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article imageIrish Premier's apology for Magdalen Laundries a 'cop-out'

By Robert Myles     Feb 7, 2013 in World
Dublin - On Feb. 5, the Irish government released a long awaited report on Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries. The Magdalen Laundries operated from 1765, and took in ‘fallen women’ but their existence was often ignored in Ireland and unknown to the outside world.
The Magdalen Laundries were not some ancient relic of Irish history. This curious amalgam of Church and State, in a country where the Roman Catholic Church has often had such an influence on politicians and the constitution which would be anathema to many other Western countries, lasted right up until September 1996, when the last Magdalen asylum was closed in Waterford.
Many former inmates of the Magdalen Laundries, sometimes labelled ‘Maggies’ are still alive. A campaigning group Justice for the Magdalenes has long campaigned on their behalf urging an official state apology and compensation for the victims, some of whom were incarcerated in inhumane conditions for years.
Unknown Magdalen Laundry in Ireland early 20th century
Unknown Magdalen Laundry in Ireland early 20th century
Wikimedia Commons
This week, Senator Martin McAleese presented a report to the Irish parliament on the Magdalen Laundries by the Irish Department of Justice and Equality. An estimated 10,000 women and girls were consigned to these religious asylums between 1922, when the Irish Free State came into being, and their eventual closure. (The Irish Free State comprised the 26 counties in what would later become the Republic of Ireland.) During the whole time the Laundries were in existence, it’s estimated more than 30,000 women and girls were inmates of these asylums.
The McAleese report focussed primarily on the involvement of the Irish State in the Laundries who were often given lucrative State laundry contracts. Three key findings of the report are highlighted by The Guardian:
• From 1922, more than 25 percent of women held in the Laundries for whom records survived were sent there by the Irish Sate authorities, putting state referrals at around 2,500.
• The Irish State gave lucrative laundry contracts to the Magdalen institutions but there was a failure to comply with fair wage clauses or social insurance obligations.
• The Irish State inspected the laundries under the Factories Acts but in doing so, it supervised and maintained a system of forced and unpaid labour contravening numerous legal obligations.
The Magdalen Laundries were not just a means of removing prostitutes from the streets taking an, out of side, out of mind approach. A range of inmates were consigned to these asylums, some as young as 9, the McAleese Report says. The asylums became home to women and girls considered to be troubled or morally fallen, and included unwed mothers considered to be promiscuous. These women and girls were regularly dehumanized and given different names by the Magdalen sisters, the Roman Catholic nuns charged with the operation of the Laundries. In an Irish Times report at the weekend, they reported on the humiliations experienced of some of the (still living) victims of the Magdalen Laundries.
One of the victims, Mary Currington told the Irish Times of her treatment at the hands of the Good Shepherds nuns in County Wexford, she said,
“Four nuns stood around me, saying, ‘What shall we call her?’ I kept saying, ‘I’m Mary.’
“They weren’t listening. ‘Oh, we’ll call her Geraldine,’ they said. I wasn’t understanding at all; why are they changing my name? I was so confused.”
The McAleese report also found that a number of Magdalen inmates were buried in unmarked graves. For the unfortunate inmates who gave birth whilst incarcerated in Magdalen institutions, babies were taken from their mothers who often never saw them again.
After the Magdalen report was published, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny spoke about the report during leader’s questions in the Dail, the Irish Parliament, yesterday.
What the Irish premier said fell short of the State accepting responsibility for its involvement in maintaining the regime of the Magdalen asylums for over seventy years and his remarks were condemned by those still seeking justice for Magdalen victims.
Quoted in The Independent, Mr Kenny said,
“I’m sorry that this release of pressure and understanding for so many of those women was not done before this, because they were branded as fallen women.”
After parliament, Mr Kenny also apologised for the stigma and conditions suffered by those incarcerated.
A full Irish government response to the report will be made within two weeks, but the Irish premier’s comments yesterday did little to satisfy the Justice for Magdalenes campaigning group.
James M. Smith, an associate professor at Boston College and a guiding light in Justice for Magdalenes, speaking to the New York Times described the Irish Premier’s statement as “egregious and insensitive.” Mr Smith continued,
“Mr. Kenny has failed the test of moral courage,” he said. “Yet again an Irish government has let down the very people it purports to serve. The women really did expect something more from this government. This fairly cynical response has lost it an awful lot of good will today as a result.”
For another advocacy group, Steven O’Riordan of Magdalene Survivors Together said in the Irish Times, “Those comments from Enda Kenny are a complete and utter cop out.”
Magdalenes Survivors Together want the Irish State to give a full and unequivocal apology for the treatment of women sent to the Laundries. They also want recompense by way of wages and pensions for the underpaid and often unpaid work done by Magdalen victims. Mr. O’Riordan said his organisation considers religious congregations should contribute towards compensation but that the group expected the State to, “do the right thing.” Magdalenes Survivors Together is currently considering legal action against both the Irish State and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
The Irish Premier’s ‘apology’ was also forthrightly condemned by Claire McGettrick of Justice for Magdalenes who told,
“To get up in the Dáil and refuse to apologise to a group of ageing, vulnerable group of women…is frankly cynical. 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.”
The opposition party in the Irish parliament, Fianna Fail, called for a dedicated victim support unit to be set up within Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality to deal with matters arising from the Magdalen report, including possible redress for the inmates of the Magdalen Laundries.
The Irish government will now take time to review the Magdalen Laundries report before issuing their considered response.
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