Tuesday, February 05, 2013

'Significant' State role in Magdalene laundry referrals

The entrance to the former Magdalene laundry at St Mary's Convent on Grace Park Road, Drumcondra, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish TimesSome 10,000 women and girls entered Magdalene laundries since 1922 with more than a quarter of referrals made or facilitated by the State, a report has found.

The 'Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries' was published this afternoon. 

It found “significant” State involvement in the laundries.

In the report, the committee said it found “no evidence” to support the perception that “unmarried girls” had babies in the laundries or that many of the women were prostitutes.

“The reality is much more complex” committee chairman Dr Martin McAleese writes in the introduction.

The women admitted to the laundries “have for too long felt the social stigma” of the “wholly inaccurate characterisation” of them as “fallen women”, he said. “[This is] not borne out of facts.”

Reasons for Entry 

The committee found a wide range of reasons women and girls entered the 10 religious run laundries operating in the State between 1922 and 1996.

Reasons include: referrals by courts, mostly for minor or petty offences; by social services; from industrial and reformatory schools; rejection by foster parents; girls orphaned or in abusive homes; women with mental or physical disabilities; poor and homeless women and girls placed by their families for reasons including socio-moral attitudes.

Women and girls referred from industrial schools and non-State agencies would not have known why they were being sent or how long they had to stay in the laundries, the report finds. Those referred by officials in criminal justice and social services would have been told reason and duration.

“None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children,” Dr McAleese writes. “Not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again”.

State involvement 

The committee found “significant State involvement” with the laundries, Dr McAleese writes.

Referrals were made or facilitated by the State made up 26.5 per cent (2,124) of the 8,025 cases for which reasons are known.

Some 8 per cent of women were referred to by the criminal justice system, either on remand, as a condition of probation or less formal referrals such as from the Garda. 

Some of the criminal justice referrals were based on legislation while others were ad hoc or informal. Common crimes included failure to purchase a ticket, larceny, vagrancy, assault.

Almost 8 per cent were referred from industrial schools, another almost 7 per cent from health and social services and almost 4 per cent from mother and baby homes. Some women were referred to laundries by the health and social services because it was cheaper than State-run facilities, the report said.

The report found direct State involvement in: routes of entry, workplace regulations and inspections, funding and financial assistance to laundries, routes of exit, death registrations.
The committee found the laundries were as workplaces subject to the Factories Acts and inspected by the State to the same extent as commercial laundries. 

The records show the laundries were generally compliant but standards are not equivalent to current workplaces.

Conditions in the laundries 

The girls found themselves alone in a “harsh and physically demanding work environment”, Dr McAleese writes. The laundries were “lonely and frightening” places for many of the women.

The committee does not make findings on treatment of women because of the small sample of women available to share their experiences. However, the women who shared their experiences made no sexual abuse allegations against nuns.

Most women described the atmosphere as “cold” with a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer” with many instances of “verbal censure”. Most women spoke of hurt due to the “loss of freedom”, the “lack of information on when they could leave” and denial of contact with family.

The former industrial school residents made a “clear distinction” between schools and laundries. They said the ill-treatment and abuse prevalent in the school was not experienced in the laundries.

The religious orders say protection of privacy was they reason some women were given a house or class name instead of heir birth name. 

However, the committee says many of the women “felt as though their identity was being erased”.

Six in 10 women spent less than a year in the laundries, the report finds.


State funding included capitation, grants and laundry contracts. 

At one laundry, almost a fifth of business over a sample period was from the State. 

The committee found the laundries operated on a subsistence or break-even basis rather than being commercial or highly profitable.

Religious Congregations 

The four congregations who operated the laundries expressed their regret at the impact. 

Reflecting on the report, the Sisters of the Good Shepherds, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy said: “We have become increasingly aware that whereas our intention was to provide refuge and a safe haven, the impact on some who have experienced our care has been something different. We are aware that for some, their experience of our care has been deeply wounding, we deeply regret this.”

The first Magdalene laundry in Ireland opened on Dublin’s Leeson Street in 1767. 

Four female religious congregations came to dominate the running of the laundries.

The Good Shepherd Sisters also operated a Magdalene laundry in Belfast until 1977.

There were 10 Magdalene laundries in the Republic following independence. 

 These were at Waterford, New Ross, two in Cork, Limerick, Galway, and four in Dublin at Dún Laoghaire, Donnybrook, Drumcondra and Gloucester Street/Seán MacDermott Street.

This latter – and last – laundry closed in October 1996.

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