A BASIC CENTRAL heating system for a terraced house, an extra €20 per week to her pension, a few extra bob for Christmas or enough for a burial on sacred land in the US: this is a partial snapshot of the wishlist of survivors of the Magdalen Laundries.
Rendered infamous through a film and several songs, the institutions were used throughout the 20th century as places to house women, often known as “problem girls”, affected by pregnancy outside marriage, poverty and crime.
Next week, the level of State involvment in the incarceration of thousands of women and girls will be examined, not by cultural forces, but by Government for the first time.
Senator Martin McAleese has sent his hefty report establishing the facts to Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who will publish it in full on Tuesday following a Cabinet meeting.
The long-awaited report has been delayed multiple times since the inter-departmental committee was established in response to a recommendation from the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT). That body said it was “gravely concerned” at the failure of the State to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996.
The delays have just added to the waiting game.
Survivors of the Magdalen Laundries were not included in the Ryan Inquiry and their stories were omitted from the subsequent report and redress board. Tuesday will mark the first day the voices of the 30,000 women will be heard. It comes after the four congregations – the Good Shepherds, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity and Our Sisters of Our Lady of Charity – which operated the institutions agreed to cooperate with an investigation.
An official apology, and some form of payment of the wages withheld from the women working in the laundries, is being demanded by advocacy groups.
“These women have been made to wait longer than anyone for justice,” Claire McGettrick of the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) campaign told TheJournal.ie in a recent interview.
Everyone in their heart and soul believes an apology should happen. It is actually unthinkable that it wouldn’t.
But the elephant in the room is money.
“In March, we’re supposed to be paying €3.1 billion into a failed bank,” continued McGettrick’s colleague, Dr Katherine O’Donnell. “You think, how come it is OK to pay off that and it’s not OK to honour a real debt?”
The demands and expectations of the few survivors – many of the tens of thousands of women who lived in the laundries are now deceased – are low, according to JFM.
For O’Donnell and McGettrick, who have spent three and 10 spent years respectively working with survivors, the best case scenario on Tuesday would include a speech from Enda Kenny, akin to his famous, landmark speech to the Vatican in July 2011.
In that best case scenario, such an apology would come with a raft of urgently-needed services for survivors, including a helpline, housing and healthcare, and a proper, transparent public compensation scheme.
“My dread is that the right thing won’t be done and that an apology won’t be made,” reveals O’Donnell. “And the efforts to support the women and the services they need critically now [won't be put in place]. We’ve implored Minister [of State] Kathleen Lynch for a helpline that hasn’t been put in place. That could have been put in place before now. There are services that are urgently needed by these women. These are women, again, vulnerable women who are in urgent need.”
It is still unclear how many survivors of the Magdalen Laundries are still alive today.
“There is a particular stigma attached to the Magdalen Laundries,” explains O’Donnell. “People think you were a prostitute or that you were an unmarried mother – but most women don’t fall into that category. It is a sexual shame as well. And for women of that generation, that is the worst kind of stigma and shame.”
JFM believe an official apology will allow more victims to come forward to tell their stories as it will break the taboo.
“If there is an apology, a lot more women will feel it is OK. It will be told that what happened to them was wrong,” says McGettrick.
The group’s submission to McAleese’s committee included 800 pages of testimony and 4,000 pages of archival evidence which it says provides proof that the State was involved in the system in a variety of ways.
This included committing girls and women to the institutions through mother-and-baby homes, through industrial schools and as an alternative to the female borstal.
“We’ve shown that they kept all of the women in there – regardless of how they entered – by using the forces of An Garda Síochána,” continued O’Donnell.
One survivor recounts:
Well, I went out the gate and I was just about to run down Griffith Avenue when the next thing I saw…the police were behind me…and they brought me back, they said because I was in the [Laundry] uniform…They said “are you Attracta?” and I said…”yes”…And they said “where do you think you’re going?” And I said, “out”…”To look for somewhere better to live”…And they said “no, you’re coming back with us, because High Park has rung us and told us that you’d run out”. And before I’d got anywhere they were there on the spot, and brought me back in…I told the police – I said to the police, because the Garda did say to me when I came out, “why did you run away?”. I said, “because they’re cutting my hair and putting me in a hole all the time…And I said to him, I said, “and I don’t like what they’re doing to me”.
The State also provided the congregations operating the institutions with lucrative contracts.
“They knew they were failing in legislative terms, in not implementing fair wage clauses. They did not apply the factories act or basic social welfare, as they did not make sure the women’s pensions were paid. The State is involved…I really can’t see McAleese finding it any other way.”
McGettrick adds, “These women were locked in and not paid but are still forced to bear the stigma, afraid to speak out.”
“Putting a modern context to it, we see stories of people deprived of wages today – like at Vita Cortex – and there are sit-ins.”
The Government has an opportunity here, according to O’Donnell.
This is a good chance for them to do the right thing. They can be proud of doing something right.
“The State needs to take the lead here. We’re going to have to deal with this very recent trauma and the incarceration of Irish people, in general. Everyone knew someone who was incarcerated in some form. This issue is very close to us and we really have to understand what happened.”
And there is a warning if the best case scenario isn’t fulfilled next week.
“This will be an international news story if the State do not apologise. We have the EU presidency, a place on the UN Human Rights Commission and evidence of State complicity of systematic abuse. They have to take lead because it’s not going away, it’s going to keep niggling.”
If Tuesday brings the worst case scenario, the long fight for justice continues.
“These women are incredibly resilient. A lot of them are impoverished, ill and ageing but they have survived something most people could not even imagine,” concludes O’Donnell.
“I am beginning to understand how humans survive successfully…so part of what is energising me is honouring them. They deserve that because of how they survived what they have survived, with the grace they have.”
Through UCD’s Women’s Studies Centre, O’Donnell and McGettrick have started work on an oral history project on the Magdalen Laundries with the aid of an Irish Research Council grant. They are seeking interviewees who have first-hand accounts of direct or indirect experiences of the sytem with the objective of “contributing to a better understanding of the Magdalen Laundries”. Categories of interviewees sought include survivors, relatives, members of Religious Orders, regular visitors to the institutions any anyone else who has a memory to share.
Those interested in being interviewed for the project can contact 01 716 7804 or email firstname.lastname@example.org