Survivors remember Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

Women incarcerated in Catholic Church-run institutions and forced to work for free remember those who died in them.

Magdalene Laundries
Relatives of victims of the Magdalene laundries hold a vigil in solidarity with the survivors and their families outside of Leinster House, Dublin [Peter Morrison/AP]

Dublin, Ireland – As survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries prepare for a national day of remembrance, many question the sincerity of the government’s apology to women held against their will in the Catholic Church-run institutions.

These laundries – often described as “prisons” by the women who worked in them – were established in the 18th century for Ireland’s ‘fallen’ women and remained in operation until 1996, when the last laundry closed.

An estimated 30,000 women and girls are thought to have been institutionalised for a myriad of reasons, from being ‘bold’ to having a child out of wedlock. They were forced to work long hours in poor conditions for no pay. 

A form of ‘slavery’

The religious orders, often working in conjunction with state institutions, benefitted from their cheap labour as they ‘paid off their debt’. For some, that took a lifetime. For many, it started as soon as they left the state’s industrial schools, from where they were directly sent to the laundries.

Today, survivors of the laundries are still waiting for compensation from the state three years after they were promised, among other things, special medical cards and a dedicated unit to help them access advice.

In 2011, groups advocating on behalf of survivors of the Magdalene laundries appealed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT). During the hearings that followed , the Irish state defended the laundries, claiming that most of the women entered voluntarily or with parental consent. 

UNCAT recommended a full investigation into the laundries, which led to the 2013 McAleese report .

Making the ‘Magdalene problem go away’

After the publication of the report, Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), one of the groups representing the survivors, asked for a state apology from Prime Minister Enda Kenny. He refused .

The women, who describe working in the institutions as “slavery” reacted angrily. They were widely supported by the Irish public, whose faith in the Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of damning reports on child sex abuse by members of the clergy.

After a media frenzy and widespread condemnation, Kenny issued a choked emotional apology in the Irish parliament followed by the announcement of a new redress scheme to make amends for “the state’s role in the hurt of these extraordinary women”.

But three years have passed since the McAleese report and advocates for the survivors say the government has failed to deliver on its promises.

Claire McGettrick from JFM thinks Kenny’s apology was merely politically expedient.

“I think there was a difference between the fifth of February, when the McAleese report was released, and the 19th of February, when Enda Kenny apologised. But it wasn’t this ‘road to Damascus’ moment, as portrayed in the media,” she said.

“It stemmed from immense public pressure. He knew politically he couldn’t do anything but apologise … Something had to be done to make the Magdalene problem go away.”

‘One long fight with the state’

Justice John Quirke was tasked with devising recommendations on a redress scheme for women incarcerated in the laundries. His work culminated in the Quirke Report, which was published with a guide to measures for compensation, including the establishment of a dedicated unit to offer advice and support and the provision of a special medical card.

The government announced that it would implement the Quirke recommendations in full.

“All the survivors in contact with us read the Quirke Report, especially the appendix that outlines their healthcare entitlements,” said McGettrick.

“There is one line in the report that says the scheme would have to be adapted as Magdalene survivors wouldn’t require medicine for hepatitis C. However, the government used that line to fillet the whole scheme. Many women only signed the waiver [giving up any right to take action against the state] because they thought they would be able to access this card; some even accepted lower financial compensation.”

The medical cards they received were standard ones that fell short of the enhanced cards recommended by the Quirke Report.

In addition to failing to implement Judge Quirke’s recommendations, women were locked out of the scheme if they worked in ‘training centres’ attached to the laundries.

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Wendy Lyon, from KOD Lyons Solicitors, which represents survivors in Ireland, explained: “A number of women have also been excluded from the scheme because of the path by which they entered the laundries.

“These were mostly teenage girls who were sent to ‘training centres’ like An Grianán, attached to the St Mary’s Refuge Laundry at High Park in Dublin. The government does not dispute that these women were forced to work in the laundries, but insists that they were not ‘admitted’ to the laundries for the purposes of the scheme.

“Their refusal literally turns on a particular definition of ‘admitted’ which the government is insisting on, although it is not to be found anywhere in the terms of the scheme or the enabling legislation. This is despite the revelation last year of a memo that was sent in 2012 from the HSE [Health Service Executive] to a member of the McAleese Committee confirming that An Grianán and St Mary’s were ‘one and the same thing’.”

A woman holds a poster in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors in Dublin, Ireland, in 2013, prior to Prime Minister Enda Kenny's apology on behalf of the Irish people for ignoring the conditions at the laundries between 1922 and 1996. [Peter Morrison/AP]
A woman holds a poster in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors in Dublin, Ireland, in 2013, prior to Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s apology on behalf of the Irish people for ignoring the conditions at the laundries between 1922 and 1996. [Peter Morrison/AP]

When Al Jazeera contacted the Department of Justice, it said that despite the scheme’s failure to establish a dedicated unit it has “nominated people” within the department to assist survivors.

But representatives of the survivors say this is not good enough.

“Last week, a woman spent 17 hours in a chair on a drip in an accident and emergency unit, unaware of her rights under the scheme. She signed up to the scheme and waived her right to sue the state, believing that she would receive a comprehensive healthcare package, and she now feels completely hoodwinked,” said McGettrick, adding: “For survivors, this has just been one long fight with the state.”

The religious orders

The religious orders that ran the institutions have not contributed to the scheme, despite the fact that they were supposed to.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Sisters of our Lady of Charity, The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy and the Religious Sisters of Charity did issue apologies, however. But their wording did little to assuage the anger of the survivors. In what McGettrick refers to as their ” statements of regret ” rather than apologies, they used phrases such as it was “regrettable that the Magdalene homes had to exist at all” and claimed the laundries were “part of the system and culture of the time”.

The religious orders have failed to clarify why they did not contribute monetarily to the scheme and did not respond when contacted for comment by Al Jazeera.

So far, the scheme has failed to live up to expectations. And, as the Magdalene survivors and their supporters prepare to lay flowers on the graves of those who died in the laundries, questions remain about whether it ever will.

A survivor’s story – ‘They stole my childhood’

Elizabeth Coppin, 66

“I was sent to an industrial school when I was two. The nuns stopped me from going to school when I was 12, and I was made to work in the kitchen.

One day when I was 14 years old, I was chopping the heads off fish in the kitchen when one of the nuns, Sister Enda, called me into the parlour. She was smiling and seemed happy. She showed me a suitcase and said, ‘Now, my girl, you’re always complaining that you do all the work around here. Well, I found you a job and remember it will be a long time before you get out’.

After that I was taken in a taxi to a city a few hours away. Sister Enda said goodbye and told me to be a good girl. Despite all of the horrible things she’d done to me, I had an urge to run after her. I think I knew that what was coming was much worse.

That was my first day in a laundry. I was only 14 and I was working every day in the washing room. Every night, we slept in small cells. The windows were locked and there were iron bars on them. You had a pot for your toilet and a small bowl with water to wash. Every night, the door was bolted from the outside. I used to hate that sound.

I worked from eight in the morning until six in the evening every day except Sunday. The work was awful. We had a huge spin dryer and we had to load all the wet sheets and towels in. We had all the state contracts from the hospitals and the army. I had to wear rubber boots when I was loading the machines. We had to carry loads of tangled, soaked sheets and they were so heavy.

One day I was doing the laundry and one of the nuns came down and accused me of stealing someone’s sweets. Two of the women dragged me up to a dark cell. I stayed in the dark, tiny room for three days and three nights.

I was so scared, but that was when I realised two things: No one was coming to help me and what
they were doing was wrong. I decided then to run away.

There were no bars on the windows at the front of the building, so me and another girl decided to jump out one of them when the nuns weren’t looking. We ran into the city. We had nothing; I had been in Catholic institutions since I was two. But we were good workers, so we managed to get a job working in a hospital that trained nurses. I was 17 by then.

READ MORE: Dead babies and Ireland’s dark past

We were happy. In that place no one locked my door at night; I was independent.

One day a man came. He was from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I thought he was a policeman – he was so horrible to me. That man brought me to another laundry. When he left, he said: ‘You run away from this place and we’ll put you someplace you’ll never get out of.’

I thought I would be locked in there forever.

They cut my hair, put me in a uniform and renamed me ‘Enda’. It made me so angry to be called after the woman who abused me as a child, and I wouldn’t answer to that name. I was there for five months, until one day a nun came and said: ‘You’ll be pleased to know that’s the last time I’ll call you Enda. You’re moving.’

I was taken to the train station by a woman who had worked for the nuns for 50 years. She had been in an industrial school like me. When I asked her why she didn’t run away, she looked very sad and said, ‘Who would want me?’

I kept telling her to leave, but it didn’t matter. I think the nuns had broken her completely. After a year of working in the new laundry I was told I had a job in a hospital back in the town where I had been in the industrial school. I asked if Sister Enda knew. I was nervous.

The nuns said she did.

One day when I was scrubbing the floors in the hospital I looked up and saw Sister Enda. She said: ‘Now aren’t you sorry you were so bold?’

Years later when I got my records, their excuse for sending me to the laundries for five years of hard labour was ‘she is so bold’. They stole so much of my childhood for that reason.”

Source: Al Jazeera