Opinion: She remains anonymous by choice.
her privacy above all.
She lives alone and never married.
She will never again live in Ireland.
She celebrated her
78th birthday recently.
She is a survivor of the Magdalene laundries.
mother died when she was seven. At 14, her father remarried but she and
a younger sister were unwelcome in the new family household, the only
home they ever knew. Poverty was her only crime.
She was taken to
the Good Shepherd convent in New Ross, her younger sister sent by train
to the congregation’s Limerick house. The Good Shepherds managed
industrial schools for children at both locations and a reformatory
school for girls in Limerick.
But the two sisters were put to work
in the Magdalene laundry with its population of adult women workers.
For the next five years she washed society’s dirty laundry and received
When she refused to work the nuns cut her hair as punishment.
The hair grew back but to this day the loss of her education angers her.
To her, it was a prison in all but name. There was no inspector, no
child welfare officer. She was abandoned and no one cared.
years later this woman lives with the stigma and shame attached to these
These are the indelible stains on her life.
her case and others, there are life-long material consequences to
having spent time in the Magdalene laundry. Her application to the
Residential Institutions Redress Board was rejected.
The 10 laundries
were not among the institutions covered, thus her application was deemed
“ineligible”, and the review board refused her appeal.
helped her apply for a statutory pension, but once again her years
working in the Magdalene laundry did not count when calculating her
entitlement. She was never paid so no stamps were submitted on her
After endless bureaucratic delays and reams of paperwork, she
receives a meagre $7.50 a week from the Irish State – that is, after an
Irish bank deducts international wire transfer and currency conversion
This is the plight of one Magdalene survivor: abused in the past, abandoned in the present.
morning as she wakes in her rented apartment here in the US, the
Cabinet will meet in Dublin to discuss the final report from the
Inter-Departmental Committee Investigating State Involvement with the
This afternoon the report is to be published.
remains to be seen how or whether the Government responds. In either
case, today’s events will have an impact on the rest of her days.
is not alone, nor is her experience exceptional.
Survivors can be found
all across Ireland, the UK, the US and beyond, each with her own story
to tell, all of them anxiously awaiting news from Government Buildings
Some contributed to the work of the
interdepartmental committee – they completed surveys, submitted
testimony that was often difficult and painful to recall, and travelled
to Dublin or London to meet the committee chairman, Senator Martin
McAleese, in person.
In doing so, they showed admirable courage and resilience.
felt unable to participate.
Their time in the Magdalene laundry remains
a carefully guarded secret. They fear jeopardising established
identities – husbands, children and grandchildren know little about this
part of their past. Or they have a deep distrust that justice will be
forthcoming. They have been disappointed before. For some, the risk is
And still, the women’s testimony is compelling. It
rebuts government claims that they entered these institutions
It contradicts the religious orders’ assertion that women
were free to come and go as they pleased.
Some survivors describe their
experience as tantamount to “slavery”, living behind locked doors and
They insist, moreover, that members of An Garda
Síochána routinely brought women to the laundries and/or returned women
who escaped – regardless of whether the State was involved in committing
them in the first place, and in the absence of any statutory basis for
The women’s testimony corroborates historical archives
that disclose the transfer into the Magdalene laundries of children from
State-funded residential institutions and unmarried mothers from
State-licensed mother-and-baby homes.
There is no evidence to
suggest the State made certain the release of these women and young
girls. Some would remain to live and die behind convent walls.
substantiates historical Dáil debates that point to various State
agencies contracting laundry work to the nuns’ commercial businesses,
and doing so without a “fair wages clause” as stipulated for similar
contracts with commercial laundries.
Women describe laundry specific to
the Army, State hospitals, prisons, agricultural laboratories etc.
is to be hoped today’s report will answer many of the heretofore
unanswered questions about these institutions, for example, how many
women entered, why did they end up there, who brought them, how long did
they stay, how many died, and where are they buried?
It will, as such,
help Irish society better understand this aspect of our nation’s past.
however, today will be remembered for how the Government responds to
the conclusions about State involvement, the committee’s primary remit.
The survivor community will judge the Government on whether Minister for
Justice Alan Shatter announces measures that finally affords them
These measures begin with an official State apology. Lost
wages must be restored and pensions recalculated to reflect time spent
in the laundries.
These measures need to be implemented immediately.
Government should then establish a transparent and non-adversarial
compensation scheme that is open to all survivors and puts their welfare
at the forefront.
Time is of the essence.
It is the one commodity
many of these women can ill afford.
They have waited for justice too
The wait must end today.
* James M Smith is an
associate professor in the English department and Irish studies
programme at Boston College. He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene
Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2008) and serves
on the Justice for Magdalenes advisory committee.