The Magdalene women


IN JUNE 2009, just over a month after publication of the Ryan report, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly spoke candidly about 20th century Irish society. “If things were hidden, they were hidden in clear sight, the crocodile lines of boys and girls that streamed out of the institutions, the certain knowledge that corporal punishment at the very least was practised therein, the incarcerated Magdalene women in their Madonna blues and whites who walked the open streets of towns and villages in church processions. Judges knew, lawyers knew, teachers knew, civil servants knew, childcare workers knew, gardaí knew. Not to know was not an option,” she said.

No one, anymore, can deny the truth about the dark side of a lesser Ireland and its treatment of vulnerable women and children. That is what makes it disappointing that, in its otherwise welcome statement on the Magdalene laundries, the Government did not go that crucial step further and make a formal apology on behalf of Ireland to those women whose plight was ignored completely throughout the State’s existence. Most of the women spent their lives enslaved, robbed of dignity, identity and all their human rights.

In one of those biting ironies of history the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland, which closed in 1996, was located on Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin. It is named after the executed signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence which promised to cherish all the children of the nation equally. Could there be a more bitter comment on 20th century Ireland?

A formal apology is what the women survivors of those laundries want above all else. It would help establish their sense of equal citizenship. It would help restore some of their shattered self-esteem. It might help ease the stigma they still feel and others still feel towards them.

In May 1999 then taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to the men and women who, as children, had been abused in State residential institutions managed by religious congregations. For those former residents his apology on behalf of Ireland was of greatest significance. This Government should apologise similarly to the Magdalene women but is concerned about legal implications: in other words the financial consequences of doing so. Yet mechanisms are already in place whereby those financial implications can be addressed.

The Ryan report recommended that the 18 religious congregations involved in managing residential institutions for children should share with the State half the costs incurred in redress and reparation for former residents. Those congregations include the four which ran the Magdalene laundries. They and the State have already agreed to share redress costs and that a substantial amount be set aside for late applicants with real reasons for being late. These should include surviving Magdalene women. Elderly, poor and poorly educated, small in number and for so long invisible, the speedy and satisfactory amelioration of their difficult lives is a moral imperative on Ireland today.