Irish-American activists pressure government over Magdalene Laundries
The Ryan Report highlighted the abuse children suffered in industrial schools and other institutions. Yet in 2,600 pages, the word “Magdalene” featured just once, in a background chapter, Smith says.
The Irish government has apologized to other victims of abuse, but it denies responsibility for what happened to the Magdalene women because it says they were private institutions.
In a letter to the Taoiseach last month, Smith wrote, “The State's judicial system routinely referred women to the Magdalene laundries. From my own research, I can document at least fifty-four instances dating from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s.”
Case files show how courts charged women with concealment of birth and would suspend the sentence if the women agreed to enter a Laundry, Smith argued. No records exist to document whether the women were released.
Smith put forward a scheme for compensating the women, but the government has rejected the plan.
Irish women’s groups support Justice for Magdalenes. “Women in the Magdalen Laundries were in positions of forced labour with no wages, access to trade unions or rights as workers,” said a spokesperson for the National Women’s Council of Ireland. “Slavery is what they experienced. The survivors deserve what they ask for – which is for their case to be brought to the Redress Board, an apology from the state and compensation for the injustice they have experienced.”
But in an email to Irish Central on Monday, the Minister’s for Education’s spokesperson said: “The abuse of any person is an abhorrent and shameful act regardless of the setting. However, this does not mean that the Government is liable for all incidents of abuse nor is it the function of the Government to determine liability in this matter.”
The Irish government has already paid just under 1.3 billion euros to victims of child abuse, Smith says. Especially in the current economic crisis, additional payments to victims of the Magdalene Laundries could be a problem for the government’s coffers.
Mari Steed herself is the daughter of a former Magdalene. Her mother is now 77 years old, but the ten years she spent in a Magdalene Laundry still affect her. She keeps her house meticulously clean, scrubbing the floor when it is already spotless.
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 Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment, a book that won himthe distinguished First Book award at the American Conference for Irish Studies in 2007.
Other North Americans are starting to take notice. Marie C. Croll, a Canadian scholar who studies the Laundries, recently wrote a letter to the Irish Independent entitled “World is Looking at You, Minister” asking, “How can the State openly discriminate against these women and children, as members of your nation?”
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