Analysis by Claire O’Sullivan
THE 145 pages of Justice for Magdalene’s submission to the inter-departmental committee investigating State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries makes you ashamed to be Irish.
Reading it, you can’t help but feel repulsed, sickened and deeply ashamed — disgusted that any human being, let alone religious organisation, could treat another human being in such a way and that the Irish State could stand idly by and let it happen.
JFM describes from testimony how the women suffered abuse of various kinds — their hair was forcibly cut, they were beaten with belts until they bled and once the door to the outside world was shut on them, they were referred to by number not by name.
Over the course of the submission, JFM hold religious orders and the State directly and indirectly responsible for systematically humiliating, imprisoning and enslaving thousands of young Irish girls.
The submission made to Senator Martin McAleese’s committee is 145 pages long but includes a 30-page index explaining the 3,707 pages of archival evidence, legislation, and other materials including 795 pages of survivor testimony.
According to the submission, the State sent women and girls to the laundries and ensured “they remained there — in most cases, without any statutory basis for doing so”.
JFM argue that the State used the laundries as a way of dealing with births outside marriage, poverty, homelessness, promiscuity, domestic and sexual abuse as well as youth crime and infanticide. It chose to enslave women with the nuns rather than develop a female borstal.
“It repeatedly sought to funnel diverse populations of women and girls to the Magdalene Laundries and in return, the religious orders obtained an entirely unpaid and literally captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises,” they wrote.
Survivors and witnesses told JFM how the women washed, ironed and sewed from dawn to dusk, were regularly beaten, not allowed to talk to one another and punished if they laughed. There was no regard whatsoever for their health or medical needs. If they stepped out of line, they were “put down the hole”.
“This was a four by four room… There was nothing in it, only a bench — no windows. You were put in there; your hair was cut, more or less off completely. Your hair was cut, and you were there all day without anything to eat,” one woman recalled.
Even for the “good” girls and women upstairs, food was scarce. Mary C recalled “they were out rooting in the bins — they were rooting in the bins... They were hungry.”
The women and girls in the laundries were also denied contact with girls in other convent complexes. In Limerick, the nuns kept women separate from children in the industrial school, often their own children.
One witness described how a “lady in particular didn’t know that after she gave birth, her daughter was brought up in the same complex and remained there until she was 16 years old”.
“My worst memory goes back to that lady and her daughter... the daughter at one end of the church and the mother at the other end of the church and neither of the two of them knowing each was there. There is something wrong with a society that permitted that sort of thing to go on. There is something wrong.”
Meanwhile, Ciaran C, the laundry manager in Limerick, said the laundry was designed so the women could not see out or be seen inside.
He recounted to JFM how the nuns split two sisters, sending one to New Ross and the other to Limerick “and that they did not tell M that her sister had died for a year — and then only to punish her”. When being castigated for some misdemeanour they told her: “Oh by the way, your sister died last year’, just like that. So M had a nervous breakdown, and her nerves were never 100% afterwards.”
Another woman, Sara W, said that during her time in Donnybrook the nuns did not tell her her mother had died, so “I was writing to my mother, that was dead... I wrote to my mother every week but got no reply”.
In return for taking these women, the nuns got direct capitation grants from the State and also valuable state contracts for cleaning laundry and commercial laundry work from various Government departments and agencies. Such was their faith in the religious orders, the State chose not to supervise the religious orders’ operation of the Magdalene Laundries.
THE State also failed to enforce its own health and safety legislation in the laundries and turned a blind eye to the fact these school-age girls weren’t receiving an education, weren’t being paid for working 12-hour days and had been cut off from family, friends and the outside world.
JFM also demonstrate how the State never ensured that social welfare contributions were being paid for this secret workforce and never questioned why women who were sent in on probation never again exited.
In the words of the report’s authors: “If [as the survivors unanimously say] they were not free to leave, the committee needs then to determine on what basis the State allowed [and indeed helped] one group of Irish citizens [the nuns] to imprison another group [the women and girls] without lawful authority.”
* The final report of the inter-departmental committee investigating State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries is due to be published at the end of the year. JFM were instrumental in bringing about the investigation, which is chaired by Senator Martin McAleese
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