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A Madonna and child motif at the site of a former Magdalene laundry on Dublin's Sean McDermott Street Alamy Stock Photo
Magdalene Laundries

'Will this be Opportunity Lost 2.0?': State must 'learn from mistakes' of past redress schemes

A new book explores Magdalene laundries and the State’s response to institutional abuse.

THE IRISH STATE has, to date, failed to operate a redress scheme that puts survivors’ needs first, according to an expert.

The Government is currently drawing up plans for a redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby institutions and county institutions. This scheme is expected to open to applications next year.

It will be the latest in a number of redress schemes established in recent years on foot of investigations into abuse in industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and other settings.

The scope and administration of the previous schemes were widely criticised. The title of the 2017 report of Ombudsman Peter Tyndall’s review into the administration of the Magdalen Restorative Justice Scheme summed up the feeling of many stakeholders: Opportunity Lost.

The scope of this particular scheme was extended in 2018 to include women who worked in the laundries but were admitted to adjoining institutions. However, years later, some women are yet to receive compensation and medical support.

Many survivors of institutional abuse also criticised how they were treated by Caranua – the body established in 2012 to manage the funds pledged by the religious orders in whose institutions children were abused, prior to it winding down.

If we are to avoid the same pattern with the redress scheme currently being developed, survivors must be placed front and centre, an expert has said.

James Smith, an associate professor in the English department at Boston College, told The Journal: “History teaches us that, to date, the Irish State has not managed to operate a redress scheme that puts survivors’ priorities in the forefront – look at Caranua and look at the Ombudsman’s report into the Magdalene redress scheme, Opportunity Lost. Are we going to have Opportunity Lost redux, part two?

“It’s not my nature to be cynical, but I don’t see the evidence yet that the correct moves have been taken. Let me point across the border and look at the recent news in Northern Ireland, whereby they have appointed a survivor-led and independent expert panel to advise and make recommendations on what a redress scheme would look like (for survivors of mother and baby institutions).”

Smith noted that the previous Irish Government attempted something along these lines with the Collaborative Forum of Former Residents of Mother and Baby Homes and related institutions but failed to publish the group’s report, citing legal reasons, much to the dismay of those involved.

However, he said it’s not too late to further engage with survivors – as well as seek the advice of international experts – as part of this ongoing process.

The Government has said it is “committed to advancing” tracing and information legislation “as quickly as possible”, as well as establishing a redress scheme – which is expected to be up and running in 2022.


Smith is a co-author of a new book, Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice. The book explores survivors’ testimonies, the State’s response to Magdalene Laundries, the McAleese Report, and the formation of the Justice for Magdalenes (JFMR) campaign.

The book, which was released this month, uses evidence included in the McAleese Report (which examined the treatment of women in the laundries), as well as other testimony and research to offer a “counter-narrative” to the State’s official line on the laundries.

More than 10,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996. The State upholds the position that these women and girls were not systemically held against their will or abused in these institutions, Smith noted.

The book begins by setting out the formal position of Irish State when it comes to speaking to UN bodies about Magdalene laundries, namely:

“No factual evidence to support allegations of systemic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions was found… the facts uncovered by the Committee did not support the allegations that women were systematically detained unlawfully in these institutions or kept for long periods against their will.”

Smith said the much repeated “official line” that there is “no factual evidence to support allegations of systemic torture” or allegations that women were systematically detained, forced into labour and subjected to degrading treatments simply doesn’t stack up.

“That’s the official line and as long as there’s a gap, a chasm, between the official line and what survivors’ testimony insists that we recognise, there is work to be done.

“We saw the same chasm, the same vacuum, in January. It was the same tactic. Following the publication of the mother and baby home report, survivors’ stories were dismissed. According to Professor Mary Daly, they were regarded as separate from the ‘real work’ of the investigation.”

the-launch-of-ireland-and-the-magdalene-laundries-09092021 Authors of Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice (left to right) Dr Maeve O'Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Katherine O'Donnell and James M Smith. Bryan Meade Bryan Meade

In June, Daly said the Commission was limited in what it could do due to the Terms of Reference it had to operate under.

She also said “the stories” told by hundreds of survivors to the Confidential Committee were not given the same weight as the testimony given to the Investigation Committee. Witnesses who gave evidence to the latter had to swear that the evidence they gave was true, and their claims were questioned in a more rigorous manner.

Many survivors have said they were not aware that two separate committees were gathering evidence.

Smith said the evidence given by survivors to the Commission are indeed stories, “but they are first and foremost testimony, testimony of gross human rights violations”.

‘The State’s fingerprints are all over this’

Smith noted how interlinked institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools and mother and baby institutions are. They were all part of an oppressive system through which the State hid “problems”.

The State’s fingerprints were all over the use of these institutions and the confining of women. The fact is that the State was absolutely complicit, not just in referring women to these insistions but supporting them and, in many ways, relying on them and depending on them to deal with the ‘problem’ of these women. The solution was to hide them away behind closed doors, to sweep them under the rug.

If Ireland truly wants to learn from its past mistakes and not repeat them, the testimonies of survivors who spent time in these institutions must be listened to and preserved, Smith told us, adding that the “suppression of information” can only cause further harm.

“We have to learn from [our past]. Our society, our State, and in particular our civil servants have relied on this institutional impulse to hide things away, to confine people to institutions, and then to repress information on all of the above.

“That has implications in the present – for our Direct Provision system, for the foster care system. So this is not about drawing a line, it is not about closure. It’s about continuing to hold our society to account, and our State to account in the provision of services for those who are vulnerable in our community – the State has to protect their human rights and constitutional rights.”

Smith said he has “always been proud of the fact that Ireland is considered a charitable country, that Irish citizens are among the first step up with any cause and we pat ourselves on the back for the aid that we send overseas after international crises”.

“That’s a good thing,” however, he adds: “when it comes to protecting the constitutional human rights of members of society here, benevolence is not good enough”. Smith said the State has a responsibility to ensure “those who are less fortunate and who are marginalised for whatever reason in our society, have their constitutional rights protected and secured”.

“For that to happen, there needs to be cultural change within our State and within our wider civil service.”

Women sharing their stories

Smith wrote another book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, which was published in 2007.

So, what has changed in the last 14 years? Quite a lot, in some ways.

Smith told us: “The biggest and the most important change is that women have stepped forward and are now willing to speak about their experiences. They know what happened to them was wrong.

“There are eloquent survivors across all the different institutions [who have spoken publicly]. That was less the case in the early 2000s and the late 1990s. Even up to the publication of the Ryan report (in 2009), which really added to the problem because survivors of those institutions were subject to the gag order.

“They weren’t allowed to speak publicly about the evidence that they gave to the residential redress board and if they did, they could incur a fine and/or imprisonment. There was therefore a general sense within the wider community of survivor groups that this built on the shame and the stigma, that these were things we just didn’t talk about.

“Society’s response was often ‘well that happened a long time ago, why can’t you put it behind you and move on?’

Now there is very much what I would consider a movement. We saw that last October and November when there was a sincere concern that the archive of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission would be sealed for 30 years. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition against this, they made it known that that was no longer acceptable.

Smith said the same movement was also evident in the weeks after the Commission’s final report was published in January of this year. He said academic experts and advocates were still there supporting survivors, but they were “less necessary”. For the first time many survivors felt compelled, and able, to speak publicly themselves.

“Recently survivors themselves are stepping forward and making their own case, and holding the State to account. That’s a massive transformation,” Smith said.

Legal action

A number of women are taking legal action in relation to their experiences in Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby institutions (test cases are due to be heard in the High Court in November).

Others are also considering legal action in a bid to get their medical records, as The Journal reported this week.

Some women are taking their case outside Ireland in a bid to seek justice. Elizabeth Coppin – who was born in St Columbanus’s county home in Killarney in 1949 and grew up in industrial schools and laundries – has taken her case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT).

In 2000, she tried to take a case against the State and the religious orders in question in the High Court, but this was struck out due to the statute of limitations.

Smith said women like Elizabeth should not have to take legal action but will continue to do so “as long as the Irish State talks out of both sides of its mouth”.

He said society was indeed “culpable” in terms of women and children being incarcerated in institutions throughout the 20th century, but focusing on this narrative alone absolves the State and Church for their roles in the system.

“States have a responsibility to provide justice. One thing that is missing across all of these institutional scandals [in Ireland] is accountability. We have a 2,600-page Ryan Report, a 1,200-page McAleese Report, and a 3,000-page Murphy Report, and to my knowledge 11 cases have been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecution and only one actually made it to court.

“If you just take the Ryan Report – despite the major finding that sexual abuse in boys’ institutions was ‘endemic’, not occasionally, not frequent, endemic – one case has made it to court. That highlights the lack of accountability.”

Smith co-wrote the new book with Claire McGettrick, an adoption rights campaigner and postgraduate scholar at UCD’s School of Sociology; Katherine O’Donnell, Associate Professor at UCD’s School of Philosophy; Dr Maeve O’Rourke, lecturer in human-rights law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway; and Mari Steed, a campaigner who was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork.

The authors are donating all royalties in the name of the women who were held in the Magdalenes to EPIC (Empowering People in Care). More information can be read here.

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