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Failure to prevent destruction of records is a further insult to those whose identities were stolen

To treat these records with such contempt is to repeat the contempt shown by Church and State to thousands of women and children

Mark Coen, co-editor of a book on the Donnybrook Magdalene laundry holding copies of a ledger from the laundry from the 1980s which was found in a cupboard: documents like these are not of merely historical interest. They are the traces of real lives. Photograph: Alan Betson

The North is a political basket case and the South works better. Well, if you were incarcerated in or adopted from a mother and baby home or a Magdalene laundry, and you need the State to help you understand your personal history, this assumption gets it the wrong way around. Northern Ireland, even at its most dysfunctional, has managed to stop the records of these institutions from being destroyed, hidden or moved out of the country. The South hasn’t got around to it.

A good place to start is with a cupboard in an empty, old building in Donnybrook in Dublin. In 2018, Mark Coen, who teaches law up the road at UCD, got access from a private developer to what used to be a Magdalene laundry run by the Sisters of Charity. In that cupboard, Coen found financial ledgers dating from the 1960s to the 1990s, along with correspondence from the 1980s. These records had been abandoned in a damp, leaky building that was subject to vandalism and infested with pigeons.

Documents like these are not of merely historical interest. They are the traces of real lives. They contain information that many Irish people still need in order to understand who they are and where they came from. To treat these records with such contempt is to repeat the contempt shown by the Church and State to thousands of women and children.

What’s especially telling about the ledgers that Coen found in Donnybrook is that the public record at the time told a false story about them. The Inter-Departmental Committee tasked with establishing the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene laundries stated that the financial records of the Donnybrook institution “did not survive”. They had been literally consigned to oblivion.


Last week, at a conference held by the Royal Irish Academy, the brilliant human rights lawyer Maeve O’Rourke pointed out that “Access to records means access to identity – and there is hardly a human right more fundamental, or more connected to the concept of human dignity, than the right to identity.”

As O’Rourke stressed, this is not about some kind of favour the State is being asked to confer on those whose identities were stolen from them. It is a legal obligation. The EU’s GDPR legislation give us their right to have access to our personal data. The European Court of Human Rights has established that the right to one’s identity is “a core part of the right to respect for private and family life”.

According to the European Court, “states must provide people with information about their family origins and about their treatment as a person in state care”. And in 2020, the Court of Appeal here in Ireland recognised as an “unenumerated right” in the Constitution, the right to have one’s identity correctly recognised by the State.

I was born in a mother and baby home. The nuns wanted Mammy to sign adoption papersOpens in new window ]

The Government, under pressure from adopted people whose identities were taken away from them at the beginning of their lives, has made real progress towards fulfilling these legal obligations. In 2022 the Dáil brought in the Birth Information and Tracing Act. Adopted people are using it to find out who they are.

This legislation obliges anyone who has birth records to “retain and maintain” them. It gives the Adoption Authority the power to search any premises where it has “reasonable grounds to believe that a relevant record is being kept” and to take possession of the documents. We know, therefore, that the State can lawfully do these things.

The problem, though, is that the relevant records are very narrowly defined. The law as it stands does not oblige religious orders and church dioceses to preserve and make available the administrative archives of the institutions they ran. As far as the State is concerned, the whole written record of how these places functioned is still the private property of the church. These documents can be hidden away, dumped, shredded or moved out of the country with complete impunity.

Access to such records seems to be entirely arbitrary. The Dublin diocese has been very open. But a researcher who was at first given access to the records of the Magdalene laundry in Galway subsequently received a threatening letter from the diocese warning him not to publish anything without its permission, insisting he destroy copies of the material he had gathered, and declaring that the archive of Michael Browne, the imperious bishop of Galway from 1937 to 1976, is now “embargoed”.

In March 2022, in its last act before it went into abeyance, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a simple piece of emergency legislation. It prohibits the destruction or removal of any document relating to Magdalene laundries or mother and baby homes. This is not a complicated law – it took the Assembly just two weeks to pass it.

And it has been very effective. Most of the relevant religious orders in the North are now handing over their archives to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. We thus have the absurd situation that some religious orders are simultaneously preserving and sharing their records north of the Border but concealing them in the South.

Mary’s story: The Magdalene laundry survivor who still lives thereOpens in new window ]

Meanwhile, the Government is going ahead with the establishment of a National Centre for Research and Remembrance on the site of the former Magdalene laundry at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. This vital project is intended to house all the records of the industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. But in the meantime, the Government is doing nothing to prevent the possible destruction, export or concealment of these very records.

The emergency legislation that would do this is already drafted and already working well in the North. If the Assembly in Stormont could manage to pass it in a fortnight, the Dáil and Seanad could do so right now, before they rise for their long summer recess – and before the inevitable autumn election wipes clean the whole slate of impending legislation. It’s the least the State owes to those whose memories were themselves wiped from the record.