Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice, by Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, James M Smith and Mari Steed, 304 pp, £21.99, ISBN: 978-0755617494
“To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born of some members of those communities ‑ reflect here upon their lives.”
So reads the plaque on the memorial bench for survivors of Magdalene Laundries that sits in the centre of St Stephen’s Green among other memorials to women in Irish history. There is a seat in memory of Anna and Thomas Haslam, who founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association, a bust of Constance Markievicz, who was positioned at Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising, and a park bench in memory of the trade unionist, pacifist, and feminist Louie Bennett and her lifelong companion Helen Chevenix. The nine faceless figures on this plaque campaigned for by the Magdalen Memorial Committee, represent the women of the Magdalene laundries. As is often the case with such plaques, it could be easily missed by one not paying attention, and yet has been there since it was unveiled almost thirty years ago by then president Mary Robinson in 1996.
The memorial has a recurring presence in this new book Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: a Campaign for Justice, written by those who led the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) campaign. The authors regularly pause to reflect at the memorial, a pilgrimage on their way to meetings with government ministers and officials. Towards the beginning of the book, they touch on the paradox at its heart: that the memorial plaque was unveiled just six months before the laundry on Sean McDermott Street was to close its doors and while it was still doing the laundry for Mountjoy Prison. As they note: “For those who are active in addressing the ongoing harms caused by Ireland’s Magdalene institutions, this propensity to relegate survivors to ancient, opaque history remains a constant challenge.”
This book draws on a variety of sources, both historical and recent reports and survivor testimony, to tell the history of the Magdalene laundries. The authors are committed to countering what they term the epistemic injustice which survivors have been faced with: the denial of the lived reality of survivors. The five authors bring a variety of academic and personal experience to the campaign. Two of the authors, Mari Steed and Claire McGettrick, are also campaigners for the rights of adopted people. The other three authors, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke and James M Smith, draw on their interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, in philosophy, law and Irish Studies and so the work merges academia, advocacy and activism. The five campaigners, who formed JFM with fellow adoption rights campaigner Angela Newsome, were driven by a commitment to gaining justice at every level for the Magdalene survivors they formed relationships with and also a shared desire to create a more equitable society. JFM’s political campaign had two clear objectives from the start: to bring about an official apology from the Irish state, and the establishment of a compensation scheme for all Magdalene survivors. They stress that they are an advocacy rather than a representative group, and it is clear that they take their responsibilities to all the women who engaged with them very seriously. They write that they had two abiding core ethics guiding their work from the start: do no harm, and it’s about the women. It is very clear throughout the book that they never once lost sight of those principles. The women themselves inspire and give strength to the campaign, and they often state how much inspiration they draw from their resilience.
The group never lost sight of the human rights dimension to the Magdalene Laundries: both the past human rights abuses and continuing human rights violations of survivors. The brilliant and tenacious legal advocacy of one of the authors, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, particularly in her submissions to the UN Committee Against Torture, were a vital part of the campaign. These, in 2011, were described by the UN as “dramatic, detailed, documented”. They drew international attention to the state’s complicity in the laundries, and their ongoing obligations to survivors. The Irish Human Rights Commission report in 2010 combined with the UNCAT recommendations and the calls from survivors’ groups led to the establishment of the Inter Departmental Committee (the McAleese Report). In meetings with then minister for justice, Alan Shatter, O’Rourke was adamant on state culpability. The vice-chair of UNCAT, Felice Gaer, questioned the Irish government in 2011 and made three urgent recommendations, that Ireland (a) institute prompt, independent and thorough investigations into all complaints of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that were allegedly committed in the Magdalene laundries; (b) in appropriate cases, prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed; and (c) ensure that all victims obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible. There were gaps in how the IDC responded to UNCAT’s recommendations. For instance, it did not publish its terms of reference, accepted at face value the documentation provided to it by the congregations, and it did not meet the human rights obligations to investigate the Magdalene abuses. It was a sorely missed opportunity for the state to pursue a different track, that would have gathered survivor testimony and archival evidence around the state’s involvement in the laundries.
The book opens with an account of the Magdalene Laundries and of the women who lived there. There are striking statistics which paint the social context of the time. Ireland had the highest rate of female emigration of any European country between 1945 and 1960. There were eight thousand nuns in thirty-five orders in 368 convents on the island, and numbers in religious life reached a peak in 1968. The brilliant historian Margaret Mac Curtain, who was also a Dominican nun, describes the leaders of women’s religious orders as both elites and power players. The most striking statistic is that one in every hundred citizens, through an “architecture of confinement”, was confined to an institution in 1951: these included psychiatric hospitals, industrial and reformatory schools, residential schools, Mother and Baby Homes, county homes, and Magdalene laundries. Those who were confined to institutions were very often cruelly cut off from their families, including their own children, and had their letters inspected. Women describe the laundries as “prison-like”. They felt “barred in from outside world”, had their hair cut and were given house names. They were deprived of any sense of agency.
There was a particularly cruel irony in how girls as young as nine who were sent to the laundries were deprived of any education, given the same orders’ ubiquitous involvement in education throughout the state. Girls and women were deprived of educational and training opportunities that impacted upon their whole lives and made it difficult for them to get back into society, contributing to the enduring stigma they faced. The austere environment of the laundries in terms of diet, sanitation, work, and even in the treatment of close friendships between women, was particularly harrowing. Most of all perhaps, the treatment of the women in death, reflecting their treatment in life, and their simple burials, compare starkly with those of the nuns. Very few nuns have spoken publicly or would speak to JFM during their campaign. That makes it particularly interesting to read interviews with nuns from Sean McDermott Street laundry on its closure in 1996, including Sr Reid, who spoke to Susan McKay, saying, “Yes, we were unjust, but we were unwittingly facilitating a system that was unjust.”
There is a clear sense that the state has a view that there exists a hierarchy of abuse. In the wake of the revelations of the abuse of children in industrial schools, and the horror at physical and sexual abuse suffered by them, there was an understandable focus on child protection. Minister Michael Woods stated in the Dáil that the laundries would not be included under the Residential Institutional Redress Board:
The laundries differ substantially from the institutions now covered in the Bill in that the residents concerned were for the most part adults and the laundries were entirely private institutions, in respect of which public bodies had no function.
This exclusion gave the impetus to JFM to specifically advocate on behalf of the survivors of the laundries. Quite apart from the fact that there was a great deal of interaction between the various institutions, there seems to be little appreciation by the state of the particular form of abuse experienced by these women. Not least, the deprivation of liberty and agency and the stigma attached to their being confined in an institution. This sense of a hierarchy of abuse is particularly disturbing in the McAleese Report, where a clear attempt is made to dispel the notion that abuse was widespread in the institutions, and where humiliating and degrading treatment noted by survivors in their testimony does not qualify as physical abuse.
The profile of women who were incarcerated makes their cruel treatment all the more disturbing. There were women who were disabled, had committed minor crimes, or had been raped. Sr Stan, in her ground-breaking 1985 report “But Where Can I Go? Homeless Women in Dublin”, which included group interviews with women in three Magdalene institutions came to stark findings relating to the effects of institutionalisation on the women, including very high rates of mental illness compared with on entry. That study was particularly important in showing the need for appropriate services for women facing homelessness, particularly as a result of domestic violence.
It is also remarkable how little focus was given in the McAleese Report to the fact that the women working in the laundries received no remuneration for their labour. Indeed, the Conditions of Employment Act 1936 exempted institutions carrying out charitable and reformatory purposes from the requirement to pay wages, despite the fact that many of them had contracts with government departments and agencies. This not only deprived the women of wages at the time, but further deprived them of “stamps” towards their pensions later in life. This alone, without any further abuse, warranted the establishment of a state compensation scheme. In his 2012 Annual Report, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Ireland’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, highlighted this aspect of work with no payment, and that their “detention amounted to ‘forced labour’ under the 1930 Forced Labour Convention” and “it appears from the reports provided by these women and girls that their treatment constituted slavery”.
The stigma attached to the Magdalene Laundries is clearly evident in the Seanad debate relating to the Criminal Justice Bill 1960, where Senator Nora Connolly O’Brien opposed the proposal that a girl on remand be sent on consent to a Magdalene Laundry. She speaks of the terror for a woman who may have spent time in a Magdalene laundry, which she describes as a greater stigma even than that attached to having been a “Borstal boy”. Dr Owen Sheehy Skeffington agreed with that view and noted that the girl might not realise the implications of having the label of Magdalene attached to her all her life. Also notable in that 1960 debate is the minister for justice Oscar Traynor’s remarks that he is in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities on the matter of remand to the convents and his “indebtedness to His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin” (John Charles McQuaid) for making the Magdalen Asylum on Seán MacDermott Street available for that purpose. The minister’s comments regarding the other women at the laundry illustrate the clear stigma attached to them by society:
[I]f we can have these girls remanded to St. Mary Magdalen’s Asylum and if they will not be in association with the type of inmate which the Senator has in mind, I do not think we can object very strongly. It is just a question of whether the indignity of being remanded to St. Mary Magdalen’s Asylum is a greater indignity than being remanded to Mountjoy prison.
Notably, while the four congregations of religious sisters never agreed to meet with JFM, it was McQuaid’s successor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin who was the most open of all church representatives when JFM reached out in their campaign in 2011, expressing his willingness to speak to the congregations and supporting survivors in speaking their truth.
The authors reveal their frustrations as they attempt to engage with the state on the issue. In many ways, the book is a toolkit for any campaigner engaging with the political system. It exposes a political culture which can too often be frustrating, intransigent, and even cynical when faced with uncomfortable truths. At one point the authors note “[We] remain appalled at the levels of cynicism that we fully detected in Ireland’s political establishment.” And yet, some politicians, from across different parties, stand out for how they worked with the group to keep the issue on the agenda, some more quietly than others. They mention the role of the Oireachtas all-party Ad Hoc Committee, which was first convened by former FF TDs Tom Kitt and Michael Kennedy in December 2009 and addressed by James Smith. These types of informal all-party committees are a vital but often underexplored aspect of the Irish political system. The cross-party relationships formed when colleagues across the Houses join together with a common purpose, very often assisted by civil society and campaigning groups, can form the foundation for more formal legislative reform in the Oireachtas.
The campaigners show great pragmatism and determination in how they worked to keep their issue on the agenda, particularly at a time of financial crisis and austerity in the country. Never losing sight of their vision, they had clear goals and knew what was achievable. Through the ad hoc committee, they formed relationships with politicians across many parties, including Joan Burton who spoke in the Dáil of her own experience as an adopted person in early 2010, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mary Lou McDonald, Dara Calleary and Kathleen Lynch. Notably, it was Labour Party deputy and now President Michael D Higgins who recommended that JFM submit an application to the Irish Human Rights Commission regarding the human rights perspective of the Magdalen Laundries. The group worked with their political allies to get parliamentary questions asked which would elicit ministerial responses, particularly relating to state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries. All of these responses, both written and oral, were then on the Dáil record, and formed a vital part of the evidence of state complicity. They also formed relationships with the media which would prove vital over the coming years in spreading public awareness of the campaign. Conall Ó Fatharta and Claire O’Sullivan in the Irish Examiner, Patsy McGarry at The Irish Times and Joe Little in RTÉ showed strong interest in the campaign, and in the message that came out of this growing evidence.
One of the most poignant moments which stands out in our memory from those years is Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s statement on the publication of the McAleese report in the Dáil in February 2013. There could be no doubt to anyone watching at the time, or indeed watching back now, of the deep sincerity of Kenny’s unreserved apology on behalf of the state, the government, and all citizens, to the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries for the role of the state. It was a significant admission of liability by the state of direct involvement in over a quarter of all admissions to the laundries and that redress was to be open to all women. Kenny spoke to the women who were seated in the Dáil visitors’ gallery of our national shame at having failed the women and the stigma they suffered as a result of their treatment. His voice broke towards the end and in an unprecedented move, TDs stood and applauded for the women who were there and those absent. It is still a remarkable speech.
State apologies might seem simple or meaningless, but this one was a core objective of the JFM campaign, because it was crucial that the state admit their involvement and say sorry. But it was not inevitable. The insight into the effectiveness of the JFM campaign is particularly revealing in chapter five, where we get a behind-the-scenes account of the two weeks between the publication of the McAleese report and Enda Kenny’s apology in the Dáil. Bearing in mind the twin objectives of the campaign, of bringing about an official state apology and the establishment of a compensation scheme for all Magdalene survivors, we can see how effective the group was in ensuring that the women were not let down following the publication of McAleese report. There was great disappointment from the campaign team and survivors at the government’s response on the day of the report’s publication. The following week, members of the Labour parliamentary party threatened to walk out in protest at Enda Kenny’s initial reluctance to apologise. We get a real sense of the persistence and determination of JFM in ensuring that the apology was given and that it included details of a redress scheme.
As Mari Steed notes in the foreword to this book, the Justice for Magdalenes campaign was “a meaningful template for real restorative, transitional justice, and truth-telling”. This campaign did a remarkable service to the state, not only in bringing to light the truth of this history, but in working to ensure that the women received justice and were restored the dignity which had been robbed from them. This book forms an important part of that truth-telling, as an archive of the research involved in all their campaigning work. I also highly recommend that readers further consult the resources on jfmresearch.com, an invaluable repository of resources, videos, reports and other documents, many of which are referenced in this book. These exemplary campaigners are a model of active citizenship and call upon all of us to continue that work of truth-telling.
Having achieved their twin objectives of a state apology and the establishment of a redress scheme, JFM disbanded their political campaign, and commenced Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), and stated it was the collective responsibility of all citizens to ensure that the promise of the state apology delivered by Enda Kenny was delivered upon. Speaking in the Dáil on February 19th, 2013, the taoiseach stated that:
Today we live in a very different country, with a very different consciousness, and a very different awareness. An Ireland where we have more compassion, more empathy, more insight, more heart. We do, because at last we are learning those terrible lessons. We do, because at last we are giving up our secrets. We do, because in naming and addressing the wrong, as is happening today, we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future.
Reading the account of the ongoing struggle for these women, and the continuing challenges regarding personal records, memorials, burials, health care, and welfare for these women in their old age, I have to wonder how far we as a state have really come in our consciousness and awareness. Do we really have more insight and more heart, or is it still too difficult for us to face up to such a dark aspect of our own history? Let this book be a reminder to all of us of our responsibility to honour our fellow citizens who were deprived of their dignity, their independence, and their liberty.
The Dublin Honours Magdalenes event in June 2018 was a fitting and occasion to honour these women. It was a really significant event and coordination effort by Norah Casey and JFMR working with the Department of Justice, President Higgins, and Dublin city councillors. It was incredibly moving to witness the busloads of women arrive from the Garden Party at Áras an Uachtaráin to the Mansion House, many back in Dublin for the first time in decades, to honour them and their lives. Twenty-five years on from the unveiling of the memorial bench in St Stephen’s Green, it is now clearly time for a more permanent memorial which will allow real reflection and ongoing education on this history. The “Open Heart City” initiative of JFMR, working with Grafton Architects, and support from Gary Gannon can be such a memorial. The past can never be entirely quarantined. Shining a light on that difficult past through JFM’s ongoing work brought to mind the lines of Derek Mahon:
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!
Ursula Quill is a doctoral student at the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin researching deliberative democracy. A graduate of English and Irish, she also holds a diploma in legal studies from the King’s Inns. She worked for four years with Ivana Bacik in Seanad Éireann, including on the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and the Vótáil100 programme. She is a board member of the Institute of International and European Affairs.