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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 21 December, 2014

Column: The Catholic Church owes the women of the Magdalene Laundries

The Catholic Church and the Irish State were both responsible for incarcerating women in the Magdalene Laundries – and so both must pay, writes Anne Ferris TD.

Anne Ferris

IN APRIL 1955, a Scottish writer researching a book about Ireland talked his way into the Magdalene Laundry in Galway. First he had to obtain the permission of the Bishop of Galway, Dr Michael John Browne, the same man who a decade later would refer to the RTE broadcaster Gay Byrne as “a purveyor of filth” for the sin of discussing the colour of a lady’s nightgown on the Late Late Show.

True to form, Bishop Browne warned the Scotsman “if you write anything wrong it will come back on you” adding as a condition of entry to the laundry that anything intended to be published about the visit would have to be approved in advance by the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy.

The Scotsman, Dr Halliday Sutherland, agreed to abide by the bishop’s stipulation and was granted rare access to a Magdalene laundry.  His subsequent account is worked into a single chapter in his 1956 book ‘Irish Journey’. To what extent it was censored by the Mother Superior, we will never know.

An ‘agreed’ year of unpaid domestic service

The day before he visited the laundry in Galway, Dr Sutherland visited the Mother and Baby home in Tuam. He noted that the accepted practice was that unmarried mothers in the Tuam home ‘agreed’ to provide a year of unpaid domestic service to the nuns, and that in addition to this servitude, the home received State support, via Galway County Council, to the tune of £1 per child or mother per week.

Sutherland was told that any child not adopted by the age of seven was sent to work in one of Ireland’s notorious Industrial Schools, no doubt a factor in the decisions of the thousands of Irish women who ‘agreed’ to the export of their children for Catholic adoptions abroad. Women who were re-admitted to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home on a second occasion were automatically sent to work at the Magdalene Home Laundry in Galway.  By directing the women to the laundry and the children to the industrial schools the State saved money and the Church made money.

Church and State incarcerated women: both must pay

Today, thanks to the Magdalene survivors groups we know what the women suffered and that the Mother and Baby homes were only one of many routes by which the Church and State incarcerated women in the Magdalene laundries and similarly operated religious institutions.  This is why in February of this year, after successive governments failed to engage meaningfully with the Magdalene survivors, the current Taoiseach made a formal apology to the women on behalf of the State.

This week the Government announced a redress fund for the survivors. It remains to be seen if the amount and means of payment will prove sufficient to compensate for the State’s role in this tragedy. No sum of money can take away the pain that these women have endured.  In my capacity of Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality I personally undertake to closely monitor the progress of any necessary legislation designed to effect the speedy and appropriate distribution of redress to the women concerned. But there can be absolutely no ambiguity regarding the financial contribution to be made by the Church. There is now no hiding from the enormity of what these women suffered in the so called ‘care’ of these religious institutions.

Stripped of personal liberty

On the day in 1955 that Dr Halliday Sutherland visited the Galway Magdalene he met some of its seventy-three unpaid manual workers who lifted and toiled in the heat and wet doing laundry work for businesses, institutions and homes in Galway.  One woman told him she had been there for 25 years. He asked another if she liked the laundry.  She answered “yes” but according to Sutherland she did not look him in the eye. Later, he said, a nun told him that she was a bold girl.

“On Sundays they’re allowed to use cosmetics”, the sister-in-charge told him.

But…“Are the girls free?” asked Sutherland.

“Yes” said the nun.

“Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?

“No, we are not as lenient as all that.” said the Mother Superior.

Anne Ferris is the Labour Party TD for Wicklow and East Carlow.  She is also Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality.

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