Irish American activists are 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.
“Right now we’re encouraging everybody to contact ministers,” she says. “The thing is, we don’t want to lose focus. We’d like to keep the wave rolling.”
Last week, Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, wrote in response to Parliamentary questions put to his department: “the Magdalene laundries were privately owned and operated establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the State and were not subject to State regulation or supervision.”
But the women were Irish citizens and deserved protection, Justice for Magdalenes asserts. Some were children and should have been at school. The state knew of the abuse and allowed it to go on.
“In 2009 the state is denying any role or function in these institutions,” says James M. Smith, an associate professor at the English department and Irish studies program at Boston College. “But 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 theyhad left.”
American parents adopted the children of Magdalene women. “Between 1948 and 1971 more than 2,100 children were brought from Ireland to America for adoption,” Smith explains. “Many of the mothers likely would have been in 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?”
“I would urge Irish-Americans to go onto Irish papers and submit a letter to the editor,” Smith says. “And to go to the Irish government website and email the Minister for Education’s office.”
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.”