'Hopefully we will get a better outcome from this'
Magdalene survivor Marina Permaul (left) and campaigner Sally Mulready after meeting Taoiseach Enda Kenny in London on Saturday. photograph: neil hall
Taoiseach Enda Kenny came face to face in London with the distress of survivors of the Magdalene laundries
For years, the women once held in the Magdalene laundries were ignored or called liars. On Saturday, some of them sat around a table in London with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, recounting a lost youth.
In the wake of the publication of the McAleese report into the Magdalenes, Kenny was criticised for offering a tepid apology to the thousands of women incarcerated on the instruction of the State or religious, or, frequently, of their families.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, Kenny received support from the women.
“I don’t think he should have taken the criticism, because he is not long in government. I think he shouldn’t have taken the stick that he did get,” Mary O’Connor (82) says, “because what we got here today is that he is very genuine about this.
“He got sad about it,” adds O’Connor, who, from 1995 onwards, wrote to a succession of taoisigh only to be told that the Irish State “wasn’t involved” or that “it wasn’t their problem.
“But Enda Kenny is the first to have brought this out, he was the one who got Senator McAleese to do the report and for that I am grateful to him,” says the oldest survivor present for the Irish Embassy meeting, who spent 14 years in one of the laundries.
Sally Mulready, a councillor who has helped survivors of the Magdalenes and religious-run industrial schools for over a decade, described the encounter as “a very warm meeting, a really significant meeting for us”.
One of the women, Marina Permaul, was sympathetic, to a degree. “It [his apology] was a bit on the weak side, but there again he had never met us. He never came face to face and heard us speak in our own words. Now he is more sympathetic and hopefully we will get a better outcome from this situation, which we deserve.”
The women’s restraint will last until tomorrow’s Dáil debate. There, they expect an apology, but, just as importantly, a clear sign of the compensation, the payment of wages that were never given for back-breaking toil in the laundries and the welfare services that they believe should now come.
No redress board
A repeat of the Residential Institutions Redress Board – which frightens the Government because it cost nearly €1.5 billion – is not wanted.
“There was a lot of strength of feeling about the fact that the redress board had been very litigious and very costly,” Mulready says. “We don’t want that.
“The apology shouldn’t begin and end with Enda Kenny. The wider Irish society had a responsibility. It was doubly-hard for the poor, the snobbishness and the rejection that poor people felt. Young people should acquaint themselves with the report and what people went through.
“Women never knew when they would be released. Prisoners know when they will be released today; murderers have a release date. These women never had a release date, they never had a trial, they never committed a crime.
“They were simply locked up and the key thrown away until somebody in authority deemed it sensible to release them. On top of that, they were compelled to work for long hours, for no pay in the most disgusting of conditions and in enforced silence,” she adds.
However, compensation will have to play a part, even if not all of the bill should be faced by the State, according to Martha Osmond, who believes that the religious congregations should bear their share of the burden.
“I never got a penny off the nuns, they should be apologising to us,” she says. “They put us through hell. They starved us while they were eating big turkeys. The nuns have sold everything, so where has the money gone.”
Nevertheless, belated compensation will not cure all ills, says Mary Currington, who fled Ireland after she escaped from the Good Shepherd convent in Sunday’s Well in Cork.
“I don’t think that there will ever be closure. We want some settlement to pay us back for the wages that we lost. I was locked [up there] for six years for doing nothing wrong.
“They never did tell me why they put me in there. Closure there never will be; when I die, maybe, but not now, not while I am alive.”
Unlike some, perhaps, Currington comprehends the unpopularity of a compensation bill in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. “They are probably thinking in their own minds, ‘Are we going to have to foot the bill for all of this to repay all these women over here in England’.”
For now, the numbers of Magdalene survivors in Britain is unknown.
According to Phyllis Murphy, who, like Mulready, was brought up in an industrial school, but not held in a Magdalene laundry: “The majority came to England because they were so frightened that they would be picked up again.
“They were frightened, even though they hadn’t done anything in the first place. They got out of Ireland as quickly as they could. And so many of my ladies won’t set foot back in Ireland.
“That’s very sad, they won’t go back there, even now,” she adds.