'All we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry'
An unidentified Magdalene laundry. photograph: justice for the magdalenes
Women admitted to Magdalene laundries described to the committee the “harsh and physically demanding” conditions in which they worked, with routine punishments for slacking or breaking silence during work.
“The overwhelming majority . . . described verbal abuse and being the victim of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments,” the committee found.
While a small number of women reported physical abuse, many more said they were subjected to “mental cruelty”. One of the biggest grievances was “complete lack of information about why they were there and when they would get out”.
One woman said: “In our heads, all we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry.”
Of 118 women who spoke to the committee, one said she was sexually abused during her time in a laundry.
She said her abuser was one of the auxiliaries, otherwise known as “consecrates” or “magdalenes”. These were women who, having entered a laundry, decided to remain there for life.
Of the abuse, the woman said she “was not aware of this happening to anyone else”.
The committee indicated that a large majority of the women who shared stories said they had “neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse” at the laundries.
“In this regard, women who had in their earlier lives been in an industrial or reformatory school drew a clear distinction between their experiences there and in the Magdalene laundries, stating clearly that the widespread brutality which they had witnessed and been subjected to in . . . schools was not a feature of the Magdalene laundries.”
A number of women said they were physically punished for not working hard enough or for misbehaviour.
These were typically a “rap” on the knuckles, being sent to bed without supper or having to kneel for hours. But some described harsher punishments, including punching and hair-pulling.
One woman who wet her bed said nuns “pinned the sheet” to her back as punishment.
Contrary to one widespread assertion about the laundries, none of the women said their heads had been shaved, with one exception – in a case of head lice. Some reported that it had been cut on entry, however, and described this as upsetting and degrading.
It was the “ultimate humiliation”, said one woman. “It changed me as a person to authority, God forgive me I learned to hate people then.”
The committee stressed that the number of women it interviewed represented just a small sample of admissions and therefore it “cannot be considered representative”. It was also “biased towards more modern years – the 1940s was the earliest period for which the committee had access to the direct experience of women”.