Irish Women Enslaved for Decades, Government Finally Admits Involvement
- by Kristina Chew
- February 8, 2013
The Irish government has admitted that, for more than seven decades, it was in collusion with laundries operated by religious congregations which kept generations of women and girls (as young as 12) in virtual enslavement. While some of the women were unwed mothers, the majority were placed there due to mental illness or physical disability, homelessness or petty offenses.
The Magdalene laundries took their name from Mary Magdalene, the biblical figure who (at the time the workhouses were founded in the mid-1800s) was thought to have been a prostitute. They were run by religious congregations and the Irish government has long claimed that the laundries were privately owned and controlled by nuns. But according to a just-released 1,000-page government report, the Irish state was responsible for sending over a quarter of at least 10,000 young women to the laundries.
In addition, the state gave the laundries lucrative contracts which were out of compliance with its own Fair Wage Clause. Those who escaped from the laundries were pursued and returned by the Gardai, the police.
Irish Government Fails To Issue an Apology to Survivors
While the Irish government has admitted its complicity in sending women to the Magdalene laundries, Prime Minister Enda Kenny failed to issue a formal apology. While saying that he was “sorry that this release of pressure and understanding for so many of those women was not done before this, because they were branded as fallen women,” he said that the state could not respond until a full parliamentary debate has been held.
Survivors of the workhouses and their supporters from groups including Justice for Magdalenes have immediately called foul on the Irish government which had actually received the report two weeks ago. Steven O’Riordan of the lobbying group Magdalenes Survivors Together said that Kenny’s response was “halfhearted at best” and that he was “annoyed because it sounded like a throwaway gesture.”
Just hearing about the Magdalene laundries, which operated from 1922 until as late as 1996, suggests that Kenny and the Irish government have yet to grasp the suffering of so many innocent women and of their families. Once taken to the workhouses — 60-year-old survivor Maureen Sullivan recalls that she was taken to one directly from school in a laundry van — all the women were given different names by the nuns, on the pretext that such would protect their privacy.
In reality, “Maggies” (as the girls and women in the laundries were called) were shorn of all rights. They were forced to work day in and day out doing laundry (including that of major hotel groups and the Irish armed forces) and denied any contact with the outside world and certainly with their families.
As Sullivan tells the Guardian, she was physically and verbally abused for “infractions” of nothing more than not walking fast enough around the laundry:
“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.”
Sullivan received no education while imprisoned in a Magdalene laundry and, after leaving, was homeless for a period. In the 1970s, she sought counseling about what had happened to her and, as she says, “then it all came back, all the abuse and exploitation I had suffered in those places.”
Elderly survivors of the Magdalene laundries are threatening to go on a hunger strike if the Irish government does not offer financial redress. I shiver at the thought of women who have already suffered enough for several lifetimes having to subject themselves to such. Kenny and the Irish government need to apologize and compensate these women in full for a cruel and inhumane punishment that not a single one of them deserved.