FEARLESS” is one word that sums up the approach of the late Mary Raftery, the woman who shone a light on so many dark corners of Irish society, including the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries.
Add to that the word “effective” and you will get a notion of the legacy she left behind when she died in January of last year at the age of 54.
A third word, “relentless”, describes her courage and tenacity in raising the ghosts of the past and in exposing all forms of abuse in Ireland.
She brought all three characteristics to bear when she produced her seminal television work, States of Fear, a documentary series that revealed the physical and sexual abuse suffered by children in Irish industrial schools and residential institutions. It was broadcast by RTÉ between April and May of 1999.
Such was the widespread revulsion generated by the programme that before the third part had even been broadcast the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, issued a public apology to victims of institutional abuse on behalf of the State.
The same year the Ryan Commission was formed to investigate the extent of the abuse, with Justice Sean Ryan revealing a system of unthinkable horrors, abetted by the State, that treated children like prison inmates and slaves.
Three years later, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which has to date compensated about 14,000 victims, was set up. Both emerged directly as a result of Raftery’s work.
Cardinal Secrets, her 2002 exposé with journalist Mick Peelo, examined the cover-up of child sex abuse allegations, and led to the setting up of the Murphy Commission investigating clerical abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese.
In Aug 2003 she wrote of the 1993 exhumation of 155 women’s remains at the High Park Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra, Dublin. As a result, a small group of women formed the Magdalene memorial committee to establish a memorial to the women. This included a park bench placed in St Stephen’s Green and a ceremony of remembrance, which took place in 1996. Later, when the remains exhumed from High Park Convent were reinterred at Glasnevin cemetery, memorial gravestones were installed. Flowers are still left there every day.
Once the committee’s goals were met it eventually disbanded until 2003, when Raftery broke the story of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the High Park exhumations.
Several women, some of whom had mothers who spent time behind the Magdalene walls, resurrected the organisation which in 2004 emerged to become Justice for Magdalenes.
Writing in The Irish Times, Raftery revealed disturbing details regarding the exhumation, cremation, and reburial of the women who had lived and died at the asylum operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.
Buried between 1858 and 1984 and interred anonymously, these women were denied a proper burial and final resting place. The religious order sought and received the required state licence to exhume the bodies in 1993. However, the licence listed only 133 sets of remains. Death certificates were missing and it was through Raftery’s revelations, 10 years later, that Irish society learned about the 22 bodies for which the nuns could not account.
Her last TV documentary, Behind the Walls, which she worked on while she dying of cancer, was broadcast in Sept 2011 and examined the history of Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals.
It lifted the lid on this vast system, revealing how, during the 1940s and 50s, Ireland led the world in locking up more of its people per capita in mental hospitals, ahead even of the old Soviet Union.
During her career she also exposed deaths in Garda custody, medical negligence and the activities of property developers.