On Tuesday, Ireland Senator Martin McAleese released a report on Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries, where 30,000 women and girls were enslaved in Catholic Church-run laundries between 1922-1996. (The Laundries actually existed since the 1700s, but the free state of Ireland was only established in 1922.) McAleese’s report specifically focused on uncovering the Irish State’s involvement in the Laundries and, as survivors have long claimed, found that, according to the Guardian, “the state and the Irish police force bore a major responsibility for sending the women there and failing to protect their rights as workers.”
Women and girls who were considered “troubled” or morally “fallen” — i.e. unwed mothers and girls who were deemed “loose” or wild — were sent against their will to the Church-run laundries to live and work, receiving no pay, no pension, and no protection. The McAleese report found that the women and girls were used as free labour and that the labour laws were repeatedly broken. Women and girls who died in the Laundries were often buried in unmarked graves. Babies born to the “Maggies” were taken from their mothers, often never seeing them again. The report detailed that a quarter of the women sent to the Laundries (for whom records exist) were sent by the state; that the state gave these laundries lucrative contracts but did not abide by fair wage clauses; and that the state was responsible for inspecting the laundries and thus allowed them to be run in manner that was illegal and amoral.
While Magdalen survivors are relieved to finally have these facts on record, many hoped to get an official apology from the government, as well as financial redress scheme for women held in the institutions. Unfortunately, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the Prime Minister of Ireland, stopped just short of officially apologizing on behalf of the Irish State, saying yesterday during a session in Ireland’s lower parliament, that he was sorry that the stigma attached to the women in the laundries was not removed before now and that it had taken for a government so long to carry out a report into the institutions. He also said he was sorry that the women lived “in that kind of environment,” but said that the 1000-page report would need to be read in full because he could “react” to it. The Magdalene Survivors Together and the Justice for Magdalenes groups called Kenny’s “apology” a “cop out.”
“To get up in the Dáil [lower parliament] and refuse to apologise to a group of ageing, vulnerable group of women … is frankly cynical,” said Claire McGettrick of Justice for Magdalenes. “This could have been good day … this could have been a good news story. But it is continuing and prolonging the torture. These women want a bit of peace before they die. Dragging out this process is cynical, cruel, torturous and not good enough.” Many of the survivors have threatened to go on a hunger strike if the Irish State does not follow through with a financial redress for their suffering.
At the very least, the McAleese report is a long awaited start to getting the victims of the Magdalen Laundries what they deserve — justice.