Women who had their childhoods ‘stolen away’, locked up in Catholic-run workhouses received a qualified apology from the Irish government yesterday.
Over a period of 70 years, an estimated 10,000 were sent to the ‘Magdalene laundries’ to carry out unpaid manual labour under the supervision of nuns.
Some were sent because they were the children of unmarried mothers, others for crimes as minor as not paying a train ticket.
Slaved: An estimated 10,000 were sent to work for no remuneration in ‘Magdalene laundries’ over a period of 70 years
Anger: Magdalene survivors Marina Gambold, left, and Mary Smyth, were sent to the laundries where they were were forced to work without pay. At a press conference in the Handel Hotel, Dublin, they rejected the Irish government’s apology
Demands: Survivors of the Catholic-run institutions have asked for a fuller and more frank admission from government and the religious orders involved
Incredibly the last of the ten laundries, which washed clothes and linen for major hotel groups, the Irish armed forces and even the brewer Guinness, was in operation until 1996. They were established in 1922.
Irish prime minister Enda Kenny apologised for the stigma and conditions saying they were a product of a ‘harsh and uncompromising Ireland’.
The taoiseach expressed his sympathies with survivors and the families of those who died but stopped short of a formal apology.
His words drew scorn from victims’ groups, who insisted the institutions were worse than prison and demanded a much stronger statement.
The move follows an 18-month inquiry chaired by senator Martin McAleese which found one in four of the women sent to the laundries had been sent by the state.
Mr Kenny said: ‘To those residents who went into the Magdalene laundries from a variety of ways, 26 per cent from state involvement, I’m sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment.’
Pain: Mary Smyth (left) and Maureen Sullivan (right) are overcome during the press conference held by Magdalene Survivors Together
But he added the report found no evidence of sexual abuse in the laundries, that 10 per cent of inmates were sent by their families, and that 19 per cent entered of their own volition.
Survivors quickly rejected his apology, and demanded a fuller and more frank admission from government and the religious orders involved.
Maureen Sullivan, 60, of Magdalene Survivors Together, and the youngest known victim, said: ‘He is the taoiseach of the Irish people, and that is not a proper apology.’
She was 12 when taken from her school and put in the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross, County Wexford, because her father had died and mother remarried.
Miss Sullivan said she was told it would further her education, but she never saw her schoolbooks again.
Probe: An inquiry found 2,124 of those detained in institutions suych as the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry in Dublin (pictured) were sent by the authorities
For 48 years she says she has been haunted by memories of a lost childhood and slave labour and is demanding a full apology from the government and religious orders for stealing her education, name, identity and life.
‘I feel that they are still in denial, but other parts of this report clearly state that we were telling the truth,’ she said.
By day she worked in the laundry, was fed bread and dripping, and then made sweaters or rosary beads before bedtime. ‘It was long, hard tedious work,’ she said.
‘I remember being hidden in a tunnel when the school inspectors came. I can only assume this was because I should not have been working in the laundry.’
An estimated 10,000 young Irish girls were sent to the laundries where they were were forced to work without pay and were subjected to a strict regime at the hands of the nuns who ran the institutions
At the weekends, she was forced to clean the floors of the local church instead of having time off to play.
‘How come all this was taken from me?’ she said. ‘The nuns have destroyed my life and they never allowed me to develop as a young girl.’
‘PRISONS FOR THE DISAPPEARED’
Set up in the 19th century as refuges for prostitutes, the Magdalene Laundries became prisons for the ‘disappeared’.
Orphans with nowhere else to go, single girls who found themselves pregnant and hence abandoned in a morally repressive state, children whose parents could no longer afford to keep them and those judged by priests or the religious to be in ‘moral danger’ because they were too pretty or flirtatious.
Women were forced into Magdalene laundries for a crime as minor as not paying for a train ticket, the report found.
The majority of those incarcerated were there for minor offences such as theft and vagrancy as opposed to murder and infanticide.
Another survivor, Mary Smyth, also 60, said she was forced to follow in the steps of her mother who had also been one of the Magdalene women when she became pregnant.
She said she was treated like a slave and had her dignity, identity and life taken from her.
‘My name was changed, my hair was chopped off, all my possessions were taken from me,’ she said. ‘I didn’t eat for three weeks. I wanted to die.’
Miss Smyth has described her time in the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork, as Hell and revealed she was afraid to have children as an adult in case she was locked up.
‘It was horrendous and inhumane. It was worse than any prison,’ she added. ‘It was soul destroying, it will never ever leave me,’ she said.
Senator McAleese’s inquiry found women were forced into Magdalene laundries for minor offences such as theft and vagrancy as opposed to major crimes such as infanticide.
Despite the stigma of being known as Maggies – a slang term for a prostitute – only a small number of the women were sent to them for prostitution.
In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture called on the Irish government to set up an inquiry into the treatment of women in the laundries.
The McAleese inquiry spoke to more than 100 women and 40 per cent spent more than a year incarcerated.
In 2002, a film titled The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullan, was released telling the story of three girls who were sent to ‘Magdalene laundries’.
The film’s director initially said that he had been inspired to undertake the project as the victims had never been given closure.
A plaque dedicated to Magdalane Laundry survivors in St Stephens Green in Dublin. Between 1922 and 1996 an estimated 10,000 young Irish girls were sent to the laundries where they were were forced to work without pay
A DAY IN THE LIFE: LAUNDRY SURVIVOR RECALLS THE TOUGH REGIME
In a 2011 interview for the Irish Mail, Sarah Williams who spent two years working in two different Magdalene Laundries gave a harrowing account of life in the institutions:
Rising at 6am the girls, heads shrouded in black veils, were marched to Mass in the cold convent.
Breakfast of cold watery porridge with tea and bread followed at 7am before returning to the chapel for a second Mass.
Then it was off to the laundry to wash, boil, mangle, dry, iron and fold. They were allowed one break for soup before 6pm.
At 7.30pm the girls, now locked into their tiny cells furnished with only a bucket and an iron bed, would be handed another mug of soup, frequently so cold that they’d try to heat it on the pipes in their rooms.
Recreation was a half hour listening to the radio after work. Work was conducted either in total silence or while singing hymns or reciting decades of the rosary.
At nights, the miserable girls cried themselves to sleep.
Simple offences like neglecting to wear the institutional hat or laughing would result in a belting on the head with a bunch of heavy keys by an irate nun.
‘Every night I cried and cried,’ recalls Sarah. ‘I could hear the traffic on the road outside and sometimes I’d climb up at the iron barred window to see if I could see anything of the street.
‘Our only exercise was half an hour walking in twos outside in the yard.’ The nuns’ authority was absolute, the girls had to ask permission even to go to the bathroom and if a girl stepped out of line, she was locked in her room on a diet of bread and water for days on end.
‘We didn’t work on Sundays so we were allowed to write letters which were then read by the nuns. I frequently wrote to my aunt begging her to come and get me but I don’t think she ever got my letters.
Any letters we got were read out in public by the nuns. We never got them into our own hands.
‘Once a month we were allowed visitors but my only visitors were the women from the Legion of Mary who’d remark that I was being looked after very well.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2273961/Ireland-says-sorry-10-000-women-slaves-Catholic-workhouses-locked-brutalised-nuns.html#ixzz2K5k0CPp7
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- Report says Ireland’s government oversaw harsh Catholic laundries (foxnews.com)
- Kenny: no apology for workhouses (morningstaronline.co.uk)