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Expert Comment: Magdalen Laundries report published

Irish flag Thursday 7 February 2013

Dr Sonja Tiernan, Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope, considers the report on the Irish State and the Magdalen Laundries.

The report to establish the facts of the Irish State’s involvement with the Magdalen Laundries was presented by the independent chair, Senator Martin McAleese, on Tuesday 5th February. This welcome report examines ten Laundries which operated from the formation of the Irish State in 1922 until the closure of the last of these institutions in 1996. The inquiry was initiated by a report from the UN committee against torture in June 2011.

The Magdalen Laundries refers to institutions originally established for the protection of women who had fallen into, or were in danger of entering, prostitution. The findings of this report highlight how the original purpose of these institutions altered dramatically. Women and young girls were effectively imprisoned and forced to engage in long and treacherous unpaid labour. The youngest girl on record was committed at just nine years of age.

The findings overwhelmingly prove State collusion with the operation of Magdalen Laundries. Over one quarter of the women interned were sent directly from State agencies. Women were sent through the criminal justice system when on remand, probation or early and temporary release from prison. The crimes committed by these women were petty, ranging from failing to purchase a train ticket to vagrancy. Girls were also sent directly from health authority institutions such as mother and baby homes, hospitals and from institutions for the intellectually disabled.

A further section focuses on how the Laundries were funded through contracts for their services. This section highlights further State collusion. The report identifies numerous State bodies which employed the services of this unpaid labour force, including the Defence Forces, Public Hospitals, the Chief State Solicitor's Office and at the government buildings of Leinster House.

This report is over one thousand pages in length and provides the first comprehensive account of the formation and operation of Magdalen Laundries in the Republic of Ireland. For the first time the survivors are free from the stigma associated with having been committed into these institutions.

The report is due to be debated in Dáil Éireann (the House of Representatives) in two weeks. Until then, it appears that the Irish government will not issue any formal comments. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, has acknowledged that he is sorry that so many women had to live in such conditions. He has, however, not issued an apology for the State’s involvement. It remains to be seen what action, if any, will be taken by the Irish government.

The four religious institutions involved have released official apologies. However, there is no commitment to offer the survivors, who now number less than one thousand, any financial redress for their unpaid labour and lack of pension entitlements. The report finds that the Laundries were subsistence only and therefore lacked any profit. Yet, the four religious orders involved earned profits amounting to €296m through land and property sales between 1999 and 2009. In some cases mass graves of women who had died in the Laundries had to be exhumed and reinterred in mass graves elsewhere.

Through popular media reporting, films and literature, the Magdalen Laundries are misleadingly now solely associated with Catholic institutions in Ireland. In fact these institutions operated in Ireland before the State was founded and were in existence across Britain, Europe, Australia and America. As well as Catholic institutions they were also run by private committees and Protestant organisations. It is most likely that this report is the first of many as survivors in other countries force similar investigations by their respective governments.


Dr Tiernan has also contributed to The Irish Post on this issue. You can read the article here.




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