Case for greater compassion

 

A full apology to former inmates of the Magdalene laundries on behalf of the State would represent a positive start in dealing with a harsh and distressing chapter of Irish life spanning more than 70 years. Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s decision to delay debate on an official report for two weeks is cause for concern, however, because of blunt denials of any responsibility by previous governments. Involvement and collusion by the State has now been placed beyond doubt and an early, compassionate response is required.

An inquiry under the chairmanship of Senator Martin McAleese has confirmed extensive official State involvement with the laundries while attempting to dispel public misconceptions and place the institutions in the social context of the time. He considered a wholly inaccurate link between the laundries and “fallen women” as the reason many inmates had declined to detail their experiences. Memories of those women who did come forwards were, however, generally negative.

Allegations of sexual abuse were not made against the sisters and the ill-treatment, physical punishment and abuse prevalent in industrial schools were not repeated. There were complaints of mental, rather than physical, cruelty. Laundries were “cold, with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer”. Former inmates spoke of being exploited; of a deep sense of hurt at being locked up; of being denied their names and refused information on when they would be allowed leave.

In spite of a public perception that entry to Magdalene laundries amounted to a life sentence, the average stay came to seven months. Reasons for admission varied widely. More than one-quarter of referrals involved the courts or State agencies; there was a large number of “self-referrals” and families and priests were also active in sending young girls to the institutions. Whatever about the reasons for their incarceration and lack of social supports, their treatment was harsh and uncompromising. Education was not provided – a critical failure – and they received no pay. Welfare stamps were not paid. They were impoverished in every respect.

The religious orders involved co-operated fully. It had been their intention, they said, to provide “refuge and a safe haven”. But they had become aware, through ongoing reflection, that some women had found the experience deeply wounding. This they profoundly regretted. As an apology for a system that had traumatised, dehumanised and caused psychological damage, its careful composition offered little comfort to those affected. In the past, government responses to issues of administrative failure, official connivance or abuse have been legalistic, mealy-mouthed and parsimonious.

These women deserve better and should be treated with generosity and compassion. A decade ago they were denied access to the Residential Institutions Redress Board. They should be brought in from the cold.

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