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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