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Magdalene girl: ‘I cried for weeks and weeks. I was nobody. I was 16’

CLAIMING that the new “information wasn’t available” when he rejected a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors, Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe’s response rings hollow (Irish Examiner, December 17). It is important, moreover, to emphasise that evidence of state complicity rests not only with the materials laid before the Department of Justice on December 14.

Indeed, the Department of Education must also acknowledge its own complicity in this matter.

Had officials from the department attended the scheduled meeting with Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), I would have pointed to the department’s awareness of children being placed in Magdalene laundries as late as 1970 (beyond those transferred from state residential institutions).

This awareness never led to direct corrective action or intervention. Indeed it is still unacknowledged. As such, it calls into question the department’s commitment to “cherish all of the children of the nation equally”.

The Reformatory and Industrial School Systems Report 1970 (ie, the Kennedy Report), commissioned by the Department of Education, documents two distinct populations of children so confined. In a discussion of children placed in “religious convents” by “parents, relatives, social workers, welfare officers, clergy or garda”, the report states that “the committee is satisfied that there are at least 70 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 confined in this way who should properly be dealt with under the reformatory schools’ system”.

Likewise, in a table attempting to capture the “total number of children in care”, the report asserts that there were 617 children resident in “voluntary homes which have not applied for approval”. As the department can affirm, these “voluntary homes” were typically Magdalene laundries and other “religious convents”.

The report’s two figures – 70 and 617 – offer a snapshot for the scale of the problem in 1968/’69. My questions to the officials from the Department of Education, again if they had attended, would have been the following:

1. Given the department’s awareness, and the moral and constitutional obligations to protect children and provide a basic minimum education, can the minister now account for each of these children?

2. Given its awareness that children were being “cared” for in these institutions, did the department ever visit, inspect or license these “religious homes”?

I ask these two questions in light of the Ryan report offering a window into what life was like for children transferred to the laundries from a residential institution.

We are told the regime was “like a prison”, that doors were locked all the time ... working conditions were harsh, “constantly washing laundry in cold water and using heavy irons for many hours”. One survivor remembers her child labour: “I did collars; you had to keep ironing them until they became real stiff. There was a little wooden thing you could stand on.”

One young girl remembers being “put in the middle of older and middle-aged women. I cried for weeks and weeks on end. I was nobody. I was 16”.

In his letter rejecting a distinct redress scheme (September 4, 2009), Minister O’Keeffe asserts: “The situation in relation to children who were taken into the laundries privately is quite different to persons who were resident in state-run institutions”. But surely when one is addressing institutional child abuse such distinctions are meaningless. Either it was child abuse or it wasn’t. How a child ended up in the laundries is hardly the issue at hand.

Finally, it is disingenuous for the Department of Education to infer that the new evidence presented to Department of Justice officials on December 14 wasn’t available in September when Minister O’Keeffe rejected the JFM proposal.

Indeed, the proposed scheme was first circulated to all members of Dáil Éireann on July 3 last and both the “key terms” and “elements of an apology” sections refer explicitly to women referred to and/or placed “on remand” in the laundries by the courts. Likewise, I wrote to the Taoiseach on September, 22, 2009, and outlined in some detail the evidence of state complicity. Mr O’Keeffe was copied on that letter, as were other ministers. I am still awaiting a formal response.

After the “scheduling error” on Monday, December 14, an official from the Department of Education spoke with me by phone the following afternoon and I offered to meet with him later that evening. I also offered to meet on Wednesday morning (December 16) before travelling back to Boston. Neither offer was taken up.

In conclusion, it is significant that the Department of Justice has come forth and accepted its role in placing women “on remand” at the Seán McDermott Street Laundry. The Department of Justice is also examining other archival material addressing women placed “on probation,” and it is formulating a response to a series of questions put to them at our meeting.

Hopefully, the New Year might see the Department of Education resolve to do likewise.

Dr James M Smith

Associate Professor

English Department and Irish Studies Programme

Boston College

Connolly House

300 Hammond Street

Chestnut Hill

Massachusetts 02467

USA


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