ALTHOUGH PREVIOUS REPORTS and testimonies reveal that labour in the Magdalene Laundries was forced and wholly unpaid, conditions harsh and the incarcerated women completely deprived of their liberty, suffering both physical and emotional abuse, survivors are still searching for an apology and redress.
Although the State gave the nuns who ran the Laundries direct capitation (per-head) grants and valuable contracts for commercial work, it has failed to offer that apology or any type of redress.
Although the State failed to enforce health and safety legislation or ensure girls of school-going age were educated in the Laundries, it has repeatedly denied responsibility for the way girls and women were treated at the now-infamous institutions throughout the 20th century.
Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) believes – and provides evidence to back up its claims – that there was State involvement in the operation of the Magdalene Laundries as places to send women, often known as “problem girls”, affected by pregnancy outside marriage, poverty and crime.
“The State regarded the Magdalene Laundries as an opportunity to deal with various social problems – illegitimacy, poverty, disability, so-called licentous behaviour, domestic and sexual abuse, youth crime and infanticide,” the group writes in its 145-page submission to the Government’s Inter-Departmental Committee set up to probe exactly what happened between the 1920s and 1990s.
The advocacy group was dismayed last week when the committee said its final report would be delayed until the end of the year because of the need to examine recently-received materials.
As a response, JFM has provided a redacted copy of its document to every TD and Senator at Leinster House.
They say it offers “overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of State complicity in the abuses experienced by young girls and women in these institutions”.
It is supported by 795 pages of new testimonies from survivors. The organisation wants to hear an immediate apology so meaningful discussions about redress and restorative justice can commence. Each day the State fails to do so, a population of aging and elderly women is left waiting, according to JFM.
“Survivors’ entitlements should no longer be held hostage to a political system that is not delivering on its promises,” they continue in a statement issued with the document.
Mary Smith from Co. Cork who was abused in a Magdalene Laundry holds up children’s shoes as she joins clerical abuse survivors from Canada in 2010. Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/Press Association Images
A captive workforce
According to the submission, the State repeatedly sought to funnel “diverse populations” of females to the institutions and, in return, religious orders obtained an “entirely unpaid and literally captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises”.
JFM argues against the State’s previous defence that it was not complicit in referring individuals to the laundries. It says that women were routinely sent by the judicial system between 1922 and 1986. Some were kept at the laundries after their sentences had elapsed.
A letter from the Superioress of the Sisters of Charity’s Cork Laundry written on 2 December 1934 reads: ”We will do our best to keep her in safety even after her time has expired.”
Other women were given a choice between being sent to prison or a Magdalene Laundry. However, there wasn’t much difference between the two, according to survivors.
I felt as if I was being sentenced to a prison. Indeed, at a certain level I was a prisoner.
Definitely, it was a prison…you get paid in a prison but this was a prison. There was no doubt about it, it was a prison.
These were prisons.
During a debate in 1960, Senator Connolly O’Brien told the Seanad that a girl who had been sent to the laundries would suffer a lifelong stigma:
If I were asked to advise girl delinquents, no matter what offences they were charged with, whether to go to prison on remand, or to go to St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum on remand, I would advise them wholeheartedly to choose prison, because I think having a record of being in prison as a juvenile delinquent would not be so detrimental to the after life of the girl as to have it legally recorded that she was an inmate of St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum.
Some “begged” to be sent to prison rather than a home, according to one magistrate in the 1920s.
Women and girls were also transferred from prisons, industrial schools, mother and baby homes to the laundries. Girls and women who had “re-offended” by having two children outside of marriage were sent to homes as they were told they needed “supervision and guardianship”.
JFM has evidence of State suggestions to send women and children to the Laundries. In one instance, a county manager signed a 14-year-old’s committal to the Laundry. She was originally in the foster care system operated by the public assistance authorities.
It is also true that some girls were admitted by non-State actors, including their families. This happened for a number of reasons, including fear of scandal related to illegitimacy, sexual abuse, incest, domestic abuse, disability and mental illness. Others were sent as a way of dealing with land or inheritance disputes.
One survivor says she was kidnapped by the Legion of Mary and delivered to the Sisters of Charity Laundry in Donnybrook, Dublin 4. The Gardaí returned her to the institution when she attempted to escape. JFM says it has significant evidence of similar events.
This practice was not a ‘one off’ or ‘local’ arrangement but happened at Magdalene Laundries in different parts of Ireland and across a number of decades.
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”.
JFM notes that Gardaí treated the girls and women well while they were in custody and in some cases allowed them time to escape “to make it onto the ferry to England”.
The group clarified that it is not seeking to hold individual Gardaí responsible for what might have happened in the past and nor is it seeking an apology from the service.
James Smith of JFM – a group that has been fighting for justice for survivors for many years. Here, he holds a document detailing the State’s interaction with the laundries back in 2011.
This year’s submission details how no one in senior government sought to understand how the Magdalene Laundries operated. JFM believe that the fact that the religious orders were in control was “enough” to excuse official inquiry, inspection or regulation.
It says that there was “no statutory basis at all between 1922 and 1960 for incarcerating any of the women”. “None of them were detained lawfully,” the report continues.
All the women had no choice whether to stay. One survivor from High Park Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra remembers:
Every window in the building, every window had bars on it…All the doors, every door was locked.
Another from Donnybrook said:
At nine o’clock every night you were locked into that cell – winter, summer.
Many believe they were taken from their original lives as “cheap labour” with the excuse of it being for their “own safety”.
We worked long hours every day…scrubbing, bleaching and ironing for the whole of Cork – hotels, hospitals, schools, colleges – for which the nuns charged, of course, though we never saw a penny. It was an industry and they were earning a fortune from our labour.
Work in the Magdalene Laundries was hard. It involved lifting heavy weights in very hot temperatures and the use of toxic chemicals. The clothes for one machine weighted 200 lbs, or 90 kgs.
A Magdalene Laundry washing machine. Image: RobynLou8/Flickr/CreativeCommons
We worked in great heat associated with the laundry machine and mangles.
You could stand in half a foot of water sometimes down in the laundry all day.
The laundry work was hard too. I often got bleach in my eyes. It was a sore does. It would be sore for days. And the soap would burn your hands.
Other external witnesses told JFM:
By Jesus, they worked hard. They broke a lot of sweat in that laundry. The laundry was very hot. It was just basically a sweathouse just to provide Joe Public out there with nice clean sheets.
The girls could get burns from pouring in soap, splashing into their eyes or pouring in bleach, raw bleach, which they would dilute by 50 per cent…And sometimes these carboys (10 gallon containers) would break and the bleach would go everywhere and it was a nightmare. And the fumes of the bleach alone were dreadful.
Another manager recalls have one woman lost her arm in a bad accident on a hot roller ironing machine.
“We got one egg a year”
JFM’s submission gives details of the girls and women’s every day lives, such as their time spent “in the hole” and the lack of fruit and vegetables they received.
Breakfast was generally porridge, while sausage, potatoes and cabbage made up the bulk of the rest of their meals.
I was extremely thin and sickly…the convent cared for us with absolutely the minimal standards.
Another survivor recalls how they “got one egg a year” on Easter Sunday morning.
A New Ross survivor, who entered aged 14 in 1949 and left aged 18 in 1953, said, “The most important fact to know about the convent is that there was no formal education given to me or the other residents.”
Ignored by all
No, no, no, no, no never. Nobody ever came into that place to inspect you. Nobody.
Between 1922 and 1996, none of Ireland’s ten Magdalene Laundries appear to have ever been inspected.
One external manager from the 1970s questions the government’s role:
The big question I have is why didn’t the government take more interest in these places. Why didn’t these inspectors take more of an interest? They just didn’t want to know because the nuns were fulfilling a huge social need. These people were in need of help. The government should have given them that help. The nuns were there. They filled the void and the government were quite happy, thank you very much, and didn’t want to know about it.
A life sentence
The Mother Superior of the convent operating the Magdalene Laundry in Galway in 1958 revealed in an interview that 70 per cent of women in the home were “unmarried mothers”. She said that a girl could not leave whenever they chose. ”No we’re not as lenient as that. The girl must have a suitable place to go…Some stay for life.”
Almost 1,000 women are buried in the Laundry plots in cemeteries across Ireland.
Speaking about the cemeteries, one survivor notes:
They weren’t even marked, the graveyards…There were no markings – there was nothing in the graveyards.
The women were buried in “some sort of cloth or something” with “no priest, no ceremony….they were just buried there.”
When undertakers went to exhume 133 bodies at High Park graveyard in 1993, the remains of 22 other women were discovered.
To conclude its report, JFM gives two examples of the lengths of time some women spent at the laundries.
One witness talks about how one of her relatives spent about 60 years – from the age of 14 to her death in 1989 – at the Limerick Magdalene Laundry:
She was literally there from when she was a teenage girl to when she died, a long, long time, certainly longer than any prison sentence any criminal has ever got in this country, certainly, which is scary. And a more non-criminal, non-aggressive lady could you meet. A real lady in an old style, a real sweet lady.
In another case, one woman in the Good Shepherd Limerick grave at Mount St Oliver Cemetery is recorded in the 1911 census as being incarcerated in the Limerick Magdalene Laundry at 18 years. She died in 1985, aged 92. She had spent 74 years in the laundry.