One Last Chance for Enda to Provide Justice for the Women Who Were Shut Away in the Laundries

I’ve just read the Justice for Magdalene’s redacted submission to the McAleese committee.  It has been released to balance and correct some impressions conveyed by the McAleese report. None of the hundreds of pages of accounts of individual women was quoted by McAleese. I haven’t read McAleese’s report yet, and plan to give it a try today – although at 1,000 pages it will have to be a fast read.

The Press and some politicians and commentators are using the McAleese Report to say that the laundries were “not like the films.” McAleese interviewed 50 women, the rest of the Committee did not meet any. They had no remit to investigate the treatment of the women in the laundries or to make findings on this. The first thing to remember about the McAleese Report is that the brief was to investigate State links with the laundries, not to explore what went on inside them.   All of the Committee members bar McAleese were civil servant representatives of implicated State Departments. McAleese who has close associations with the Church, resigned his position as Senator and left Ireland without making himself available to the press to answer questions on his report.  

The Justice for Magdalene’s earlier reports show the State’s role, and were in part what forced the Government to act. The State was responsible by reason of its neglect of its duties to inspect and to protect citizens from illegal incarceration and brutality. It also paid capitation money in to the laundry system for some women, provided contracts to it, and directly sent women into the laundries, and returned them if they escaped, without investigating if they were held legally. It has taken 10 years of research and campaigning, and a number of women in the meantime have died waiting, with no redress, some in very poor circumstances. One of the women who spoke out last year has lung cancer, and did not expect to see the report come out. Now she is waiting still for an apology and some redress.

Some of the things that stick in my mind from the many accounts in the JFM report and that very much contradict the Enda Kenny/McAleese version of the laundries -

The laundries were locked jails, with barred windows, with no daylight in some cases, little or no access to out of doors. They were cold and often wet. The work was heavy and dangerous. Many women got burns and other injuries.

The girls and women had inadequate diets – porridge for breakfast and supper, a small lunch with little protein, an egg once a year at Easter, occasional pieces of fruit on “special days.” An account mentions that women rooted in bins for nuns leftovers. They were very thin. People talk about fainting from hunger.

Women were not told when or how they would get out, and many never did get out.

Their names were taken off them and a number or penance name given to them.

They were told they were “there for their sins” although some had no idea why they were there at all. Young children as young as 11 were put in the laundries and a lot of them were young women. They were verbally insulted and abused.

Some women were put there because of ill health – lameness, epilepsy, mental disability.

They were not allowed to speak during the long work hours. They worked six days a week in the laundries: after hours they worked making small goods for sale by the nuns, and cleaning.Women were beaten with belts and hit with heavy bunches of keys for “faulty work” and for “cheek” and in some cases severely beaten for running away or for being found in bed with another woman. They were also punished by having their hair cut “to the bone” and by having to kneel and kiss the floor.   Solitary confinement was a punishment. Women were physically forced to work even when ill.    Enda Kenny however told the Dáil that physical abuse was not an issue.

Some girls and women who were resistant of this abuse and bullying or in other ways “difficult” were sent to mental institutions where they were incarcerated and in some cases died, unreleased.

There was an atmosphere of fear: women cried at night in bed. Women had nervous breakdowns and suffered from depression. Some became severely institutionalised. At least one is still living in an institution / care – would have liked her own room, but never had one. Reported problems of not getting dentures and associated weight loss. This seems to be current ?

They were not ever paid.

The young ones got no education. They had no books, newspapers, or radio and didn’t know what was happening in the outside world.

A horror that sticks in my mind – a account of a woman (likely not the only one) who was born in a laundry institution, grew up in it and who died in it.

Another account mentions a woman who sat at one end of the Church at High Park, while her daughter, elsewhere in the institution, sat at the other, without them ever knowing they were living in the same place.

A woman who got out for a day when she was 45 to meet her grown up child had never before tasted coffee, or handled money. She didn’t know her own age, but was told by her children. She died aged 51. (source: from the JFM FB page)

When the women died, there was no death certificate in many cases, and they were put in a mass grave with no name marker and no priest present, no funeral rites.

The State was very much aware of the laundries, was aware of issue of wages and its obligation to inspect and to safeguard basic rights of citizens. It failed catastrophically in relation to the laundries and in fact colluded in stripping women of their rights.

Women were in some cases sent for petty theft (an apple, stolen in an industrial school, is one example), for staying out late, or being rebellious generally.  Some had had children outside marriage.  Others had disabilities. Some had grown up in institutions. If they ran away, Gardai returned them.

The Secretary of Carlow County Council signed an order to incarcerate a married woman in a laundry and send her baby to a babies home, as the child was believed not to be her husband’s. This was in 1956 (As a side note, I know of a case in the 1990s,  in which Gardai in this area turned away a woman who went for help as she was repeatedly beaten at home: they informed the husband they she had complained).

The issue is not to me about who sent women to the laundries. Enda Kenny, McAleese and the press are busy trying to foist the blame for the laundries onto families. This is a particularly toxic and self serving argument. The State has obligations to citizens and residents irrespective of failures of families.

Abuse is an illustration of that.

Some girls /children who had been abused were locked into the laundries. One woman told of how as a young teenager she went to the Gardai and repeatedly asked them to act against her father who was raping her (her mother had died). They refused on a number occasions, but when they did act it was to incarcerate her in a laundry.

Women ended up in the laundries via state schools and institutions, via the courts, via parish priests and families. Families were under enormous social pressure from current “morals” and social stigma enforced by Church and State, and from poverty.  The Laundries were punitive institutions, part of a gulag of social control, that exerted fear and pressure on all girls and women to modify their behaviour and to comply with a rigid, brutal and hierarchical social norm.

The thinking that the State can avoid its responsibilities and push them off onto onto families, no matter how dysfunctional or disadvantaged, still goes on.

This matter will come up before the Dáil again on Tuesday.  Again, Enda Kenny has the opportunity to apologise, and make redress for the appalling acts of omission and commission by our State in relation to the Laundries.  

There will be a lobby/picket of the Dáil from Tuesday 1 p.m. 19.1.2013  until the debate is over.
Anyone who would like to go along would be welcome.   The women and support campaigners who have brought things to this stage and who have refused to be silenced deserve every support.

POST SCRIPT Justice for Magdalenes and supporters will be gathering at the Dail Tuesday 19th February for a candlelit vigil from 5 p.m. Please come, and bring a candle. :) The debate starts on the Magdalene laundries starts at 6 p.m.

C. Flower  17.2.2013

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