When Irish leader Enda Kenny last week made an abject apology on behalf of the Irish state for the mistreatment of Irish women treated like slaves in the Magdalene laundries, Pennsylvania-based Mari Steed, 53, the director of the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes, knows all about it.
She had been torn from her mother, a Magdalene inmate and sent for adoption in America at eighteen months old.
Kenny stated “As a society, for many years we failed you,” he said in an unprecedented speech.
“We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.
“This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”
Mari’s mother, now known as Josephine Bassett, was one of the thousands of women who worked for years in the Magdalene laundries system before the last one closed in 1996. Her mother’s life, Steed says, is a kind of testament to the shadow side of Ireland and the deceitful tale it told itself of a kindly and compassionate social order.
Steed has been to the forefront revealing the injustice and last week’s apology was welcome but her work is not over.
“My mother grew up alone knowing she had siblings and a mother but never having any contact with any of them,” Steed tells the Irish Voice.
“Why weren’t there services in place that could have allowed her access to her parent and siblings? That compassion just wasn’t there.”
Born out of wedlock in the early 1930s, Steed’s mother was placed in an industrial school, a brutal and brutalizing institution that often harmed the children it purported to help.
In 1947 she was then sent to the women’s laundry of Sunday's Well in Cork City. There she spent the next 10 years of her life doing sewing for no pay.
“Her work included tasks that ran from embroidery to stitching smock dresses, from sowing items for the clergy to altering surplices and other religious materials,” Steed said.
“And obviously there was profit being made on these items, but she was never paid for that.”
Steed’s mother is now 79, lives in Swindon, England and still has immense difficulty talking about her experiences.
“She was ashamed that her family had been thrown to the four winds. It seems to be true of a lot of survivors of the laundries,” says Steed.
“On top of that within the ex-pat Irish communities there was a lot of internal bullying going on. People just didn’t dare admit they had been to an industrial school or a Magdalene laundry. You wouldn’t be accepted by your own community.”
Steed’s mother was fortunate, however. She was eventually let go with a work referral in 1957 and picked up employment as aide in a Dublin hospital run by the church.
“Having been raised completely by the nuns, she had no interpersonal skills, no sexual education, she didn't know anything about men,” says Steed.
In less than two years she was pregnant. The nuns sent her back to Cork, this time to a mother-and-baby home.
She gave birth to Steed in 1960 and stayed with her until a U.S. adoption was arranged for the infant about 18 months later, separating another generation from their roots.
“We started Justice for the Magdalenes in 2003,” says Steed. “It took 10 years, but the women who listened to Kenny’s apology are immensely grateful for their state to stand up and say we are sorry for the way we treated you, that’s important to them.
“You almost want to cry for them because that’s all they actually wanted. But that speech needs to underpin some real restorative justice. I didn’t really feel that yet from Kenny.”
How do you compensate someone for the loss of years or even decades of their life lost to shame and indentured servitude?
“The EU Human Rights Commission has a guideline that we’re looking at. There are different reparation schemes across the globe. But it comes down to a fair assessment of each woman and how their experiences impacted their life when they got out,” Steed says.
Steed credits the U.N. Commission Against Torture for pushing the Irish government to produce an apology.
“The government was doing nothing but dragging their feet on this issue until 2011. We had no other choice but to make a human rights case out of it. We took it to the Irish Human Rights Commission and to the UN,” she says.
“I don’t believe for a minute that the government’s response came because they had a change of heart. I believe the UN held their feet to the fire and embarrassed them internationally.”
Meanwhile, for Steed the apology means that the women like her mother can begin to make peace with their difficult pasts.
“They can go about their lives now. I am happy for what’s being done for my mother and women like her,” she says.
“But now I think the floodgates will open on the issue of illegal adoptions. I think that’ll be for the best. We’re at a point in Irish society now where we really just need to clean house.”