Ireland Fund honours former law student for Magdalene laundries work

Studying law in University College Dublin, Killiney-born Maeve O’Rourke left for a year in Minnesota in the United States to …

Studying law in University College Dublin, Killiney-born Maeve O’Rourke left for a year in Minnesota in the United States to study human rights, a passion for the 26-year-old since she was a teenager.

There, she got a job as a law clerk with the University of Minnesota’s internationally regarded human rights centre. Soon, she was helping lawyers involved in preparing the defence for detainees held by the US military in Guantánamo.

Facing Republicans’ claims in the US Senate that waterboarding is not torture, O’Rourke strove to show it was illegal in US and international law.

Returning to UCD to finish her final undergraduate year “with a greater passion” for human rights, O’Rourke was soon off again once the law degree was safely secured, this time to Harvard to complete her master’s.


There, she read the Ryan report into decades of abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools, though she soon noticed that the girls and women held often for decades in the Magdalene laundries had been excluded.

Late one evening, she visited internationally celebrated lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, an International Criminal Court adviser, to voice her concerns. “She said to me, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”

‘Compelling and devastating’

Since then, O’Rourke, now a pupil-barrister in London, has heeded the advice, becoming involved in the Justice for Magdalene group – work that led to her being honoured by the Ireland Fund of Great Britain last night for gathering “accurate, compelling and often devastating testimony”.

During schooldays in Loreto Dalkey, she had studied Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s 1965 book An Triall, which traces the life of a young single mother in the west of Ireland made pregnant by the local primary school teacher and shunned by her community afterwards.

She saw the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, but “it had never actually hit me that this was so real, so pervasive and so horrific, or that so many women alive who had gone through this were still alive, yet we hadn’t done anything about this”.

Working with Boston College professor Jim Smith, O’Rourke prepared a legal submission in 2009 rejecting the State’s declaration that it was not responsible for the Magdalene laundries and therefore not liable.

“Jim had evidence that the courts had been directly involved in referring women and girls to laundries; there had been official policies that so-called second-time offenders would be detained there,” she said.

“The State had had its laundry washed there. We knew from Ryan that girls had ended up there directly from industrial schools and there was a very clear knowledge. It all meant that the State was well aware of what was happening in the laundries.

“The State’s acknowledged failures to regulate, inspect and monitor actually amounted to gross and systematic violations of those women and girls’ human rights under human rights instruments that existed way back then.”

‘Violation of obligations’

“It was a violation of obligations to prevent slavery, forced labour and servitude,” she said.

Having arrived in London, O’Rourke gathered testimony from former Magdalene inmates, learning that gardaí brought some back after escape bids.

“I was shocked by the age of the women when they were sent in. They were only girls. The youngest I met was 14 but we have as a group met women who were sent in as young as 11,” she said.

Decades on, some are still afraid to travel to Ireland. Others quit after a day or so if they come back.

“They have this fear of being caught and put back in, as they put it. Yes, they know it is not rational, but it is the effect of the trauma.”

Next week, Senator Martin McAleese’s report will go to the Government, followed by publication three weeks later.

“What we want to see is the Government preparing to apologise to the women and to make what amends it can for pensions, an apology and services,” Ms O’Rourke said.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is a Project Editor with The Irish Times.