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The Magdalene slaves: immunity for religious orders must end

It’s 1967. You are fourteen and you sneak out to the cinema which has just opened. You are so excited to see the moving picture that your leg bounces up and down as you wait in line. It is a wonderful experience, and you sneak back into your house, prepared to reflect on it for days to come.

Then, you are caught and physically examined to ensure your enduring virginal state. No matter what the doctor finds, it is too late. You have disgraced your family you are sent to a Catholic laundry to work from dawn to dusk. You wash filthy clothes, make lace handkerchiefs and linen tablecloths for export for profit but you see none of the money. You cannot leave or escape. You are paid nothing. This is the story of thousands of Irish women and girls in the Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church until 1994.

Originally the laundries were set up in the United Kingdom and Ireland as part of the rescue movement to rehabilitate sex workers. However, in Ireland the mandate was extended to include unmarried mothers, girls who had been raped, survivors of incest, girls deemed at risk of falling into sin (becoming sexually active) and girls who were considered to pretty to be pious – the jezebels of the country. Girls were denounced from the altar, in front of the congregation, for unnamed mortal sins because sex and sexuality were utterly taboo.The Catholic Church, which enjoyed a special relationship to the government and within the Constitution, scapegoated female sexuality over and over again, with devastating results.

To understand how Irish parents could withdraw all contact and send their daughters to slave in the laundries, the issue of keeping face must be understood. In a rural Irish village, any action that could bring shame to the family or even cause the neighbours to gossip was ruthlessly crushed. Of course, this dictate was enforced more stringently on women and girls. No proof was required or defence allowed.

Girls in institutional care, run by the Church and funded by the State, were often committed to laundries from which there was no escape. The laundries acted as a sword of Damocles to keep the girls in line. However, with puberty, few could hide their bodies. The nuns seemed to view this development as a personal affront. Many of the estimated 30 000 inmates were already in institutional care.

The conspiracy of silence between the church and the state resulted in a system of slavery. The girls and women would be committed by a priest, nun or family member. They were forced into hard labour, without pay or rest, without the capacity to leave or refuse to work. Physical punishment was routine and harsh. On arrival, each penitent, as they were referred to, received a new name to symbolise her rebirth from sin. If a penitent died in the laundry, she was buried in a communal grave.

The extent of the abuse was revealed in 1993 when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold land in Glasnevin to a property developer. Upon exhumation of a communal grave it was discovered that only 75 of the 133 bodies were named. Since that time, the survivors of the Magdalene laundries and their supporters have been trying to get an apology and compensation from the government. Neither has been forthcoming.

The issue came to a head when last week, the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, issued a statement to make the point that

“In terms of establishing a distinct scheme for former employees of the Magdalen laundries, the situation in relation to children who were taken into the laundries privately or who entered the laundries as adults is quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions.” [source – The Irish Times]

Naturally, women who slaved in the laundries took exception to being referred to as employees. As a result, people from all over Ireland have been ringing the national broadcaster with their stories and the stories of their parents.

Still from "The Magdalene Sisters." A 2002 film by Peter Mullan.
Still from "The Magdalene Sisters." A 2002 film by Peter Mullan.

One such account comes from a woman who, following assurances of an education, left her daughter in a Magdalene laundry. The mother was not gone fifteen minutes before the child was at hard labour. The religious order running the laundry, sent term reports to the mother on the faked educational progress of her daughter. Her daughter never received a day’s education.

In a further ham-fisted attempt to cover up his gaffe, Minister O’Keeffe released a non-apology apology. This has added to the ire of the public. There are calls for his resignation.

The Irish people have a long way to go in terms of admitting what happened behind those closed doors. The conspiracy of silence included many public servants. Nobody blew the whistle on the crimes inflicted on the soul of the country and on the bodies of our children, girls and women. The physical, emotional and sexual abuse that was systemic in institutional care, coupled with the slavery of the Magdalenes, is a trauma that cannot be swept conveniently under the carpet.

An apology from the government and compensation for their suffering is the bare minimum of action. However, I have written to the government to urge the expelling the religious orders involved, the seizing their properties and their records, providing for the needs of the survivors, and constructing a full picture of what happened. The religious orders are immune to prosecution at the moment, but all is takes is a new piece of legislation. I believe the Minister for Education needs to resign as well. Those forced to labour without payment are not “employees.” If the Minister cannot understand this point then perhaps he is not suited to his position.

Perhaps these actions might go some way to showing the survivors take their suffering is recognised and that they are entitled to the same protection as any other citizen, no matter how badly we failed them in the past.

17 thoughts on “The Magdalene slaves: immunity for religious orders must end

  1. Pingback: More Odds and Ends « Mixtapes for Hookers
  2. Let’s be clear about where the compensation would come from: It is not the goverment’s money, it is tax payer’s money.

    Should the current tax payer pay compensation for cruelty of the past by people many of whom have since died?

    Perhaps the most democratic thing to do would be to invite the people of Ireland to contribute individually, whatever they feel is appropriate and then distribute the pool of money to the victims.

    Additionally the wealthy, land-owning catholic institution that were responsible could be force to pay-up and sell their land where necessary.

  3. I am well aware that it is the taxpayer’s money which is why I’ve written to the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice to expel the religious congregations from the country and seize their lands and records. Compensation would be paid from the proceeds.

    It’s not that far in the past. The last laundry closed in 1994 and ultimately that doesn’t matter. The taxpayer is bailing out the banks, the property developers and giving golden parachutes to corrupt incompetent people. We can apologise to these women and ask them what they need. Maybe it’ll be money, counselling, a gated community, or what ever they need. Maybe we can learn from the horrible treatment of the survivors of institutional abuse.

    It was our parents, grandparents, cousins and relatives that purchased the lace and linen made by the slavery of these women. It was our clothes they washed. The clothes of the children who went to boarding school like Batt O Keeffe. So I think we do have a responsibility to ensure that they do not have to struggle at this stage of their lives.

    How does one measure an appropriate amount to pay a slave? Nothing we do can make up for what happened.

  4. Let’s be honest here: yes, it is primarily the fiscal responsibility of State and Church to insure Magdalene survivors receive justice. But at the end of the day, Irish society was also aware and complicit in the remanding of young girls and women to these gulags. Many families were responsible for sending their daughters into a lifetime of servitude.

    This is why our path to justice has been such a hard one. Irish society must own up to its own culpability in the history of the Magdalene Laundries, or we will never be able to move forward. I understand that the authorities — State, Church, Gardai, Courts — must bear the majority brunt. But at the end of the day, we must all be accountable for this injustice.

    If Irish citizens do not wish to bear the burden of potential redress, then I urge you to help us in our campaign to fight for justice for survivors and keep pressure firmly on State and Church.

  5. I have just recently, within the last month, learned of the horror story of that which is the Magdalene’s. I am in the US, however I am of Irish heritage and it disgusts me that I am related in anyway to those who could do such horrible things to people in general, let alone people who needed help! I have done alot of research and I think it’s everyones job to atleast offer some type of support to the Magdalene survivors! Everyone thinks of money when they think of support..these women need counseling or any kind gesture one can offer them! I can not offer them money, because I am a pre-med and a nursing major in college with diabetes and my insulin is expensive. However I will offer anyone needing emotional support help! We all need to think outside the box and the officals in Ireland need to realize that it was a horrible happening that they allowed and the Catholic Chruch needs to address it as well. We are all accountable for our actions and so are they!

    My thoughts and prayers are with the Magdalene survivors and may God forgive those who harmed the Magdalene’s, because God does know I sure won’t!

  6. There is a moral compunction on the religious orders/rogue employers to pay up. All wages including holiday and pension money must be paid. The only thing these religious orders/rogue employers were ever protective of was money.

  7. I was put into a mother and baby home when I was 18, St Patrick’s home, Navan Rd. I was emotionally and phycially abused. I am now nearly 50, and my experience in the home ruined my life. When I applied to the redress board about 5 years ago, I was told that because I was 18, and when in there voluntary, I was not entitled to compensation. The thing is, my mother put me in, with the treat that I’d be on the streets if I didn’t go.
    Just my story……….

  8. I was born in St Patricks in 1955. Fortunately I was adopted by my natural grandparents and grew up with them and my mother.

    My mother is now 83 and years ago she partly told me about her time at St Patricks, having to scrub floors on her hands and knees right up to the time she gave birth to me.

    I’m not sure who my father was, she said he was a baker, a married man. I can’t seem to bring myself to ask her too much about myself, I feel I should just let things lie.

    I admit that I have always felt “lonely”, kind of unnatached. My mum married a chap in 1959 he was from a little place in Cheshire, called Neston. I have 2 sisters, half sisters but I love them both to death.
    My Stepdad was a wonderful man, of course I didn’t realise this until I had grown up and learned to appreciate that he had treated me as his own child and fed, clothed and protected me all through my childhood and youth.

    He passed away when he was 69 years old and my poor old mum still misses him 15 years on, so do I.

    My mum has never complained or spoken about St Patricks, she seemed to think of it as pennance for getting pregnant at the time.

    I still feel lost, I’m a Grandfather of 55 myself now and wish that I’d been able to pluck up the courage and speak to my mum years ago when she was healthy and able to answer me.

    Ah well!! just thought I’d write it down, don’t feel any better though. xx

  9. i was put into manor house castlepollard aged 16 years .i was made work within 10 minutes of being dropped off there.i went in 4 oct 1967 had my daughter 22 jan 1968,i was forced to look after 16 babies including my own from dawn till dusk. i was put scrubbing corradoors .waxing corradoors and buffing up corradoors till sr visatation could see her face in the floors .prior to the birth i was in the laundry .i had pre enclamcia i almost died and was blind for over a week after the birth.when i was pregnant i had cravings for things to eat like all pregnant women i was slapped in the face and told there was no charity dishing out sweets for free.i ran away the follyingjuly 1968 and was waist deep in a bog the woman that ran away with me dragged me out . we arrived in my home town at midnight and were dragged back by the police next day.then out of the blue in september 1968 i was told i could go home .my cousin came from scotland in october took me and my daughter to edinburgh ,but my incaseration was never far away i started drinking smoking became permiscious and a combination of this and bad housing lost my daughter that i fought so hard to keep plus another child i had born in edinburgh was fostered out .my family was not there for me as the month after putting me in the magdalena laundery my mother went to america .i tried on numerous occasions to take my own life as ive never gotten over the stigma of the churches nickname on me as afallen woman. i was given the name francesca when i entered manor house walls and i am still secretly francesca .i am grandmother to 11 grand children but can never be physically expressive or on birthday i dont buy presents ,i dont know how i dont celebrate christmas and hate that time of year as thats when my 3 child was adopted in magdalena laundry in1974 .i was caught up in the bomb blast on 17 may 1974 that destroyed talbot street .i always say i should have died that day .then on 3 october my child was born in hollis street hospital and final adoption papers sighned 26 dec 1974 i was admitted then sectioned to castlebar mental hospital in co mayo .the same night .i since got papers from there and no mention of a baby was mentioned on the hospital paper.so that was hushed up and i ended up being a prisoner drugged to the heavens all for sighning adoption papers that i never wanted to do. where were you my so called irish fatherland .i would have rather took my chances with hitler if it were possable .but the catholic church is just inot worse then him. i never sleep without pills.

  10. My Aunt didn’t survive St Patricks mother and baby home on Navan rd in 1935, The stress of all she had to endure killing her in the guise of a brain haemorrage at age 24 years. Her son my full cousin did not find us till he was an adult, His whole life had been marred by what he learned of his poor mother and we as a family are still suffering the after shocks of it all. All this has come to the surface with his death recently and personal effects that came to the fore with going through his things.Is there anywhere to go to get records for such people and why is Ireland so bad at keeping records.

  11. Does anyone know if there was a Magdalene establishment or similar in the vicinity of Ballycastle, Co Mayo? I recently learned that my late Mum was sent ‘away to a home’ run by nuns, I believe some time in the 1930’s. Her child died in infancy after which she was given her marching orders. Also would records have been kept of his birth? I was absolutely horrified to learn that she had been denounced publicly from the altar prior to been ‘sent away’, (let he who is without sin cast the first stone). They certainly never practised what they preached. I am so sorry to read of the sad sad memories and the lasting effects that the victims of these places have to live with and the awful childhoods some have had to endure.

  12. My mother was in St Patricks Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road. She was there in 1974/5 when she gave birth to 2 girls, twins. After years of searching a social worker found my mum in Cardiff and it was 1 of the best days of my life to finally meet her and her family. She had a horrific life and went through hell to give us a good life. We were adopted together and brought up well in Co.Wexford. We’d like to hear from anyone who was in the Navan Road Mother and Baby Home and hear of there experiences maybe some of mums friends might be around. Thanks Mum xxxx


  14. The true Christian Church is the Coptic Christian Religion in Egypt Their Pope lives in A humble Monastery and is easily accessible to his flock Our Irish Catholic Apostolic Church is not as it seems to be ,it cares more for its Properties and Monies then the poor unfortunates mentioned in the Article above I shudder and cringe at the Irish Peoples adhereance to Machievellian Principles I bet The Vicar of Rome is a disciple of Machievelli “The Prince” Christ was poor and humble and Did not dwell in A Palace with great Material Wealth away from the common People.All the churches victims were treated unhumanely just as Christ was by the Romans.Wake up to the fact that Jesus was a SOCIAL REVOLUTIONARY

  15. Was in St Patricks for five montbs in 1963 . I was 17 entering tbe home and 18 whe I had my baby iremember a girl fro. Kilkenny Mary Maher she was Godmotherto my baby there was another girl called Mary Butler from Limerick there was a nurse there that helped me her name was Devlinonly stayex about 3 nights worked right up to night my baby was born would lime to hear any more info xx

  16. Dear readers
    I would be ever so gratefull if anyone knowns how I could find out if a relative of mine was in the asylum in castle bar her name was Anne O’Brien born 1916 in the 1930s she disappeared not sure if she was sent to the laundries first but I do know she ended up in the asylum for the mentally ill Anne was born in Midfield Swinford CoMayo her Brother was my Grandfather .
    Best Wishes

  17. My Mother, Bernadette(Beryl) Mary Morris was in St Pats Navan Road 1974/5
    I never saw her again and miss her and think of her every minute of every day.
    John Paul morris

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