Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: Time To Put An End to the Continued Abuse

Almost six months ago the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) published its Assessment of Justice for Magdalenes’ (JFM) inquiry application documenting human rights violations in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.  The IHRC recommended that the State should “establish a statutory mechanism to investigate the matters advanced by Justice For Magdalenes and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted.”
The IHRC Assessment details the state’s historic failure to adequately protect the women and young girls from abusive conditions, specifically from wrongful and unlawful detention, inhuman and degrading treatment, and forced labour and servitude.  It also recognizes the importance of restorative justice for aging and elderly women.
No one in Irish society has apologized to these institutional abuse survivors.  The Laundries were not included in the Residential Institutional Redress Act 2002.  These women, as a result, were excluded from the Residential Institutions Redress Board.  They are, simply put, the Nation’s disappeared—abandoned and forgotten in the present as in the past.What will it take for our Nation’s politicians to act on the IHRC’s conclusions and provide restorative justice for some of Ireland’s most marginalized citizens?
On 11 November 2010, then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, referred the IHRC Assessment to the Attorney General’s office for review.  On 23 March 2011, Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, announced in the Dáil that he is considering “a draft submission for the government” on the matter.   Back in December 2009, it was Deputy Shatter calling on Mr. Cowen to introduce legislation for “those who suffered barbaric cruelty in the Magdalen laundries,” for women whose “lives have been permanently blighted” by abuse.   Two governments, the same result: no apology, no redress, and no reparation.

Justice For Magdalenes worked with various Government departments in advocating for survivors’ needs.  In September 2009, then Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, rejected our group’s initial proposal for a distinct redress scheme. He asserted that the State “did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit, in referring individuals to the laundries.”   The Government’s bottom line remains that the Laundries were privately owned and operated and did not come within the responsibility of the State.

Justice For Magdalenes refutes such assertions.  It is now a matter of public record that the Courts entered into arrangements whereby women given a suspended sentence were sent to a Magdalene Laundry rather than prison. Likewise, members of the judiciary placed women “on probation” and “on remand” at these same institutions.

The Department of Education knew in 1970 that there were at least “70 girls between the age of 13 and 19 years confined in this way who should properly be dealt with under the Reformatory Schools’ system.”   Meanwhile, the Department of Health was paying a capitation grant for young “problem” girls sent to these convent institutions, well into the 1980s.

As late as 1982, the Department of Defence met with the religious congregations to discuss the insertion of a “fair wage clause” in Laundry contracts, contracts that were issued without such a clause since at least 1941.  Again, the State stood on the sidelines while generations of Irish women continued to experience abuse and exploitation.

At no time did the State licence, regulate or inspect the Magdalene laundries, which always operated on a for-profit basis.  Consequently, survivors do not receive a pension for the compulsory yet unpaid work they were forced to endure.  After 1953 there was a statutory obligation governing employers’ withholding of pension contributions.  The nuns made no contributions on behalf of the workers in the Laundries. The Department of Social Protection did not enforce the law.

The women do not receive health care or education to assist them in overcoming the physical and psychological effects of abuse suffered in the Laundries.  Many of the women continue to feel constrained and silenced by a deep sense of stigma and shame.  They experience the Government’s unwillingness to take meaningful political action as tantamount to pursuing a policy of “deny ’til they die.”

Faced with this lack of political conviction at home, Justice For Magdalenes is now seeking support for its campaign in the global Human Rights arena.  Our group recently made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which is due to examine Ireland, for the first time, on the extent to which it is meeting its human rights obligations, on 23rd and 24th May 2011.  JFM’s submission draws attention to Ireland’s legal duties promptly and impartially to investigate allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and to ensure redress for the victims of such treatment.

We have also made a formal submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, as part of the Twelfth Session of the Working Group on the UPR Human Rights Council, due in October 2011.  It is our hope that international scrutiny will bring the State to task for its unwillingness and inattention to these disturbing and significant claims.

The State and Catholic Church, both, need to acknowledge that the women who spent time in the Nation’s Magdalene Laundries are survivors of institutional abuse—that they were not at fault, but instead had a grave injustice perpetrated upon them. Doing so would represent a significant signal that Ireland, as a democratic Republic, is finally prepared to make right on past injustices.

James M. Smith (“Smithsligo”) 25.4.2011

James M. Smith is an associate professor in the English Department and Irish Studies Program at Boston College.   He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2008) and serves on JFM’s Advisory Committee.

You’re welcome to join our discussion of this topic at –

3 Responses

  1. It seems from the Irish Times that Alan Shatter will make a decision on this after the Easter Daíl break is over. I’ll be emailing him my support for redress for the women who were incarcerated in these laundries.

  2. Thank you for this article. I have read your book on this subject and I am glad that the women have such able and committed people helping them. I too will contact Alan shatter and the government to address this matter urgently. I have been attending some meetings of the london irish womens support group run by Phyllis Morgan and as a daughter of a mother who experienced working in a convent laundry for almost three years as a teenager. I know that her life was always coloured by her experience. There are so many families who are now waking up to the fact that there were aunts, mothers, and sisters who had this experience but who were too ashamed of the stigma attached to their experience that they remained silent. I hope that an inquiry into the religious orders who ran these institutions will be ordered and that the orders will be made to release their records. I heard while in London recently of the death of one elderly woman who had died. these women are elderly and still waiting for justice

  3. […] For Magdalenes has also embarked on a campaign to bring international scrutiny to bear on what Professor James Smith of Boston College terms  ”these disturbing and significant claims.” To this end the group recently made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: