Every section of society let Magdalene women down


‘There is no single or simple story of the Magdalene laundries.” By the time you finish ploughing through it, it becomes more and more clear that the opening sentence of Martin McAleese’s report is an understatement.

Was there any section of Irish society that did not have some involvement in the Magdalene laundries? There were the religious orders that ran them; but family members, priests, the Legion of Mary, the NSPCC, the courts, gardaí, industrial schools, mother-and-baby homes, psychiatric hospitals – they all sent women there. Even the Old IRA took 17 women to the laundries during the 1920s.

Some 16 per cent of the total were “self-referrals”. Think of the situations these girls and women must have faced that made the Magdalene laundry seem like the least bad option.

Why were the rest there? Poverty, intellectual disability, epilepsy, petty crime, psychiatric illness, sexual and physical abuse in the home – all of these were deemed sufficient reason, as was being “taken advantage of”, or even being in danger of being taken advantage of. Just being disobedient at home, or staying out late at night, were sometimes reason enough.

Among the litany of tragic cases, some still stand out. One 1940s case concerned two girls aged 12 years 9 months and 13 years 5 months, who were found guilty of “loitering and importuning for the purposes of prostitution”. Six men were subsequently charged in relation to having paid for sex with them. These two girls, who today would be in first or second year in second-level schools, were exploited as prostitutes. One would have thought that the fact they were victims of sexual abuse at such a young age would have inspired compassion, but no.

They were deemed to be so steeped in immorality that they were a threat to the other girls in Limerick Reformatory who were mostly there for petty crime, and were therefore transferred to laundries.

It all seems so horrific, and so long ago, until you recall that Ireland still has a disgraceful record on prostitution.

In 2010, Irish man Thomas J Carroll was jailed in Cardiff for seven years for running, from a house in Wales, more than 35 brothels around Ireland. Among his victims were six girls trafficked from Nigeria, the youngest of whom was 15. They were subjected to debt bondage, voodoo rituals and threats of violence.

According to the Guardian, “all came from poor family backgrounds, having lost one or both parents, and were promised a better life away from their remote, rural villages”. Women worked 12 to 15 hours a day, and were absolutely terrified and browbeaten.

Carroll made so much money he received an additional fine of £2 million. The only reason he could make that money was because of men willing to pay for exploitation.

And the only reason that there were 10 Magdalene laundries in Ireland was because there was no safety net for women who were poor, or abandoned, or who had intellectual disabilities, or were victims of abuse. They were cold, punitive, rigid places of hard labour without payment. Yet in one out of 10 cases, their families took them there. In some cases they returned to take them home. In others, they never made contact again.

Irish society had a massive blind spot about how awful this “solution” was. We have plenty of other blind spots. A shocking report was published last September that described small babies without adequate food, and children being at risk of abuse due to overcrowded accommodation, which included sharing toilet facilities with numerous strangers.

The Irish Refugee Council report State-Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion concerns children in the State’s “direct provision” asylum accommodation centres. There was no public outrage, no demand for State apologies.

In January, the Irish Primary Principals Network said that as a consequence of food poverty, schools are seeing far more children arriving hungry and therefore unable to learn properly.

None of this is to detract from, or minimise, the suffering experienced by women in the Magdalene laundries. They are a small group of women, many of them now elderly. They deserve recognition, apology and recompense.

The Taoiseach has been widely condemned for his failure to apologise, and it is difficult not to believe that his reticence resulted from the financial implications of an apology being parsed and analysed by the gimlet eye of a lawyer.

No one wants a rerun of the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which by December last had seen €172 million in fees paid to lawyers alone. But there are probably only 800 to 1,000 women still alive who were in the laundries, and some of them do not even feel free to admit their past to their families, much less look for financial redress.

If we cannot ensure care and compensation for these women, we are poor indeed. Some part of me feels that aside from official acknowledgment, a fund to which individuals and institutions could contribute should be established as an act of social solidarity; not to let the State or anyone else off the hook, but to acknowledge that these were sisters, daughters, cousins, aunts, nieces and mothers, and every section of Irish society let them down.

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