The Magdalene Laundries: Irish Report Exposes a National Shame

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Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

A ledger from the High Park Magdalene Laundry showing payments for services is seen on display during a Magdalene Survivors Together news conference in Dublin on Feb. 5, 2013

They were the forgotten women of Ireland, kept under lock and key, forced to clean and sew, and to wash away the sins of their previous life while never being paid a penny. Some stayed months, others years. Some never left. They were the inmates of Ireland’s notorious 20th century workhouses, the Magdalene Laundries. And this week, with the publication of a government report into the dark history of the laundries, the women came that much closer to obtaining justice.

The laundries — a beneficent-sounding word that helped hide the mistreatment that took place inside their walls — were operated by four orders of Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1922 to 1996. Over 10,000 young women, considered a burden by family, school and the state, spent an average of six months to a year locked up in these workhouses doing unpaid, manual work. Some were kept there against their will for years. Their numbers were made up by unmarried mothers and their daughters, women and girls who had been sexually abused, women with mental or physical disabilities who were unable to live independently, and young girls who had grown up under the care of the church and the state. The laundries were “a mechanism that society, religious orders and the state came up with to try and get rid of people deemed not to be conforming to the so-called mythical, cultural purity that was supposed to be part of Irish identity,” Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter told Ireland’s national broadcasting service, RTE, this week. Known as the fallen women, the workers were only entitled to leave if signed out by a family member or if a nun found a position of work for them, and if they tried to escape the confines of the home they were brought back by the Irish police.

The report released this week by an Irish government committee focused on Irish state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries and revealed previously unknown details about the women, many of whom spent years of their lives locked in these workhouses. The report found that a total of 2,124 women (26.5%) of the 10,012 admitted from 1922 to 1996 were referred by the state. Successive Irish governments have denied that the state played a role in sending women to the workhouses. The report also found that the youngest girl to have been admitted was 9 years old while the oldest woman was 89. Nearly 900 women died while working in the laundries, the youngest of whom was 15 years old. The findings state that “the psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting.”

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For years, advocacy support groups representing the women who lived in the laundries have called for the Irish government to offer a full apology on behalf of the state. Following the release of the report on Feb. 5, Prime Minister Enda Kenny repeatedly apologized for any “stigma” that was attached to these “fallen women” and also apologized for the length of time it had taken for the government to carry out the inquiry, but he did not acknowledge that the state shared responsibility for what happened to the women in the laundries. He has called for a parliamentary debate later in February at which MPs are due to discuss how the government should respond in full to the findings of the report.

Professor James Smith of Boston College, who has written two books on the history of the Magdalene Laundries, voiced his dissatisfaction with the government’s response. “I wrote in the Irish Times today that this government would be judged on its response to the report,” Smith said in an e-mail to TIME, “but Mr. Kenny has failed that test.” Meanwhile, a key advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), has called once again not only for an apology but also for the Irish government to establish a “transparent and nonadversarial compensation process that includes the provision of pensions, lost wages, health and housing services.”

Mari Steed, co-founder and committee director for JFM, was adopted from a laundry when she was a baby and says it was the discovery of her birth mother’s past that motivated her to find out the truth behind the laundries.

Steed discovered that her maternal grandmother had given birth to four children out of wedlock, something that was greatly frowned upon by many in mid-20th century Ireland. Steed’s grandmother’s family, ashamed of their daughter, sent her to Manchester to start a new life on her own — away from her children. Soon after she arrived in England she got married and went on to have seven children, but she never told her husband about her other four children in Ireland. One of these was a girl named Josephine — Steed’s birth mother.

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When Josephine was separated from her mother, she was sent by family members to a tough residential industrial school, run by nuns, in the city of Waterford. When she was 14, the nuns transferred Josephine to a Magdalene Laundry in Cork, in the south of the country. She spent the next decade behind its walls. (Josephine is still alive but requested that her daughter, Steed, only provide her first name to TIME).

Educated by nuns, Josephine had minimal knowledge of the outside world and no experience of men. “They were easy prey because they were so naive and vulnerable,” explains Steed. The nuns found Josephine a job working in a hospital in Dublin and allowed her to leave the laundry. She met a man named Arthur at a dance when she was 27 and became pregnant by him — but he had a partner and two children, says Steed, who learned the history from her mother. Josephine told him she was pregnant and he went to visit his newborn baby in Cork, but he felt his duty was to his wife and children in England. A relationship with Josephine and her child was impossible in 1950s Ireland, although, as Steed recalls, it was “evident he brooded over it his whole life.”

Steed spent the first 18 months of her life with Josephine in a mother-and-baby home in Cork but was adopted in 1961 by an American couple who lived in Philadelphia. Josephine was heartbroken to see her baby girl taken away from her, but she had little choice — she was a young, single Irish mother with no financial or family support. It was then she made the decision to never to have children again for fear that they, too, would be taken away.

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Josephine, like many other Magdalene women, fled to England once the nuns released her from the laundry. She married twice but kept her life in the laundries a secret from her partners. “It was difficult for a lot of the survivors, especially those who went to the U.K. and were really trying to blend in,” Steed says. “It really wasn’t something you wanted people to know because they’d make fun of you and you’d get bullied for it.”

After they were reunited, Steed took her mother to Ireland in 2002. It was Josephine’s first trip to her homeland in 40 years, but she no longer felt any connection to the country where she had suffered so much. “The more I thought about it,” recalls Steed, “what did Ireland have for her?”

The release of Tuesday’s report means that women like Josephine may finally have the courage to step forward and identify themselves. But first they need recognition of state involvement in the laundries from the Irish government, says Steed. “I believe the absence of an apology and an invitation to talk about what happened has kept people silent,” says Maeve O’Rourke, a legal representative for JFM. O’Rourke, who interviewed women who had been kept in the laundries against their will for a submission to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, believes that an official acknowledgment from the state could bring an end to the stigma and shame associated with having lived in a laundry. These women “vividly described the ongoing effects to me, in terms of mental health issues, poverty and isolation,” she says.

The testimonials she gathered paint a dark picture of the deep scars the laundries left on the women. In the U.N. submission, one woman wrote anonymously: “I am still treated for depression, for years and years. And I had tried to commit suicide many times in the past. I never found happiness. I felt like broken pieces, and I never felt in one piece.” Others are still nervous about returning to Ireland — some even harbor the fear that they could be sent back to the laundries. “I ask them how they feel now about Ireland, and they feel betrayed,” explains O’Rourke. “They feel conflicted because it’s their country, it’s their identity, but it has failed them so badly.”

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22 comments
macho
macho

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 I would like to draw your attention to the fact that what went on in Irish in Irish laundries  went on all over the world in one form or other then and still goes on today in the sexual and many other trades big time that is well and alive  ALL over in what we are supposed to call a Civilized world with little or no comment from big governments, so may I ask what or why the big stigma on Ireland or Irish people??? It's happening under your very nose and you couldn't give a dam. If we want to do something positive about fixing the world it would be a great idea to start protecting little children, don't you think so, constantly licking old soars will not help healing and much less amend for what these poor women had to suffer and are still suffering the world over.

For those of you interested in historical facts it was the Anglican church in Victorian England who founded and established laundries for the so called fallen women and girls of society of the day where children as young a 9 years of age where locked up for simple petty crimes like stealing fruit at the public market etc. the Catholic Church didn't follow suit until many years later when it got religious liberty in Britain! Obviously it's a total lack of right reason and historically misleading to accuse any one country or church for these abuses. 

Statistics tell us that 90% of sexual abuse is connected with the home or connections to the Home and why is it not highly publicised, obviously some hidden agenda is been played out here!

MeredithLopez
MeredithLopez

The Irish Psychiatric Profession should also apologise to Magdalene victims.

The Psychiatric profession colluded with the Catholic Church in incarcerating thousands of innocent Irish Women and Men for ” unacceptable, deviant behaviour” – ie. being a Single Mother or being a Homosexual in the Fifties and Sixties. Many lives were ruined by these guys ordering Lobotomies, Freezing Insulin Baths and Electric Shock Treatments on many healthy people.

When will the media scrutinise the numerous abuses by Consultant Psychiatrists ? They are above the Law.

PHILIP
PHILIP

Hi,


I can't find my comment on your article. 

Did you censor it?

Was it because I defended the Good Shepherd Nuns?


powerofgod777@gmail.com

petest44
petest44

This is a crime not just for the religious orders and politicians. It is a national shame that hangs over the head of every Irishman and woman. We let it happen and today could care less that it did. This apathy was clearly demonstrated when nobody protested against the wholesale sexual abuse of Irish children. Now we see, quite clearly, the other side of the Irish smiling face. We are a nation of monsters.

PapaFoote
PapaFoote

Sometimes, I want to look back in "History" to "Remember" - SO I CAN LOOK "NOW," AT "OUR TIME", AND TRY AGAIN, TO UNDERSTAND OUR EARTH PLANET!

The Old Mountain Goat

Hee_yay
Hee_yay

@Irish_American Many of the women find it difficult to step forward because in their years in the laundries it was drilled into them that it was their fault they were there and that they were not fit to be released into normal society.  They were taught they were not worthy of a normal life outside the walls of the laundries. If the didn't follow the strict rules of the nuns they were beaten and humiliated in front of everyone.  Many of the women didn't deserve to be put there.  There were women from poor families who simply didn't have enough money and women that were deemed to be too vain and therefore a risk to a decent Catholic man and even women who were blamed for being raped with the excuse that it was their fault for being too attractive to a male.  And it didn't stop there.  The children of many mothers who were deemed "unfit" because they were unwed were sent to the industrial schools and suffered the same terrible conditions, if not worse.  A simple report from the government cannot make up for the humiliation and shame suffered by these women. It is not closure they are looking for, but an acknowledgement that they were wronged.

Irish_American
Irish_American

The "report means that women like Josephine may finally have the courage to step forward and identify themselves. But first they need recognition of state involvement" – why? Why can't they openly step forward, say, I had an awful time there, and begin dealing with it without having to have a government say, Yup, and we had a hand in sending you to the institution? Is it possible the holdout is for money, rather than an official to blame? How much does Ms. O'Rourke stand to benefit from this? As a counselor, I understand the need for closure, but the report provides that. More than that is punitive, which is not therapeutic. 

seizeabe
seizeabe

That was how sensibilities of life today evolved. Having children out of wedlock was frowned upon then..... But, not now. Similarly, gay marriage could never have been publicly accepted.... But, today it is going to be law. It is not just in Ireland or UK or USA. We should not condemn anybody by practices then. Even today, humans inflict so much pain on other humans in private, while proclaiming great ideals in public. One such is treatment of legal immigrants prior to their becoming citizens.... Almost like modern-day bonded labour. They are unable to voice themselves, because of their circumstances. Even in an out of wedlock relationship, we tend sympathise with the woman, while denounce the man, even though both of them often are equal parties to the process. It is another matter if any promises were broken or there was ill treatment. Even the royalty had many deeds that are indiscretions today.

DrorBenAmi
DrorBenAmi

Well, what do you expect from an organization which elected a former Nazi to be the Vicar of Christ ?

Piacevole
Piacevole

If anyone has a doubt about the necessity of "separation of church and state," or any doubt about what a church >will< do if it can, this ought to relieve it.  What's the difference between what was done to women in the Magdalene Laundry, and slavery, in practical terms?  And what institution is at the root of this situation in Ireland?

Greg.Willmot
Greg.Willmot

Great article Sorcha! Let's hope it puts even more pressure on the Irish government to attempt to make amends.

glamavon
glamavon

I remember a movie that came out about ten or so years ago called "The Magdalene Sister," that told the story of these girls through the eyes of four women.  I wonder if it played a factor in the Irish government's investigation.

MeredithLopez
MeredithLopez

The Psychiatric profession colluded with the Catholic Church in incarcerating thousands of innocent Irish Women and Men for " unacceptable, deviant behaviour" - ie. being a Single Mother or being a Homosexual in the Fifties and Sixties. Many lives were ruined by these guys ordering Lobotomies, Freezing Insulin Baths and Electric Shock Treatments on many healthy people.

 When will the media scrutinise the numerous abuses by Consultant Psychiatrists ? We know of several cases involving these so called pillars of the Community locking innocent people up in return for large cash payments . They remain above the Law and when they get a diagnosis wrong, the unfortunate patient has no opportunity for redress. They intimidate and bully. Have any of these arrogant elitists ever apologised for the sins committed in the name of their professional research ?

JasonKarov
JasonKarov

@macho  Yes, there was , and has been horrific abuse in many forms for millenia all over the world.



That DOES NOT give the Catholic church and it's orders of Nuns a pass on their abuse and keeping those

women and girls in virtual slavery


Want to know what it was really like based on 1st hand testimony?


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdWdcwkhqpM 


watch that and see how badly these poor women and girls were treated

macho
macho

@petest44 

I'm sorry to say you are very wrong in shaming the Irish over this scandal, every nation in the world is just as responsible as Ireland so no need to stigmatize your own country, I'm not Irish so no personal interest here, I simply think that the whole truth should be told, not just a one sided story.

HannaWilford
HannaWilford

@Irish_American They also beat up kids for being red-headed... kinda like how Americans beat up the gender-queer.  It's many different "flavors" of wrong.  Different cultures have different triggers... Hope that helps?  -H

MariTatlowSteed
MariTatlowSteed

@Irish_American My mother Josie is a survivor living in the UK, Irish_American. The Irish ex-pat community in the UK can be cruel -- they don't dare identify themselves as industrial school, Magdalene Laundry or mother-baby home survivors for fear of bullying and ridicule. She has also been ostracised and separated from family, so this also causes her to turn inward. And how dare you suggest what is right for her? She worked ten years for the Good Shepherd Sisters in Cork doing sewing -- intricate embroidered tablecloths, smocked dresses, lacework -- which were sold to the American tourist trade. She never received a dime for her labour nor were any pension stamps paid in by the nuns for her work. Do you disagree that she should not be compensated for that slave labour? Do you disagree that the Irish State needs to stand up and apologise for abdicating its duty of care for its most vulnerable citizens to the Church, and then turned a blind eye when the Church abused that role? The report hardly provides closure and is a benign to say the least (I'll refrain from 'whitewash' for now) -- I was briefed on it by Senator McAleese and all of us at JFM have read it in its entirety and have been spending sleepless nights since Tuesday examining every sentence. It does not accurately reflect evidence presented to and collected by Senator McAleese, particularly with regard to physical abuse; it is missing data from two large Laundries -- Galway and Dun Laoighaire; and the financial "findings" of the report are ridiculous at best. Statistics can be inverted and manipulated to show whatever the intended audience (in this case, the State) wants. Maeve O'Rourke has earned no money from her diligent work for us and has dedicated countless personal hours to this cause. Any accolades she has received as a result of her work are well-deserved and based upon the intelligence, diligence and expertise she has brought to bear on this very real abrogation of human rights. To suggest she has some ulterior motive is beyond reprehensible. I am glad the report has brought YOU closure. But it was not intended for that purpose. Actually, it was not intended to bring the women closure -- its/Senator McAleese's remit was to investigate State complicity in the Laundries, and the report validated that. The other findings are merely window dressing and dangerous window dressing at that. As for women like my mother, or the survivor who told us after leaving a December meeting with Senator McAleese that she had no heat in her home because she couldn't afford to feed the meter box, it does nothing but besmirch their testimony and experience. Restorative justice and fair compensation is not punitive -- it is justice, pure and simple. Perhaps as an "Irish American" your view of the Ould Sod has been jaundiced by one too many viewings of 'The Quiet Man.'

Piacevole
Piacevole

@DouglasW.Kenny . . . and again, and again. . . Why doesn't the "three strikes and you're out" rule apply to it?