Abused in the past and abandoned in the present
Opinion:She remains anonymous by choice. She values her privacy above all. She lives alone and never married. She attends daily Mass. She will never again live in Ireland. She celebrated her 78th birthday recently. She is a survivor of the Magdalene laundries.
Her mother died when she was seven. At 14, her father remarried but she and a younger sister were unwelcome in the new family household, the only home they ever knew. Poverty was her only crime.
She was taken to the Good Shepherd convent in New Ross, her younger sister sent by train to the congregation’s Limerick house. The Good Shepherds managed industrial schools for children at both locations and a reformatory school for girls in Limerick.
But the two sisters were put to work in the Magdalene laundry with its population of adult women workers. For the next five years she washed society’s dirty laundry and received no pay. When she refused to work the nuns cut her hair as punishment. The hair grew back but to this day the loss of her education angers her. To her, it was a prison in all but name. There was no inspector, no child welfare officer. She was abandoned and no one cared.
Sixty years later this woman lives with the stigma and shame attached to these institutions. These are the indelible stains on her life.
And, in her case and others, there are life-long material consequences to having spent time in the Magdalene laundry. Her application to the Residential Institutions Redress Board was rejected. The 10 laundries were not among the institutions covered, thus her application was deemed “ineligible”, and the review board refused her appeal.
Friends helped her apply for a statutory pension, but once again her years working in the Magdalene laundry did not count when calculating her entitlement. She was never paid so no stamps were submitted on her behalf. After endless bureaucratic delays and reams of paperwork, she receives a meagre $7.50 a week from the Irish State – that is, after an Irish bank deducts international wire transfer and currency conversion charges.
This is the plight of one Magdalene survivor: abused in the past, abandoned in the present.
This morning as she wakes in her rented apartment here in the US, the Cabinet will meet in Dublin to discuss the final report from the Inter-Departmental Committee Investigating State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries. This afternoon the report is to be published. It remains to be seen how or whether the Government responds. In either case, today’s events will have an impact on the rest of her days.
She is not alone, nor is her experience exceptional. Survivors can be found all across Ireland, the UK, the US and beyond, each with her own story to tell, all of them anxiously awaiting news from Government Buildings this afternoon.
Some contributed to the work of the interdepartmental committee – they completed surveys, submitted testimony that was often difficult and painful to recall, and travelled to Dublin or London to meet the committee chairman, Senator Martin McAleese, in person.
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.