The Irish government was enmeshed in a harsh system of laundries run
by Catholic nuns, where women and girls worked behind locked doors
without pay, according to a fact-finding report released Tuesday.
More than 10,000 women labored in the infamous Magdalen laundries
from 1922 to 1996, a government committee said in the lengthy report. Women and girls landed in the workhouses for a long list of reasons. Some were placed there by Irish courts, some by reform schools, some
after being rejected by their foster parents, others after being abused
or left homeless.
They were widely seen as “fallen women,” assumed to be prostitutes, the report says. Many still fear revealing their “secret.”
“The chronicle of the
Magdalen Laundries was for many years characterized primarily by
secrecy, silence and shame,” former Sen. Martin McAleese, who headed the
inquiry, wrote in an introduction to the report.
The committee, which sought to put together a picture of how the
laundries operated and how the state was involved, pored over church
ledgers and other records.
The report paints a less damning picture of the laundries than has
appeared on film and stage: It found no evidence of sexual assault by
the nuns and few reports of beatings. Some women said the laundries were
“their only refuge in times of great personal difficulty,” McAleese
wrote, and some chose to go there.
Yet “others spoke of their real sense of being exploited,” he wrote.
Most women who talked to the committee said they felt trapped and
bewildered, kept in the dark about why they were there and when they
could leave. Women and girls were routinely scolded and humiliated, the
report says. Most recounted “a rigid and uncompromising regime of
physically demanding work and prayer.”
Though the median stay was roughly seven months, more than 1 in 4
women stayed more than two years, the report says. The youngest known
entrant was 9 years old.
“No one ever spoke why I was there,” one woman who worked in a
laundry in the 1950s told the committee. “In our heads, all we could
think of is, we are going to die here.”
Another woman said: “It was devastating to hear that door locked and I
was never ever to walk out. There was a big wall. I knew I was there
for life. When that door was locked, my life ended.”
The Catholic orders that ran the laundries said they regretted the
harsh conditions. "We wish that we could have done more and that it
could have been different," the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy,
which ran two laundries that closed in 1963 and 1984, said in a statement Tuesday. "It is regrettable that the Magdalen Homes had to exist at all."
The Irish government was involved in the system in many ways, the
report says. State institutions sent more than a quarter of the women
and girls who were shunted into the laundries. They inspected the
facilities, paid the system through public assistance and other state
programs and contracted with the laundries for their services. Irish
police also returned runaways who had fled the laundries, the committee
The findings were heartening to activists who had pushed for
acknowledgment of state involvement. However, activist groups were
bitterly disappointed that Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who said Tuesday that he was sorry for how the women were treated, did not make a formal apology on behalf of the state.
“There is no question the state was involved,” said James M. Smith, a
Boston College associate professor who wrote a book on the laundries
and now sits on the advisory board of the Justice for Magdalenes
activist group. The lack of an official apology left the women
“disappointed, some are inconsolable,” Smith said. “They have been
waiting for so long. These are elderly women in the main, and they
simply don’t have time.”
Another activist group, Magdalene Survivors Together, called the words from Kenny “a complete and utter cop-out,” the Irish Times reported. Opposition leaders also pressed for a more sweeping government apology for depriving the women of their freedom.
An official government apology could also open the door to providing
the women with lost wages or other redress, Smith said. Activists are
still reading the report, he said, but they are already dubious of its
assertion that the laundries made little profit, despite not having to
pay wages. Some records were unavailable, which means the number of
women who passed through the laundries is probably higher than the
10,012 reported, activists said.
The inquiry was prompted by the United Nations
Committee on Torture, which in 2011 ordered an investigation of whether
the Irish state was involved in reported abuses at the laundries. The
government had argued that the institutions were privately run with
little state involvement.
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