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The Magadalenes’ and Ireland’s Dirty Laundry

Greg Daly - published on 02/07/13

New Irish gov't report alleges abuse at religious centers meant to help women in danger of falling into prostitution

Ireland’s senator Martin McAleese, husband of former president Mary McAleese, this week introduced his report on Ireland’s Magdalene laundries by saying, “There is no single or simple story of the Magdalen Laundries”.

This, it would appear, is an understatement. The McAleese Report presents a more nuanced picture of laundry life than commonly understood, but makes no findings about whether torture or other degrading treatment took place within them. As such, it has not exculpated the religious orders that ran the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996; it has, however, decisively refuted claims that the State was innocent in this affair.

The inquiry was prompted by a June 2011 UN report, condemning the State’s failure “to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined in the Magdalene Laundries, by failing to regulate their operations and inspect them, where it is alleged that physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed.”

Recommending independent investigations into allegations of torture and other degrading treatment, the UN urged that prosecutions be brought where necessary and compensation be given to surviving residents. Shortly afterwards, Justice Minister Alan Shatter announced that a committee would investigate the State’s involvement with the laundries.

Previous governments had denied any involvement, claiming that the State had not supervised, regulated, or referred individuals to laundries, and as such insisting that former residents were ineligible for compensation from the State for any ill-treatment suffered there.

Ten Magdalene laundries operated in independent Ireland, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge.

Part of an infrastructure inherited from the UK, also including reformatory schools, workhouses, and psychiatric hospitals, such institutions were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the first English ‘Magdalene Home’ having been established in 1758, and the first Irish one being a specifically Protestant asylum founded seven years later.

Originally intended mainly as refuges for prostitutes or women at risk of falling into prostitution, then recognised as a serious and widespread problem, early Magdalene asylums aimed at reform; work within them – usually needlework and laundry – aimed to keep residents busy and train them for future work.

Income from this helped support the institutions; one of the most surprising aspects of the McAleese Report is that it finds that, contrary to the myth that the laundries of independent Ireland were profitable enterprises, they were broadly run on a subsistence basis.

Evidence is incomplete, but surviving records indicate that the laundries would not have been viable without extra income through donations, bequests, and State assistance.

Between 1943 and 1971, for instance, Galway’s laundry typically generated a net surplus worth €49,771 at current rates, which was used to support and maintain the women there; without bequests and donations, another laundry would have recorded an annual deficit worth about €210,000 between 1922 and 1973.

Accountants dealing with Cork’s laundry noted that with an average surplus worth €4,984 a year from 1970 on, and with eight or nine sisters typically working there at a time, the figures seemed to show that the laundries’ purpose was to support the residents and occupy their time.

The laundries did not pay wages, but assuming the figures are correct, it seemed that nobody gained from it financially, save those who benefitted from the cheap services the laundries provided.

The State was foremost among these. A 1960s ledger from one Dublin laundry shows that roughly 18pc of its business was with the defence forces, state agencies, government departments and state-funded hospitals. Official records corroborate this, showing a heavy reliance upon such services.

This was but one form of state involvement with the laundries, the most obvious other association being the routes by which girls and women entered them.  Decisively refuting governmental claims, over a quarter of the 10,012 women known to have entered the laundries after 1922 were sent there by the State, whether through the criminal justice system, industrial and reformatory schools, the health and social services sector, or Mother and Baby homes.

Many girls and women also left the laundries by these official routes, 61pc of women having stayed in the laundries for less than a year, the typical inmate having spent about seven months there. Younger residents and women on probation who attempted to leave laundries without permission were often returned by Ireland’s police.

Laundries were regulated and inspected like other business premises; one inspector the Committee interviewed described a 1980s Magdalene laundry as being ‘Dickensian’, albeit no more so than other contemporary laundries. As early as the 1920s the government wrestled with the propriety of doing business with organisations that did not pay ‘fair wages’, tending to resolve this by holding that the cost of keep, clothing, medical attention and other matters in the laundries amounted to the equivalent of a fair wage.

The State also played a role when deaths took place, 879 women being known to have died in the laundries during the period under investigation. While the vast majority of such deaths were appropriately registered, some were not; the Committee could not state whether these had not been registered at all, had been registered under variations of the women’s names, or had been registered at their former homes. Of the properly-registered deaths, none, apparently, were so sudden or suspicious that a coroner rather than a general practitioner had been needed to register them.

The institutions’ role changed over time, and all sorts of women lived in the laundries of independent Ireland, 16.4pc having personally sought admission.

Some were referred by the courts for reasons as petty as travelling without a ticket or as serious as infanticide. Many were former industrial school children, referred onwards or released on licence before turning 16. Some had been rejected by foster parents when maintenance payments ceased, or were placed in the laundries by social services because the State lacked adequate accommodation for teenagers. Others were orphans or the children of abusive homes, had disabilities or illnesses, or were simply homeless. 10.5pc were placed there by their families.

It is impossible to tell how many women entered the laundries as refuges from prostitution. The report cites no examples of women – usually teenage girls – referred to laundries in connection with prostitution or acts of public indecency after the 1940s. It speculates that some early referrals from the Legion of Mary, which ran shelters in Dublin, were also linked with prostitution, and notes how from the 1950s on, members of Dublin’s Anti-Vice Unit often refrained from charging girls found soliciting, instead them to the nearest laundry in the hope of helping them.

Several trends can be detected over the period covered by the report, though it is not easy to see how they relate to each other.

The most important trend is a general downward one. While the last laundry did not close until 1996, the system can hardly be said to have thrived until then. A steady decline set in after the 1930s, when 2,695 women entered the laundries; the 1970s saw just 660 entries, the 1980s 147, and the 1990s a mere eight. The number of state referrals shows a similar downward trend, aside from a puzzling spike in the mid-1960s.

One laundry, in Dublin’s prestigious Donnybrook, is the exception to this general rule. Its highest ever intake was in 1966, and twice in the 1970s it took in more than 30 new people.

It is important to consider such trends, as the report covers a long period, and it can be tempting to flatten it out in analysis, such that the laundries of the 1930s and the 1990s are seen in the same light; this tendency to flatten the report out is particularly obvious in the chapter on the women’s lives in the laundries, which neither attempts to link conduct to specific periods nor individual laundries.

This chapter contains the oral testimony of 118 individuals, 58 of whom still live in the care of religious orders, on the laundries’ living and working conditions. Senator McAleese’s introduction notes that the ‘vast majority’ of the women interviewed neither saw nor experienced physical punishment in the laundries, an important point in light of how the laundries are usually understood, but it is clear that some did so.

Just as three witnesses cited in 2009’s Ryan Report testified to physical abuse in the laundries, so some of the women quoted describe experiences of physical abuse of varying degrees of severity. The report notes that despite common patterns in the women’s stories, “the Committee did not make specific findings on this issue, in light of the small sample of women available.”

This may seem a grievous evasion of responsibility, but the Committee’s task was to establish the facts of state involvement in the laundries, not whether the women of the Magdalene laundries had experienced cruel or degrading treatment. If there is a failing here, it lies not with Senator McAleese and his team, but with the Irish government, which should consider establishing a systematic independent investigation of conduct within the laundries, as requested by the UN.

In the meantime, the claims of successive Irish governments that the laundries had not been their responsibility lie in tatters.

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