Sinead Kennedy looks at the background to a new report into the horrific treatment of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries
High Park in Drumcondra is a quite, small suburb of Dublin City, filled with bright modern, town houses.
It bears all the hallmarks of Ireland’s over inflated Celtic Tiger property boom.
Walking through it today it is difficult to imagine that it was once the location of Ireland’s largest Magdalene laundry.
In the early 1990s the Sisters of our Lady of Charity who ran the laundry found themselves in a spot of financial bother.
They had been dabbling in the stock market and found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy after one of their investments collapsed.
This forced them to sell off a portion of their extensive land holdings.
The nuns however faced one enormous problem when it came to finalising the deal—the site contained an unmarked, mass grave containing the remains of 133 women. Not to be discouraged the nuns did a deal with the property developer to split the cost of exhumation and reburial.
However, it soon emerged that there were
22 more bodies in the grave than matched the nuns’ records and that more than a third of the deaths had never been certified.
The nuns did not even know the names of the women, recording them only as Magdalene of St Cecilia or Magdalene of Lourdes.
The nuns insisted, and continue to insist, that they did nothing wrong.
Nonetheless their sale of the Magdalene graves turned out to be a turning point in the struggle for acknowledgment and justice by the Magdalene survivors.
The publication last week of the government report on these institutions marked another important landmark in this struggle.
The Irish state was finally forced to admit to its role in the enslavement of thousands of women. The report makes for harrowing reading. It rebuts government claims that women and girls entered these institutions “voluntarily”.
It also contradicts the religious orders’ assertion that women were free to come and go as they pleased.
Many of the survivors describe their experience as tantamount to “slavery”, living behind locked doors and barred windows, forced to work for free.
“The majority of women… were not informed why they were there, they had no information on when they could leave and were denied contact with the outside world,” the report states.
It adds that the police “brought women to the laundries on a more ad hoc or informal basis”.
It is clear from reading the report that the women sent to these laundries had committed no crime.
Rather they were accused of committing sins.
But they could be taken by the police and locked away in prisons operated by the Church and funded by the state. Irish prime minister Enda Kenny would only speak of his “regret” about the
stigma hanging over the women.
He scandalously refused to guarantee the womens’ modest demands regarding the injustices that have been heaped upon them.
Those demands are for an official state apology, payment of lost wages and the recalculations of pension entitlements to reflect time spent in the laundries.
The publication of the Magdalene Report on Tuesday of last week should have marked the end of their struggle.
Instead it marks the beginning of new battle for justice.