Going Back To Nothing: Acknowledging the Horrors of the Magdalene Laundries

IHT_MagdaleneLaundries_01The notion of the European political identity is punctuated with notions of freedom, liberty, respect for human dignity and protection of rights. This is reflected in the make-up of national and European political structures, as well as the constitutions of European countries. Moreover, this respect for and protection of freedom, rights and dignity is emulated to the status of higher law by the European Convention on Human Rights:

Article 2- “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law”

Article 3- “No-one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment”

Article 4- “No-one shall be held in slavery or servitude”

The document came into force in 1948. It was hoped that Europe, as a result, would enter a new age of liberalism and tolerance, rights and freedom: a whole new kind of dialogue between the citizen and the state. It is therefore surprising that, until 1996, the Irish government mandated the forced confinement and servitude, abuse and enslavement of Catholic women in the infamous Magdalene laundries.

The Magdalene Laundries, also known as the Magdalene Asylums, were set up as a worldwide project under one of the four Orders of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Their aim was to provide a service to the Catholic world whereby so-called “fallen women” were housed, voluntarily or involuntarily, in institutions run by nuns and priests. In exchange for their “penance”, “salvation” and “education”, the women were required to labour long hours during the day and night preparing laundry for customers, which provided the primary source of income to the institutions. None of the women were paid. Similar laundries were also found in England, Canada and the United States- most, however, were found in Ireland. Between 1798 and 1996, 13 Magdalene Laundries were operating throughout the Irish Free State and, later, the Republic of Ireland.

Taking on a distinctive religious character, the Magdalene Laundries housed “fallen women”- a term commonly used in reference to sex workers at the time. Because of this facade of public service, combined with the opacity over the nature of the Asylums’ work, government and citizens were able to sustain their support for the Laundries for a long time. They provided a service to the community, and to individual women, it was asserted. However, this does not reflect the actual composition of the Laundries. Most of the women housed in the institutions were never proven through any kind of judicial process to be sex workers. Many were sent by their families, for being “too flirtatious”, “promiscuous”, and in some alarming cases, “too beautiful”. Unwed and single mothers also constituted a substantial portion of the population. All these women, confined to the workhouses without any choice or due process, were deemed to pose a threat to Irish civil and religious society.

Hence, they were deprived completely of their rights, freedom and dignity.

Aside from the forced labour that each resident was coerced into, the women were frequently subject to abuse- psychological, physical and sexual. For failing to work to an adequate standard, women and girls were frequently beaten by the nuns, eager to exert authority and discipline over them. For their mere status in society as “fallen women”, they were instilled from a young age with narratives of their individual worthlessness as a result of emotional torture.

“We were classed as nothing”, a survivor of one Asylum recounts. “We were told that we came from nothing, we never would be anything and that we would always go back to be nothing”

Many girls were also victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, usually committed by visiting priests overseeing the work of the nuns in contributing to their “salvation”. But their complaints of any form of abuse were never investigated further, nor taken seriously by the nuns, who had only their profits and the subjugation of the residents in their interest. Children living in the laundries, sent by their parents or born there as the offspring of “fallen women”, were also subject to abuse on a broad scale. A 2009 Commission of the Irish Government into Child Abuse received evidence from more than 1,500 witnesses who attended the Laundries or were residents as children, attesting to being aware of systematic abuse, or being victims of it themselves.

Given the unremunerated nature of the work the women were forced to do, the operators of the Laundries did so running enormous profits. Their output of laundry expanded as the workhouses themselves did and they were able to accumulate vast amounts of personal wealth at the expense of the women. But throughout the Laundries’ lifetime, they were being quietly funded by the Irish government. By 1994, they received from the government £18 per person, per week. The Laundries were thus money-making machines, disguised as noble institutions providing a public and religious service.

Even towards the end of the millennium, when thousands of women had experienced the horrors of life within them, wider society was painfully unaware of what 30,000 women over the course of nearly 200 years had been subjected to, and what their government had supported.

In Dublin in 1993, one publicly-funded Asylum, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, had lost money in share dealings on the stock exchange, so to cover their losses, they sold part of the land in their convent to a property developer. Whilst inspecting the site, the developers discovered 133 corpses in a mass grave. The Sisters arranged to have the remains cremated and reburied in another mass grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, splitting the cost of the reburial with the developer who had bought the land. It later transpired that there were 22 more corpses than the sisters had applied for permission to exhume. In all, 155 corpses of women and children who died at the Asylum were exhumed and cremated.

It was this discovery that finally provoked the massive public scandal and backlash against the atrocities the institutions had committed. But in spite of thousands of women coming forward with their stories and international attention finally being drawn to the subject, little has been done to bring justice to the women, or the perpetrators. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Irish government acknowledged that women in the Magdalene laundries were victims of abuse. However, the Irish government has resisted calls for investigation and proposals for compensation. The laundries were privately run, it is claimed, and abuses at the laundries are therefore outside the government’s remit.

It is unbelievable for many that atrocities of such amplitude can be committed against innocent women and children under the authorization of a democratic state until 1996, when the last Asylum was closed down. But what is yet more tragic is the way that the Irish government has continued to silence the voices of a population of women who, for so many years, were told they did not have the right even to be considered a person. For the Republic of Ireland to live up to its legal, as well as its moral, obligations, there must be justice for the Magdalene Laundry survivors.


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