘Sorry’ for Laundries Abuse – 5 February 2013
BBC News – Irish PM: Magdalene Laundries Product of Harsh Ireland – 5 February 2013
The Independent – Ireland Issues Apology to the ‘Fallen Women’ it Sent to Catholic Workhouses – 5 February 2013
Irish Times – State had ‘Significant’ Role in Magdalene Laundry Referrals – 5 February 2013
Department of Justice and Equality – Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries – 5 February 2013