Up to 2,000 children were illegally exported from Magdalene laundries in Ireland to adoptive parents in the U.S., mainly to wealthy families.
Many of those children are now demanding justice for their birth parents and an apology from the Irish government who they say were totally complicit in the cover-up of what went on. Activists believe the McAleese report is the first step in the right direction.
The children were taken away from their mothers who worked under near slave conditions in the Magdalene Laundry system set up by the state and religious orders.
The Justice for Magdalenes campaign group, founded in the U.S. by a 'Magdalene baby' Mari Steed, has fought a 10-year campaign for an official apology from the Irish State and Catholic Church, and for compensation for all who are still alive.
A key advisory board member James Smith, an associate professor at Boston College, said he hoped the Government was listening.
"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 women can ill afford," he said.
It is believed that only up to 1,000 women are still alive, the last laundry closed in 1996 and there were ten in total.
Irish American activists have been seeking to make the Irish government responsible for the maltreatment of young Irish women forced to work in Laundries.
According to Mari Steed, spokeswoman of the group Justice for Magdalenes, the Irish government was complicit in the abuse the women suffered. It owes them an apology and compensation.
James M. Smith, an associate professor at the English department and Irish studies program at Boston College states, “The state’s fingerprints are all over this. The state is now conveniently scapegoating the Catholic Church when in fact church and state were partners throughout most of the twentieth century.”
It is hard to know how many women were in the laundries because the religious orders that ran them have not released their records. When they left the Laundries the women tended to emigrate. Many survivors are in the US.
“There are women in America – women in New York, probably in Philadelphia and Chicago too,” Smith says, “Wherever there were large Irish communities in the 1940s and 1950s. Many went into nursing assistant jobs, into healthcare – into institutions, not dissimilar from what they had left.”
Mari Steed herself is the daughter of a former Magdalene. The ten years she spent in a Magdalene Laundry still affects her. A US family adopted Steed and she grew up in Philadelphia. An articulate woman with shoulder-length black hair, Steed now gives talks and writes letters to Irish newspapers. She has set up a facebook group and runs the website MagdaleneLaundries.com.
Smith is the author of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment, a book that won him the distinguished First Book award at the American Conference for Irish Studies in 2007.
Meanwhile the survivors are getting older. “It’s so important for us to get oral histories, and to try to get compensation for them,” Mari Steed says. “They’re going to start dying out. Perhaps that’s what the government is hoping.”
Historical Context :
• Magdalene Laundries were institutions operated by nuns in which women, called “penitents,” worked at laundry and other for profit enterprises
• These women were denied freedom of movement, they were never paid for their labor, and they were denied their given names and identities
• The daily routine emphasized prayer, silence, and work
• Women had to be signed out of the Magdalene
• Many remained to live, work, and ultimately die, behind convent walls
• After 1922, Magdalene Laundries were operated by The Sisters of Mercy (Galway and Dun Laoghaire), The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (Drumcondra and Sean MacDermott Street, Dublin), the Sisters of Charity (Donnybrook and Cork), and the Good Shepherd Sisters (Limerick, Cork, Waterford and New Ross)
• All four Congregations are members of CORI and also managed state residential institutions
• The nuns do not release records for women entering the laundries after 1 January 1900
• The last Magdalene ceased operating as a commercial laundry on 25 October 1996.