Abused in the past and abandoned in the present
In doing so, they showed admirable courage and resilience.
Others felt unable to participate. Their time in the Magdalene laundry remains a carefully guarded secret. They fear jeopardising established identities – husbands, children and grandchildren know little about this part of their past. Or they have a deep distrust that justice will be forthcoming. They have been disappointed before. For some, the risk is paralysing.
And still, the women’s testimony is compelling. It rebuts government claims that they entered these institutions “voluntarily”. It contradicts the religious orders’ assertion that women were free to come and go as they pleased. Some survivors describe their experience as tantamount to “slavery”, living behind locked doors and barred windows.
They insist, moreover, that members of An Garda Síochána routinely brought women to the laundries and/or returned women who escaped – regardless of whether the State was involved in committing them in the first place, and in the absence of any statutory basis for doing so.
The women’s testimony corroborates historical archives that disclose the transfer into the Magdalene laundries of children from State-funded residential institutions and unmarried mothers from State-licensed mother-and-baby homes.
There is no evidence to suggest the State made certain the release of these women and young girls. Some would remain to live and die behind convent walls.
Testimony substantiates historical Dáil debates that point to various State agencies contracting laundry work to the nuns’ commercial businesses, and doing so without a “fair wages clause” as stipulated for similar contracts with commercial laundries. Women describe laundry specific to the Army, State hospitals, prisons, agricultural laboratories etc.
It is to be hoped today’s report will answer many of the heretofore unanswered questions about these institutions, for example, how many women entered, why did they end up there, who brought them, how long did they stay, how many died, and where are they buried? It will, as such, help Irish society better understand this aspect of our nation’s past.
Ultimately, however, today will be remembered for how the Government responds to the conclusions about State involvement, the committee’s primary remit. The survivor community will judge the Government on whether Minister for Justice Alan Shatter announces measures that finally affords them justice.
These measures begin with an official State apology. Lost wages must be restored and pensions recalculated to reflect time spent in the laundries. These measures need to be implemented immediately. The Government should then establish a transparent and non-adversarial compensation scheme that is open to all survivors and puts their welfare at the forefront.
Time is of the essence. It is the one commodity many of these women can ill afford. They have waited for justice too long already. The wait must end today.
* James M Smith is an associate professor in the English department and Irish studies programme at Boston College. He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2008) and serves on the Justice for Magdalenes advisory committee.