Monday, February 04, 2013

Magdalene laundries: Government knowledge of forced detention in workhouses to be laid bare

SURVIVORS of Catholic-run workhouses in Ireland are awaiting an apology from state and church over their forced detention in the institutions.

A report being published tomorrow is expected to formally reveal the extent of the Irish government's knowledge, involvement and responsibility for what went on in Magdalene laundries.

A committee, chaired by Senator Martin McAleese who has since resigned from politics, spent 18 months establishing the role official Ireland played in the operation of the institutions between 1922 and 1996.

Over the 74 years, thousands of single mothers and other women were put to work in detention, mostly in industrial for-profit laundries run by nuns from four religious congregations.

Each woman had her Christian name changed, her surname unused and most have since died.

Campaign group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) has fought a 10-year campaign for an official apology from the Irish state and Catholic Church, and a distinct compensation scheme for all Magdalene survivors.

James Smith, associate professor at Boston College and member of the JFM advisory board, said: "I hope the Government listen. The women can no longer be held hostage to a political system. Time is of the essence, it is the one commodity many of these woman can ill afford."
Survivors have called for a transparent and non-adversarial compensation process for all to be set up, with pensions, lost wages, health and housing services and redress all accounted for. Magdalene survivors have waited too long for justice and this should not be now burdened with either a complicated legal process or a closed-door policy of compensation," Mr Smith said.

"Until there is an apology - I have met so many women who will not come forward, and have no intention of engaging in any process - they might still not come forward, but other women might come forward if they get an assurance that they were wronged. There are women for whom the stigma of being in a Magdalene laundry or being labelled a Maggie - that's slang for prostitute - is too great to this day."

Religious orders the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity ran laundries at Drumcondra and Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin, the Sisters of Mercy in Galway and Dun Laoghaire, the Religious Sisters of Charity in Donnybrook, Dublin, and Cork, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Limerick, Cork, Waterford and New Ross.

The last laundry - Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin's north inner city - closed in 1996. 

JFM is aware of at least 988 women buried in laundry plots in cemeteries across Ireland and therefore must have stayed for life. Mass graves have been identified in Mount St Lawrence Cemetery in Limerick, Glasnevin in Dublin, Sunday's Well in Cork and at sites in Galway. 

Some 155 bodies were exhumed in 1993 from unmarked graves in High Park convent Drumcondra, Dublin, run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. Death certificates could not be found for 24 of the women.

Steven O'Riordain, of the Magdalene Survivors Together, has warned that some women will go on hunger strike if the Government does not meet expectations. 

While the report will set out state responsibility, the names and personal information of Magdalene residents and survivors will not be published. 

Sensitive data seen by the inquiry team will be destroyed or original copies sent back to congregations. 

The inquiry into the Magdalene scandal was finally prompted by a report from the United Nations Committee Against Torture in June 2011. It called for prosecutions where necessary and compensation to surviving women. 

Elsewhere, University College Dublin researchers are seeking accounts from Magdalene survivors, relatives, members of the religious orders, and anyone who wishes to share memories and experiences of the institutions for an oral history project. 

The project is being run by UCD's women's studies centre in the School of Social Justice, and anyone who wishes to share their experience should contact katherine.odonnell@ucd.ie, or on +3535 (0) 1 7167804.

Laundries of this kind were not unique to Ireland, or the Catholic Church. 

The earliest documented one of its kind in Dublin was 1768 on Leeson Street and was a Protestant-run facility.

But the punitive ethos adopted by Catholic laundries in Ireland did not come about until the 1920s and were seen as a consequence for women who strayed outside the church's teaching.

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