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Betraying the trust of a nation

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Yesterday, just as we were going to publish the article below, which qualifies the two BBC reports published In Brief a few days ago, an Taoiseach Enda Kenny [PM of Ireland] made an historic 17-minute long speech apologizing to the victims of the Magdalene laundries, where at one point he visibly held back tears. The apology comes two weeks after the McAleese Report which established the facts of the State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries. While his intention to apologise can be questioned considering this lengthy time gap and the mounting pressure to do so by survivors, his apology leaves nothing to be desired.

He fully acknowledges the role played by the state, through probation and prison services, industrial schools, country homes, psychiatric institutions and the social services. His most admirable statement refers to how ‘we put away these women because for too many years we put away our conscience.’ Not only will the Government provide support in the form of counselling, medical cards and other social welfare needs to the survivors, a permanent memorial is to be established to ‘remind us all of this dark part of our past’ which lasted for 70 years.

Enda Kenny makes emotional apology to Magdalene women

Holy Catholic Ireland has been the object of intense criticism by women since the display of power from the Church disabled doctors from saving the life of a woman. Savita Halappanavar suffered a miscarriage and subsequently died from septicaemia after being continuously denied an abortion on the grounds of being in a Catholic country. Unfortunately, Savita was not the first woman to be subjected to violation of basic human rights at the hands of the Church. The Holy Bible was written over 2000 years ago, and while it provides a source of guidance through life, its absorption into culture made it responsible for the total degradation of women throughout history. The misogyny it displays just plainly reflects the time and era it was written in, but a lot of what was seen as acceptable 2000 years ago is not only morally wrong today, but also illegal. 

The human race is an intelligent species and knows that selling your daughter into slavery has serious consequences today. Yet we somehow lack the intelligence to overrule dated guidelines that would save a life.

Catholicism in Ireland was at its strongest in the early 1900s, which coincided with the first Magdalene Laundry opening its doors in 1922. Women who committed a serious moral offence against the guidelines of the Church were sent to these institutions to redeem themselves. Their crimes ranged from such things as being pretty, as it’s a sin to be vain, up to the more serious matters of having a baby outside of marriage and even being the victim of a rape. These women committed no offence whatsoever in the eyes of the law. But in the eyes of the Church these women were poison and had the potential to contaminate other pure-bred members of society and were therefore locked away.

Survivors’ testimonies also state clearly that they were either shunned by their own family right to the doors of the laundry, or the parish priest made his judgement upon the situation and advised those whose care the women were in that the right path to redemption for them began in the Magdalene laundries.  

In order for one to control, the other must be submissive and people were merely puppets on strings at the hands of the religious. This combination became destructive when Irish society revolved daily life around the teachings of the Catholic Church and the religious abused their influence over others. At this time in Ireland, priests and other religious orders held more control over society than the Gardaí [police]. Outsiders believed the ‘Magdalenes’ were learning a work skill in the laundries while repenting for their sinful ways in order to return back to society. The truth was the Magdalene women lived in silence according to a relentless regime of unpaid laundry work symbolic of the women washing the stains from their souls.

The Irish lived a strict Catholic life and to some degree feared the religious orders due to the power of their judgements. It was inconceivable that those who judged and guided, were actually deceptive and abusive. This is addressed in the Justice for Magdalenespublication of a document entitled ‘Submission to the United Nations committee against torture’ in 2011. It states that: ‘In addition to the cruel, inhuman and degrading nature of unlawful incarceration and forced unpaid labour, further physical and emotional maltreatment recounted by survivors includes deprivation of identity as the women and girls were given “house” names, forced to work and eat in silence and barred from keeping close friendships; beatings, verbal abuse and cutting of hair for infractions of rules; lack of adequate nourishment, warmth or hygiene; medical neglect and conditions of work which resulted in later disability, premature death and lifelong gynaecological problems; denial of family visitations and interference with private correspondence; denial of educational opportunity; and denial of rest or leisure opportunity.’

Based on survivors testimonies it identified that a staggering 10 basic human rights were completely violated in the laundries ‘as it was a system of unlawful imprisonment, slavery and forced labour.’ This continued until 1996 when the last laundry closed its doors. However to this day survivors are still suffering, with severe psychological trauma, ill-health, poverty, isolation and a deep sense of stigmatization.

The invisible cloak that has been placed over this dark stain in Irish history has finally been lifted with the publication of the McAleese Report to establish the facts of the State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries. It found that the State was directly involved in over a quarter of cases where women were incarcerated against their will. After reviewing the publication myself, it must be stated that the highest percentage of admittance to the laundries was unknown. This section was three times larger than the next known entry. This outcome displays clearly a lack of understanding, as it has an inappropriately narrow focus.

Another major point refers to the fact that women had the consent of their parents to remain in the laundry. It is simply shifting the focus to suppose that the women themselves were held against their will as moral infidelities brought shame upon their parents who no longer wanted them.

On a financial note the Report states that these laundries broke even at best. It’s sad that thousands of women endured agonizing work and some even suffered life-long illness due to the effects of the harsh work routine - just to break even. These laundries were not operated in secrecy, even hotels used their service. The Report established that the average stay was ‘only 6 months’ and that ‘no sexual abuse occurred, only physical.’ The purpose of this Report seems to be only to minimize the role that the State had, and to normalize what the women endured. It is humiliating that a Report was published in this tone.

The survivors got some closure in the form of the State taking responsibility for the trauma the laundries caused. It must be said that considering the time and era the laundries existed in, pure trust was put in the work of the religious and its serene facade was never questioned by any state body or member of society. As far as the State was concerned, it had faith in the Church that these women were safe, learning a work trade along with the Word of God. The Government’s failure lay in its trust in the Church, a trust that was betrayed, and society can be accused of that also. Where is the apology from the Catholic Church to the Magdalene women?

Over 10,000 women were incarcerated in the laundries of Ireland; yet despite the scale and length of their suffering, they did nothing wrong. They were severely punished yet committed no crime.

Senator Martin McAleese, 2013, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries. Department of Justice and Equality, Republic of Ireland.

See also:Justice for Magdalenes


Amy Coleman is a sociology graduate on the UCC MA in Criminology.


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