Yet another relic of Ireland’s dark and disturbing past has come to light. We are haunted by yet another example of abuse and exploitation by the Catholic Church that went unchallenged for decades. This is the Magdalene Laundries, centres of shame run by nuns from the foundation of the State in 1922 until 1996. A new report has been released detailing the plight of the inmates. Here women were detained and forced to work inhumane hours for no pay. The stigma of being in a Magdalene Laundry was so great that most never spoke if it and left the country. More than 10,000 women were forced to work in essentially labour camps that many have described as slave labour. It is an injustice that forces us all to hang our heads in shame.
The Magdalene Laundries were originally set up in the 1800s to cater for “fallen women”, originally prostitutes but later expanded into unmarried mothers. However, over time this distinction was lost and the report makes it clear that most women were not unmarried or prostitutes. The stigma that they were is one reason why so many have hidden and kept a secret that they were ever inmates. Most women were sent there by the courts (usually for petty theft), social services, foster homes, if they had mental difficulties or were homeless. Sometimes families would send their daughters if they didn’t accept the morals of the time and were too promiscuous (considering the morals of the time anyone less than a puritan could fit this description). Not all women would have been told why they were sent there or how long they had to stay. One of the greatest problems is that for half the women no reason is given as to why they were referred. It was random punishment.
The report finds that the women were placed in a “harsh and physically demanding work environment”. The laundries were “lonely and frightening” places for many of the women. Most women described the atmosphere as “cold” with a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer” with many instances of “verbal censure”. Most women spoke of hurt due to the “loss of freedom”, the “lack of information on when they could leave” and denial of contact with family. One of the greatest cruelties was the removal of every woman’s name upon arrival in the laundry and replacement with a new name by the nuns. To add further humilation and loss of identity, their hair was cut short. They were forbidden from speaking at work, if they were caught they would be hit. They were mocked and insulted by the nuns, even publicly humiliated. Women who had been abused were sometimes blamed and sent to the laundries. It was used as a dumping ground for problems Catholic Ireland liked to pretend didn’t exist.
There were 10 laundries run by religious orders that catered for 10,000 women over their history. It is a great irony that these cruel and repressive nuns had names such as the Sisters of Charity or Sisters of Mercy. Neither charity nor mercy were shown. For decades the State denied involvement, claiming the laundries were privately operated. However, one quarter of all referrals came from State agencies. State institutions like the Army sent their laundry to be done by the Magdalene.
The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has offered a half apology, stopping short of a full state apology. This has drawn huge criticism from survivors Maureen Sullivan of Magdalene Survivors Together criticised Kenny saying “That is not a proper apology.” They are looking for a full state apology, back wages and pensions for the few surviving women.
A personal story is given by Permaul who upon entry had her name taken and replaced with Geraldine. She says the feelings of fear entrapment and “that all hope was lost” never go away. Her hair was cut and she was dressed in rags. Survivors describe the laundries as a prison in all but name. They were not given pay, an education or allowed leave. Survivors speak of feeling abandoned and that no one cared. They still live with the stigma and shame. Many still keep their time as a secret. Most women were very young on entry, the youngest being aged 9. The median age was 20. The terms were relatively short, with half being there for less than a year and only a quarter spending longer than 3 years there. The nuns who ran the laundries receive 20 million a year from the state as they still run some hospitals and schools in the country. This is in contrast to survivors who receive nothing.
The Magdalene Laundries are another example of abusive Church power and how conservative Ireland betrayed the most vulnerable. It is symbolic of the harsh and narrow minded attitudes the Church had and why people no longer respect it. These women were powerless and voiceless and Ireland ignored them. They are part of the shameful legacy of the Church and part of the hidden secrets of the past. Let us remember the cruelties they suffered and ensure the survivors get what they deserve.