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Ireland sent girls, women to Catholic workhouses until 1996, report finds

Cathal Mcnaughton / Reuters

A ledger from the Hyde Park Magdalene Laundry showing payments for services is seen on display during a "Magdalene Survivors Together" news conference in Dublin Tuesday.

Ireland’s government was directly involved in sending girls and women to work for nothing in laundries run by Catholic orders, a landmark report published Tuesday concluded.

The report by Irish Senator Martin McAleese found that orphans and abused, neglected or unruly children were among more than 10,000 sent to the Magdalen Laundries from 1922 to 1996.


Some had committed minor crimes, others were simply homeless or poor. Women with mental or physical disabilities and some people with psychiatric illness also found themselves in the laundries.

Their average age, the report found, was 23, but the youngest child was just nine and the oldest known entrant was 89.

Activists called on the government to issue a formal apology and pay compensation, with one group saying those affected had been "treated like slaves."

Their plight came to greater public attention when it was the subject of a 2002 film called The Magdalene Sisters, which used a different spelling.

And in June 2011, the United Nations’ Committee on Torture highlighted allegations of "physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment" and said it was "gravely concerned" at Ireland’s failure to "protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined."

'Traumatic and lasting'
That prompted the Irish government to set up an inquiry chaired by McAleese and its report was published Tuesday afternoon.

"None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, on entering the Laundries — not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong, and not knowing when — if ever — they would  get out and see their families again,” he wrote in his introduction to the report.

"It must have been particularly distressing for those girls who may have been the victims of abuse in the family, wondering why they were the ones who were excluded or penalized by being consigned to an institution," he said.

"To add to this confusion, most found themselves quite alone in what was, by today’s standards, a harsh and physically demanding work environment. The psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting," he added.

The report found that more than a quarter of referrals were "made or facilitated" by the government. Some 61 percent spent less than a year at the facilities, but 7.7 percent were there for 10 years or more.

Some of the women were brought to the laundries by Ireland’s police, the Gardai, "on a more ad hoc or informal basis, for instance where a woman was temporarily homeless; or where, in the years prior to out-of-hours health services, a juvenile girl needed overnight accommodation," the report said.

The report said that "it cannot be excluded that … a desire to protect rate-payers [tax-payers] from the costs of repeated pregnancies outside marriage may have played a part in some referrals of women to the Magdalen Laundries."

In some cases, the women and children were washing clothes for Ireland’s military, health service and department of education.

The report cited testimony from a number of women about the conditions they experienced:

  • One woman who was in three laundries told the inquiry there were "no beatings, only working. Hardest work ever."
  • Another woman said "They were very, very cruel verbally — 'your mother doesn’t want you, why do you think you’re here' and things like that."
  • One said she was put in "a padded cell" three times and told "if I didn’t work there’d be no food and the infirmary."
  • Another woman said that when she wet the bed "they pinned the sheet to me back and I was walking on the veranda with it."
  • "You learned not to ask questions or complain. You couldn’t be forward in any way. Talking was a thing that was seen as sinful," another said.

State 'turned a blind eye'
In a statement, campaign group Justice for Magdalenes called on Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, to issue an apology to the survivors of the laundries and set up a “non-adversarial compensation process.”

"Magdalene survivors have waited too long for justice and this should not be now burdened with either a complicated legal process or a closed-door policy of compensation," the statement said.

Children’s charity Barnardos said in a statement that the report showed the Irish government had "turned a blind eye to the appalling conditions in which Irish citizens lived, while supporting the religious orders who enslaved them in financial and other ways."

"The women who were imprisoned in these Laundries suffered appalling and shaming injustices, often for the whole of their lives, and deserve a full unambiguous apology from the Government," Barnardos' Chief Executive Fergus Finlay said. "These women were treated like slaves and deserve adequate compensation for the work they did."

Responding to the report, Kenny said he was "sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment," but stopped short of making a formal apology on behalf of the state, the Irish Times reported.

Related:

UN panel urges Ireland to probe Catholic torture