This report from Ireland comes from Claire McCormack, a freelance journalist based in Dublin:
On February 19 Irish Prime Minister made an official government apology for state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, a network of workhouses that were run by Catholic religious orders between 1922 and 1966. More than 10,000 women and girls were forced into unpaid labor at the laundries. Following the government’s apology hundreds more women have come forward, each potentially due thousands in compensation.
Now that the government has apologized, some are seeking an extended apology from the religious congregations involved.
“At last we have been heard and believed by the country,” said survivor Maureen Sullivan, 61, who was placed in New Ross Magdalene Laundry, Co. Wexford, at age 12 after her father died. “But the state and the Catholic Church allowed this to happen and they too should apologize, individually as separate orders,” she said.
The official apology came after the publication of a damning report (Feb. 5) linking the Irish state with the incarceration of over 2,500 women and failing to supervise their care. That represents roughly 25 percent of the total number of women to go through the Magdalene network. The remaining 75 percent were sent by various other sources including family or parish priests; some women entered voluntarily.
The report, set up after recommendation from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, confirms the Irish state gave lucrative cleaning contracts to 10 Magdalene Laundries, located across the country, including a contract to clean the uniforms of the Irish Defense Force. The state did so without complying with fair wage clauses or social insurance obligations. Evidence also revealed the state inspected the laundries and in doing so oversaw and advanced a system of forced and unpaid labor.
“By day I would work in the laundry but by night I would sleep in St Aidan’s Industrial School,” said Sullivan. “It was long, hard tedious work and because I was small they made a timber box for me to sleep in,” she said. “I remember being hidden in a tunnel when the school inspectors came. I can only assume that this was due to the fact that I was too young to be working in the laundry.”
The advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes welcomed the report, stating it ensures that the state can no longer claim the institutions were private, as it has in the past, or that the majority of young women entered of their own accord.
"I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the state, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologize unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry," said Enda Kenny.
Following the apology, the Irish Prime Minister announced plans to set up a compensation fund for the survivors. Each survivor could potentially claim up to €200,000 in compensation for unpaid work and for the physical, psychological and emotional damage they claim to have endured at the laundries.
“I didn’t know why I was put in, I didn’t know how long I would be there, I couldn’t contact my family, I couldn’t speak to anyone except to God when I was forced to pray for penance for sins I didn’t commit,” said survivor Maureen Sullivan. “I still blame the nuns, the stigma they caused took over my life and forced me to pretend I was a different person with a different past,” she said.
Although the Catholic Church was not investigated in the report, some survivor testimonies give details of maltreatment by the nuns who dominated the laundries. These were the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Good Shepherd Sisters. “We should have been so proud to say we were brought up by the nuns but it was the complete opposite, they took our education from us,” said Sullivan. “The nuns in my parish advised my mother to send me to the Magdalene home to be educated by the Good Shepard Sisters, she trusted the nuns as did everyone else,” she said. ‘The whole country looked up to the Catholic Church.”
The Magdalene Laundries were first introduced in Ireland as Magdalene Asylums in 1765. The asylum was seen as a reformatory for “fallen” women, implying sexual promiscuity or prostitution, and used to rehabilitate them back into society. But when the short-term refuges were appropriated by the Catholic Church in 1829, they increasingly became long-term institutions. Although residents had no religious obligation, they were required to work in the laundries and offer long periods of prayer and silence for their sins. As the Magdalene Movement grew throughout “a harsh and uncompromising Ireland,” as Prime Minister Kenny said in his initial reaction to the report, the phenomenon grew to include unmarried mothers, women with “special needs” and women considered as too pretty or tempting to men. Without a family member to claim them on the outside, many inmates ended up living out their days in the Magdalene homes. However, six months was the average stay recorded in the inquiry.
Since the publication of the report and the prime minister’s apology the Catholic Church and the four religious congregations involved have remained relatively tight-lipped, choosing instead to issue short apologetic statements on their Web sites. “We apologize unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt while in our care. In good faith we provided refuge for women at our Magdalene Homes in Donnybrook and Peacock Lane,” reads a statement from the Religious Sisters of Charity. For the survivors and advocates, this is not enough. “Responsibility lies equally upon the church and the state. The state should not fully foot the bill,” said Steven O’ Riordan, Founder of Magdalene Survivors Together.
In an interview with America, nuns from one of the religious orders said the shame of the era is being “dumped” on them. “The society those women grew up in encouraged them to be compliant and to conform and all those who ended up in the laundries went against that stereotype and many were also very institutionalized,” said Sister A. “We were the last in a long line of providers and we gave those women a bed and their keep. If they really wanted to escape it wouldn’t be too difficult to outrun a seventy year old nun.”
Frustrated by widespread media perceptions, the Orders claim to be suffering the same generational hurt as the survivors. “All the Orders involved, saw a need in society and tried to respond to it in the best way they could. There was a terrible need because so many women were on the street, with no social welfare and starving,” said Sister A, who has no experience of working in a Magdalene home. The findings revealed that 10 percent were sent in by their families, almost 9 percent were referred by Roman Catholic Church and a further 17 percent entered voluntarily. No evidence of sexual abuse was recorded in the report. “We were last in a line or providers,” said Sister A. “We did not go out an advertise for pregnant women and orphans.”
Relaying stories passed down by older sisters who did work in the Magdalene homes, the nuns said they were often told of women and children sitting outside the doors of the laundries wanting to get in for food and shelter.
“I know a lot of abuse cases are being reported in the media and some of these may have been exceptional circumstances, I’m sure they were not everyday events,” said Sister B. “I know we were harsh and capable of passing a snide remark but I think a lot of the stigma the women are carrying is the enormity of being rejected by their family and by society,” she said. “No woman had a voice 40 years ago, regardless of whether you were in a Magdalene home, the wife of a husband or whether you were a girl growing up in family. Women were seen and not heard.”
Since their inception, it is estimated that 30,000 women have passed through Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The youngest was nine years old and the eldest was 89. Almost 900 women and children died while living and working in there. Ireland’s last such home closed it’s door in October 1996.