Magdalene survivors are still seeking justice

One thing that would help rectify the failings of the McAleese Report into the Magdalene Laundries would be to include them in the mother-and-baby home inquiry, writes Claire McGettrick

THE Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) on the Magdalene Laundries vindicated Justice for Magdalenes’ (JFM, now JFM Research) contention of extensive state involvement with these institutions.

However, the IDC also went well beyond its mandate and produced a report offering an inaccurate and incomplete representation of the experiences of those who were incarcerated against their will.

The McAleese Report utterly failed the Magdalene women, both living and dead, and their families.

The ‘Magdalene Names Project’ is a JFM Research initiative which examines various archives and records, including gravestones, census records, electoral registers, exhumation orders and newspaper archives.

Primarily, the project seeks to offer a narrative that honours the lives of those who lived and died behind Magdalene Laundry walls. However, the research also sheds light on other matters, not least the issue of how long women were confined.

According to the McAleese Report, 61% of known entries spent less than a year in Ireland’s 10 Magdalene institutions. Unfortunately, as the IDC chose to return records to the religious orders and destroy all copies, it is not possible to verify this assertion.

However, the Names Project’s initial findings, based on comparisons between Magdalene grave records and electoral registers, cast serious doubt on the IDC’s position.

JFMR was able to conduct a comparison of the electoral registers from 1954-55 against the electoral register for 1963-64, revealing the number of women who appear to have spent at least nine years in the laundries and a comparison of the electoral register for 1955-56 against the electoral register for 1963-64, showing how many women appear to have been confined for a minimum of eight years. 

In the case of High Park, 63.4% of the women who appear on the electoral register in 1954-55 also appear on the electoral register for 1963-64, revealing that they spent a minimum of nine years confined and 61.4% of the women from 1955-56 were there for a minimum of eight years.  The electoral registers for the Donnybrook laundry reveal similar results with 63.1% in 1954-55 incarcerated for a minimum of nine years and 67.9% of those in 1955-56 incarcerated for a minimum of eight years.

Most disturbing are the numbers of women who never got to leave. In Donnybrook’s case, the available electoral registers for 1954-64 indicate that over half of these women are buried in the graveyard at the old laundry site, while almost 30% of the women in High Park during the same time frame are buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

JFM was founded in 2003 on foot of revelations about the exhumations at High Park laundry in Drumcondra.

Ten years earlier, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold some of their property after incurring losses on the stock exchange and successfully applied to the Department of the Environment for an order to exhume the remains of 133 women buried on the site.

After the undertakers discovered an additional 22 remains during the exhumation, the Department supplied an additional order to allow the removal of ‘all human remains’.

The Sisters told the Department that they could not produce death certificates for 58 of the women on the initial exhumation order, 24 of whom appear under quasi-religious names, denying them their birth identity.

The remains of all but one of the 155 women were then cremated and re-interred at Glasnevin Cemetery. It is unfathomable that this issue remains unresolved 11 years after Mary Raftery first shone light on it.

JFM repeatedly brought High Park to the attention of the IDC. However, the McAleese Report offers a flimsy explanation of the circumstances surrounding the exhumations, leaving more questions than answers.

The reader is expected to take the report’s analysis at face value; for example, it relies on research carried out by the religious order on its own records, research that is neither supplied in the appendices nor available in the public domain.

Incredibly, the IDC chose to accept an ‘administrative reason’ (the absence of archived or catalogued records) as explanation for the serious anomalies surrounding the exhumations.

JFM raised other issues concerning Magdalene Laundry deaths with the IDC. However, Chapter 16 of the McAleese Report ignores these aspects of our Principal Submission.

For instance, questions remain about a 30-year gap in the grave records for the Good Shepherd Laundry at Sunday’s Well in Cork. In fact, the Report makes no reference to there being any issue at Sunday’s Well and offers no explanation as to whether there is another grave location and/or if the Good Shepherd Sisters are still in possession of all records for women and girls incarcerated in their institution.

And, the Report fails to address the fact that a number of names are duplicated on different Sunday’s Well grave sites, with the same woman’s name and the same date of death — as reported in the Irish Examiner.

Perhaps the gravest failing of Chapter 16 of Martin McAleese’s Report is the exclusion of the deaths of former Magdalene women in institutionalised settings after the closure of the laundries.

The Report categorises these women as ‘nursing home’ deaths, denying in death their identity as Magdalenes, which deprived them of human dignity in life.

Moreover, it fails to quantify the extent of these deaths.

This elision may explain why JFM Research has the names of 190 women whose existence is not included in the McAleese Report.

By the same token, we remain stymied by the Report’s inclusion of 185 women from High Park and Sean McDermott Street that we were previously unaware of and whose burial place remains a mystery. This is not surprising however, considering the Report absolutely ignores the issue of unmarked graves.

The Report unquestionably reflects the information provided by the religious orders, and only that information.

JFM was founded by three adopted women, two of whom are daughters of Magdalene women, and the organisation has always been keenly aware of the linkages between the two issues. Most adopted people assume their natural mothers went on to have happy lives, and those who discover that their mothers never saw freedom experience shock, sadness and betrayal by the State.

For those adopted people whose mothers died in the Magdalene Laundries or remain institutionalised under the nuns’ charge, they deserve access to the truth. They are entitled to know the fate of their mothers. At a bare minimum, they are entitled to the location of a grave with their mother’s name inscribed on it.

The McAleese Report failed to deliver these basic entitlements to the Magdalene women and their families. There is now an opportunity to rectify this failure by including the Magdalene Laundries in the forthcoming Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation.

It is the very least the Irish State should do.

Claire McGettrick is co-founder of JFM Research and co-ordinator of the Magdalene Names Project


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