Focus on redress:  Survivors of Magdalene laundries faced long battle for recognition

The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, but their effect is still being felt, writes Áine Kenny
Focus on redress:  Survivors of Magdalene laundries faced long battle for recognition

Elizabeth Coppin at the age of 14 was sent to a Magdalene laundry in Peacock Lane in Cork. Picture: Andrew Dunsmore

The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, but their effect is still being felt, writes Áine Kenny

The scheme explained 

Magdalene laundries were just some of the many horrific institutions that were common in 20th-century Ireland.

Women were often sent to the laundries after spending time in a county home, industrial school, or mother and baby home.

Survivors have spoken about how they were forced to carry out gruelling labour in the laundries, with no payment.

Others say the religious orders and staff in these institutions would verbally and even physically abuse them.

Magdalene laundries were in operation until 1996 when the laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin finally closed.

The Government finally started to examine Magdalene laundries in 2011, after years of campaigning from survivors.

In June of that year, an inter-departmental committee, independently chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, was tasked with examining the extent of the State's involvement with the Magdalene laundries.

The McAleese Report was published in February 2013,  prompting then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny to issue a State apology to Magdalene survivors. He also promised a restorative justice scheme.

A retired judge, Mr Justice John Quirke, was tasked with compiling a report on how the scheme should be administered. His report, published in June 2013, was accepted by the Government, which promised to implement all of his recommendations.

In July 2013, an inter-departmental group was established to design the redress scheme.

The terms of the scheme were finalised in December 2013, and survivors could then begin to apply.

Women who applied and were successful were given ex-gratia (non-taxed) payments based on the length of time they were in the laundries. The maximum payment offered was €100,000.

Successful applicants were also entitled to a State contributory pension of €230 per week.

Those who availed of the scheme had to sign a waiver stating they would not pursue any legal action against the state, and they were also barred from seeking compensation from any future tribunal, as per Justice Quirke's recommendations.

Twelve Magdalene institutions were included in the initial terms of the scheme.

A view of a plaque dedicated to Magdalene Laundry survivors in St Stephens Green in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A view of a plaque dedicated to Magdalene Laundry survivors in St Stephens Green in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

However, survivors soon discovered that if they worked in the Magdalene laundries but lived in an adjoining institution, such as a training centre or industrial school, they were not entitled to the scheme.

In November 2017 the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, published a critical report about how the government was administering the redress scheme.

He said that women who worked in the laundries but lived in adjoining institutions should be entitled to avail of the scheme.

Mr Tyndall also noted that women were asked to submit records to prove they worked in the laundries, but many did not have access to their own information.

He noted that applicants provided testimony, as well as letters and statements from family and friends, to support their account of events. "However, in reality, such testimony does not appear to have been given much weight," the report reads.

My Tyndall also said religious orders' information was given a "supremacy'' over survivor testimony, and the Department often failed to get actual copies of the records in question.

The issue of adjoining institutions was resolved in 2018 and 14 more institutions were added to the scheme.

But survivors say there is another serious failure: the HAA card.

Irish Examiner ragout reaction to Magdalene laundry revelations.
Irish Examiner ragout reaction to Magdalene laundry revelations.

Justice Quirke said in his report that Magdalene survivors should be entitled to an enhanced medical card, similar to the HAA card given to those infected with Hepatitis C through blood donations.

This card entitles people to free GP care, prescriptions, ophthalmology, audiology, home care and nursing, counselling, physio and chiropody, as well as complementary therapies like acupuncture, reflexology and aromatherapy.

While some women received a medical card under the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015, it is not equal to a HAA card.

Dr Maeve O'Rourke, who is part of the Justice For Magdalenes Research group, has written to government officials in relation to the HAA card.

"HAA cardholders' access to a large array of private healthcare services was an important reason for Judge Quirke’s recommendation for Magdalene survivors," she says.

Dr O'Rourke says she has been contacted by numerous Magdalene survivors who are waiting for medical care, walking aids, and home help, but cannot access these services as their medical card only puts them on the public waiting list.

Dr O'Rourke says elderly women could be re-institutionalised because they cannot access the healthcare they need to stay at home.

She adds that survivors don't have access to stress-relieving complementary therapies, unlike HAA cardholders.

Department  Responsibility for the scheme transferred from the Department of Justice to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth last year.

Just over €32 million has been paid to 805 applicants to date.

In response to queries from the Irish Examiner, the Department of Children said: "Justice Quirke recommended that the women should receive medical services equivalent to those provided by the holder of a HAA card. He also advised that not all of the services described in the Guide for women infected with Hepatitis C may be directly relevant to the Magdalene women."

The Department said that women are provided with an enhanced medical card. "[This covers] GP services, prescribed drugs, medicines, aids and appliances, dental, ophthalmic and aural services, home support, home nursing, counselling services, chiropody, podiatry and physiotherapy."

With regards to women living abroad, the Department said the HSE set up the Redress Reimbursement Scheme 2015.

"If a cardholder is charged for one of these services the Scheme will arrange to reimburse the charge. Cardholders are asked to keep all receipts and invoices for relevant medical services in order to make a claim."

When asked about a dedicated unit for Magdalene women, the Department said: "The recommendation regarding a “Dedicated Unit” [was to disseminate] information to the Magdalen women in relation to their monetary, health, housing and other needs. To a large extent, those services are now being provided on a cross Departmental basis."

The Department added that the Restorative Justice Implementation Unit engages directly with Magdalene women, and there is a Citizens Information Board for the general public.  "Given these services, the issue of whether there remains a need for a “dedicated unit” as envisaged in the Quirke Report is being kept under review."

The Department also said work is ongoing in relation to a memorial. "Sites were identified at High Park, Drumcondra and Sean McDermott Street, both located in Dublin and each former sites of laundries. The Government is committed to the objective to provide a suitable memorial."

Case study: Elizabeth Coppin

Elizabeth Coppin now lives in Cambridgeshire in England, but she was born to her mother, who was unmarried, in St Columbanus’s county home in Killarney in 1949.

She was put into an industrial school by the courts when she was two.

When she was 14, she was sent to a Magdalene laundry in Peacock Lane in Cork.

She escaped in 1966, but was tracked down and forced to return, and then moved to a laundry in Sunday’s Well, Cork.

The following year she was moved to St Mary’s laundry in Waterford, and she was finally released in 1968, aged 18. The next year, she emigrated to England. "I fled persecution," says Ms Coppin.

She says she was forced to work and live in harsh conditions and suffered extreme psychological and physical abuse during her time in the industrial school and laundries.

She has been battling the Irish state as well as the religious orders for years, trying to get justice.

She initially reported the abuse she suffered in the laundries to the gardaí in the late 1990s, but it was never followed up.

Elizabeth Coppin now lives in Cambridgeshire in England.
Elizabeth Coppin now lives in Cambridgeshire in England.

In 2000, she tried to take a case against the religious orders and Irish state in the High Court, but this was struck out due to the statute of limitations.

The Magdalene redress scheme offered Ms Coppin compensation, but the state did not admit liability.

"The Government has not honoured all of Justice Quirke's recommendations either," Ms Coppin adds.

Ms Coppin has also been trying to access the HAA card for many years.

"In 2018 I was so ill. The NHS has long waiting lists and it's underfunded. I kept going to my doctor, he wrote to the Minister for Justice about the HAA card for me. He never got a reply."

Ms Coppin wrote to the Department of Health about the issue, and they wrote back, saying the Magdalene redress scheme's healthcare doesn't include complementary therapies such as hydrotherapy, acupuncture and reflexology.

Ms Coppin would also like to see private health services paid for in advance. Under the Redress Reimbursement Scheme, her healthcare costs can be reimbursed, but she can't afford to pay outright. "It's an insult again, to ask us to pay out up front and keep our receipts and invoices."

She also points out the Quirke report recommended a dedicated unit for Magdalene survivors, to help and advise them, as well to connect survivors. "If it wasn't for Maeve O'Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Nora Casey and Katherine O'Donnell, we would never have had a reunion."

Memorialisation was also recommended. "That hasn't happened. I wrote to Roderic O'Gorman and suggested we should have a memorial day for all survivors of institutions."

She also believes that the way the investigations and redress has been administered fails to examine how children and women were moved between various institutions.

"It's piecemeal. It's a deliberate, psychological ploy... I don't think the government wants to listen to anyone.. Why am I still fighting? Why am I so angry still?"

Ms Coppin says she will keep fighting until the day she dies. She is taking her case all the way to the UN Committee Against Torture.

"I am exhausted and drained at times, but I won't give up. I have to take all this continued abuse, emotional and psychological, instead of living life."

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