Magdalene laundries report spurs national reflection

The Feb. 19 “unreserved” apology from the Irish government to former residents of the Magdalene laundries was in stark contrast to the stance taken by Prime Minister Enda Kenny just two weeks earlier. 

When the report into the role of the Irish state in the Magdalene laundries was published Feb. 5, Kenny told parliament that he regretted that women and girls had been sent to the institutions to work without pay. However, he repeatedly declined requests for an apology to the former residents, despite the fact that the report revealed that more than a quarter of women in the laundries had been placed their by the state. 

So why the change of heart? Evidently, the government’s initial stance was motivated by concerns about liability. A 1990s apology by then Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to former residents of industrial schools left the country with a compensation bill of some €1.3 billion ($99 million). 

However, under huge political and public pressure, the government has now pledged to establish a fund to assist the women within three months. 

“I, as Taoiseach [Prime Minister], 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,” the apology stated.

Shattering myths

The issue of a state apology somewhat overshadowed the 1,000-page report. The investigation into the laundries, carried out by Sen. Martin McAleese, paints a complex picture. What is striking about the report is the extent of the cooperation offered to the committee by the religious orders involved. In fact, McAleese states that his report would have been impossible without this cooperation. It also exploded some of the myths that had grown up around the laundries, revealing, for example, that some women entered voluntarily and many were sent by families rather than Church or state authorities.

Up to now, it was widely reported that approximately 30,000 women had worked in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996. That fewer than half this number did so — 10,012 women are known to have entered laundries during the period — is one of many revelations in McAleese’s findings. The report does not exaggerate when it says its findings “may challenge some commonly held assumptions.” 

The interdepartmental inquiry was prompted by a June 2011 report from the U.N. Committee Against Torture. The United Nations expressed grave concern at what it regarded as the state’s failure “to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined in the Magdalene laundries.” 

The Irish government has long denied that there was state involvement in the institutions, insisting that it was a matter for the religious orders. However, the McAleese Committee was established in 2011 to look at the role of the government. 

The report utterly refuted claims that the state was innocent of involvement. McAleese introduces the report by saying, “There is no single or simple story of the Magdalene laundries,” but it seems that for many of the women who resided in them, redress from the state is inevitable.

Laundries’ history

Ten Magdalene laundries operated in Ireland after independence in 1922. James Smith, in “Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Concealment,” points out that there was nothing essentially Irish or Catholic about such institutions; Magdalene asylums, largely intended as refuges for prostitutes or women — including unmarried mothers — in danger of falling into prostitution, were common outside Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The first English “Magdalene Home” was established in 1758, with the first Irish one following seven years later. By the late 1800s there were more than 300 such institutions in England and at least 41 in Ireland. 

Over time the purpose of the institutions changed, and it seems from the report that relatively few women who worked in laundries were either prostitutes or unmarried mothers. 

The committee found no evidence to support the common perception that unmarried girls had babies in the laundries, noting that pregnant women were not permitted there. If residents were found to be pregnant after arrival, they were discharged to mother-and-baby homes. 

A wide range of women lived in the laundries. Some were referred by the courts for a variety of reasons, some incredibly trivial, such as traveling by train without a ticket, and some as serious as infanticide. Some were former industrial schoolchildren, referred onward or released on licence before reaching 16 years of age.  

Some were girls rejected by foster parents when maintenance payments ceased, and some were orphans or the children of abusive homes. Some were placed there by their families for reasons unknown. Some had mental or physical disabilities or illnesses, some were placed in the laundries by social services because the state lacked adequate accommodation for teenagers, and some were simply homeless. Of the women whose routes of entry to the laundries are known, 16.4 percent personally asked to be admitted.

Healing, reconciliation

The report is leading to a deeper reflection about the nature of Irish society. Crucially, the evidence points to a wider set of circumstances rather than the caricature that has sought to blame an overly paternalistic Church. The body that represents Ireland’s religious congregations has said that the issue of the Magdalene laundries must not be “presented as a matter only for religious.” 

McAleese said the laundries were, “by today’s standards, a harsh and physically demanding work environment.” Most women who spoke to the committee described the atmosphere as “cold” with a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer,” with many instances of “verbal censure.” Most women spoke of hurt due to “loss of freedom,” lack of information on when they could leave and denial of contact with family. 

The women who shared their experiences made no sexual abuse allegations. 

McAleese paid tribute to the religious orders involved for their cooperation with the preparation of the report. “A large variety of private archives were voluntarily made available to the committee and it is important to acknowledge that without them the work of the committee would have proved very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.” The orders, he said, “made themselves available at all times to provide the Committee with the fullest information they could.” 

The Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) has welcomed the publication of the report, expressing the hope that it can “lead to reconciliation and healing for all involved in this very complex matter.” 

“It is important that we, as religious, acknowledge the part we played in the entire issue, and it is also important that a system which had the support of many sectors of our society is not now presented as a matter only for religious — if the necessary healing and reconciliation is to be found,” CORI said in a statement. 

Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.