In a bit of a landmark moment, the Irish Government has finally come clean and admitted that the Irish State did coolude with the Catholic Church on an abhorrent policy of female enslavement.
If you are not familiar with what I’m on about, this is about the Magdalene Laundry system that was operated by the Catholic Church in Ireland from the 18th century as a means to control woman …
Labelled the “Maggies”, the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.
You did not need to be simply be an unmarried mother, it could be a lot simpler, for example if the local priest thought some girl was simply too pretty for her own good, he could and would arrange for her to be shipped off to a Magdalene Laundry.
Ah, but that is all ancient history … right?
Wrong, this appalling form of slavery is recent history, it was only in 1996 that the last Magdalene Laundry was closed.
The original idea was as a Rescue Movement, the goal was to provide work for prostitutes who could not find regular employment because of their background, but over time that original aim was lost and the movement became increasingly distant from that, evolving into it being a dumping ground for woman on almost a whim. What actually happened and who actually ended up there is quite frankly the result of an appalling abuse of trust by both the state and also by the Catholic church. Here are some tragic stories of what was going on …
Maureen Sullivan was first sent to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross, County Wexford, in 1964. Two years later she was moved to Athy and finally to Dublin. She left in 1969.
“I was 12 years of age and my father had died, my mother had remarried and my home situation was abusive.
“They told me I would have a great education and I went off to New Ross from my primary school, actually in a laundry van. When I arrived there they took my books from me that my mother had bought. That was the last I saw of them; that was the last time I had a decent education. From then on it was laundry every day, where it was horrible, where you were not allowed to talk to anyone. All it was there in the laundry was work, work, work.
“There was physical abuse where they would dig you in the side with a thick cross off the rosary beads, where you got a thump on the side of the head and where there would be constant putting you down, shouting, verbal abuse. You got the cross in the side of the ribs if you slowed down on your way around the laundry.
“[The nuns] ate very well while we were on dripping, tea, bread. I remember another torture – one when we were all hungry – we could smell the likes of roast beef and cooked chicken wafting from where the nuns were eating. That was like another insult.”
“I had no education, no means of applying for a job and for several years I was on the streets. It wasn’t until I tried to take my own life in the 70s that I went for counselling and then it all came back, all the abuse and exploitation I had suffered in those places.”
Mari Steed is a second-generation victim of the Magdalene Laundry system. Her mother, Josie, was transferred from an orphanage to Sundays Well laundry, Co. Cork, when she was 14. She was there from 1947-57. Mari became a third-time victim of the system because she, too, eventually gave up her daughter to a Catholic charity in the US in 1978.
“She lost me to adoption after spending the first two decades or more of her life in these institutions. So when she was released into the world she was vulnerable and susceptible to any man that paid her attention. She was in her mind 10 years old rather than a mature woman. And as fair prey, she found herself pregnant and then got sent down to a home for single mothers and was forced to give me up.
“It was a generational chain reaction and … a cycle we see often in the Magdalene woman. The vicious cycle tends to continue.
“It was slightly less miserable than what my mother experienced, but it was still pretty bad with a lot of stigma, a lot of shame. This was the chain reaction going on.
“I tracked my mother down in the early 1990s and she was open at long last to talk. She had had no other children because she feared having any more. She told me right out: “Mari, I was just so afraid that if the nuns didn’t take another baby then God would.’ So out of fear she and her husband decided not to have any more children.”
The New Report
A new report into the role of the Irish State in all this has now been issued.
The key findings are:
- More than a quarter of the women held in the laundries for whom records survived were sent in directly by the state. This numbers at least 2,500 women.
- The state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with fair wage clauses and in the absence of any compliance with social insurance obligations.
- The state inspected the laundries under the Factories Acts and, in doing so, oversaw and furthered a system of forced and unpaid labour, in violation of countless legal obligations.
The report also investigated the role of the Gardaí in pursuing and returning girls and women who escaped from the Magdalene institutions.
“The large majority of women who engaged with the committee spoke of the deep hurt they felt due to their loss of freedom, they were not informed why they were there, they had no information on when they could leave and were denied contact with the outside world, including their family and friends,” says the report, adding that the Gardaí “brought women to the Magdalene laundries on a more ad hoc or informal basis”.
Never again can such an abuse be permitted.