Tag Archives: justice

The Magdalen Laundries: Ireland’s Shameful Past


When the 133 graves at High Park were discovered, a huge cry went up among Irish society. What would become of these sad women and their legacy? Many of the graves were unmarked. With no family to claim or name them, so many women died within the system itself, actually cared for in their last days by their own sisters in shame, but with no other family member to step forward and bury them decently. And so the good Sisters of Charity did what they could, quietly interring these 133 souls over a period spanning nearly 100 years.

As public outrage grew, a decision was made to reinter the bodies in nearby Glasnevin Cemetery. Some were identified in the process and claimed by younger generations of whatever family they had left. Slight memorials exist at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and in St Stephen’s Green, where a simple, sad bench and plaque sit.

Society — still outraged at the sad history of these women — continued to stew over this state of affairs in the media, in books, and in plays. Recent allegations of abuse at the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin as well as newly-discovered archives of some 2,000 Irish children exported to the US and elsewhere had already added to the fury and questions began to fly. What kind of so-called moral, decent society could so shun and penalize its women?

Today we hear horrifying stories of ritualistic genital mutilation in some sectors of Muslim society; we hear of the thousands of Chinese infant girls left to languish and die at birth because they were not born male and exceeded the one-child-per-family rule in effect in China. We hear of Romanian orphans, illegal Brazilian adoption schemes, Chile’s horrifying baby-brokering history — each and every case a horrible example of man’s inhumanity to mankind, or in this case, womankind.

But in a relatively civilized European country? It seems unfathomable. But there it is — and the Catholic Church staunchly defending its actions, asking us to place it within the ‘context of the times.’ This is just the way it was done back then and besides, it was society who judged and sentenced these women, not the church, they say.

Well, there are two vital flaws in their theories:

If we accept their ‘place it in the context of the times’ excuse, then what next? Do we excuse Nazi genocide of Jewish and other people because it was ‘just the way things were done then’? Do we next excuse the Inquisition by placing it in a ‘time context’ as well?

And as for placing the blame on society — it is and was well-known that Irish society has been Church-driven since at least the 6th century AD, when Ireland’s native Brehon law was completely eradicated and replaced with Roman/Canon law. Interestingly, under ancient Brehon law, if a man impregnated a woman he was not bound to by marriage, regardless of her societal station, mental status, etc., he was required to care for her and the resulting child. The child was then accorded the same rights and privileges of inheritance and ascendancy as a child born inside the bonds of marriage.

How far Ireland has come. While it has always been and is still a highly matriarchal society, Ireland’s laws and social mores have for hundreds of years been not only Church-driven, but male-dominated. If the Church says birth outside marriage is wrong, then society would simply march in step and agree, not the other way ’round. Which throws a fly in the ointment of Mother Church’s other infamous excuse.

And what of the men who impregnated women in this modern Ireland? I have been asked so often what role Irish birthfathers play. The answer: none. These randy old goats simply went their merry way, or if they wanted to be involved, were forbidden by church and family. Many went on as if nothing had ever happened, still holding their head high, with no recriminations on the part of church or society. Perhaps a muffled, “Best be careful Paddy, boyo, next time.” on the part of a slyly winking father, would have been the only admonition. More likely, the lad’s evidence of virility would have been celebrated over a pint in the nearest pub, amid much laughter and derision over the poor girl’s plight.

The last wave of this legacy, women like my birthmother who bore the final vestiges of Catholic guilt and shame by bearing children out of wedlock, still hide shamefully in the shadows. Much like many of us sitting here today, they silently bore their stigma, doing as they were told to get on with their lives, forget the past, marry and never tell a soul your dreadful secret. Until the mid-1970’s, the birthmothers, the ‘penitents’, the Magdalens of Ireland, bore an unimaginable cross of ill-treatment, ritualistic abuse and, most cruelly — were often required to stay with their children until the time came for them to be adopted into new homes: some in Ireland, many far away in America. My birthmother and many of the women who entered homes like the Sacred Heart Convent in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, even breastfed us and cared for us — often up till age two or older. They were then cruelly parted from us, often under questionable circumstances. Many were told the relinquishment was a fostering arrangement, that they could reclaim their child if they proved themselves ‘decent’ women and came back with marriage certificates in hand. I know of one woman who did just that, only to learn her daughter had already gone to America. She was given a photo of her daughter’s first Christmas with her new American family. I cannot even begin to fathom that sort of heartbreak, even having relinquished my own daughter through the Catholic Church in Philadelphia in 1978.

Even today, the Irish birthmothers I have come into contact with are extremely skittish, scared, and unwilling or unable to come forward with their secret. It’s as if some invisible sword of Damascus hangs over their heads, ready at any moment to strike them the minute they publicly acknowledge their relinquished children. I have shared the success empowerment has brought to many of us here in the US with these women. Successes like the march on Washington, DC, the full-page ad we sponsored in the Oregonian prior to Measure 58’s passing. Still, the stigma hangs so heavy, they have only taken feeble, tentative steps towards making their voices heard to the Irish government and the Catholic church.

Much remains to be done. And for my part, I have made it my goal to continue educating people on the story of the Magdalens. Their voices have been silenced; mine has not. I will continue to speak out so that these women will be remembered.

The Little NGO That Could


I just could not be more proud of the little NGO, Justice for Magdalenes, I co-founded back in 2003 with two other colleagues, no funding (a €26 account balance as we speak) and with less than a David-sized slingshot against a Goliath made of the Irish State and the Catholic Church. But on Sunday, June 5, the United Nations made that slingshot and ammunition bigger. Tons of international press followed. A tepid statement of “cooperation” was released by CORI (the Conference of Religious in Ireland, representing the four religious orders who operated Magdalene Laundries)…holy rhetoric, Batman! But’s it a start. And it proves justice is possible for the most marginalised of Irish society. The press release we issued June 6 says it all:
The UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) issued its “Concluding Observations” following the first examination of the Irish State under the UN Convention Against Torture. The Committee reiterated its calls for an independent investigation into the Magdalene Laundries abuse and redress for the women who suffered.

It also recommended that the State “prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed.” Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, is now calling on the Irish State to act immediately on foot of UNCAT’s recommendations and issue a formal apology to all survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and immediately establish a statutory inquiry into these abuses.

JFM’s submission to UNCAT, written by Maeve O’Rourke (Harvard Law School 2010 Global Human Rights Fellow), and which includes testimonies from four women who spent time in the Laundries, highlights the continuing degrading treatment that survivors are suffering today because of the government’s ongoing failure to apologise, investigate and compensate for the abuse. At the examination in Geneva on 24th May 2011, acting UNCAT Chairperson Felice Gaer, questioned the government’s statement that “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily, or if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians”.

She said, “We had testimony about locked doors and people being captured by the police and returned to the institutions – so there’s State involvement as well.” She added, “There were physical barriers and there seems to have been an intent to confine people” and she stated “I think ‘voluntary’ means that one makes a choice; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is informed; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is then free to leave. I think it means that there is nothing coercive in this context.” She asked, “Can you identify any examples of efforts by State authorities to inspect or regulate these facilities? Were they exempt from standards? And can you tell us what means were taken to ensure that there were no acts or omissions that amount to torture”?

James Smith, Associate Professor at Boston College and a member of JFM’s Advisory Committee, said, “Today’s UN recommendation undermines the government’s argument that this abuse happened ‘a considerable time ago in private institutions’. It rebuts the State’s assertion that the ‘vast majority’ of women entered the Laundries ‘voluntarily’. And, it underscores that the State’s own definition of torture includes the crime of omission with respect to ensuring due diligence to prevent torture. The State failed the women and young girls in the Laundries, and now the UN is saying not only that Ireland can, but that it must, make right its own history in this regard.”

Maeve O’Rourke, who presented JFM’s submission to the Committee, said: ”The UN torture committee has added its voice to the Irish Human Rights Commission’s to remind the Irish government that the women who spent time in Magdalene Laundries have human rights which demand respect today. Having suffered torture or ill-treatment, in which the state directly participated and which it knowingly failed to prevent, the women have the ongoing right to an investigation, an apology, redress and treatment with dignity. I am hopeful that, before it is too late, the government will honour its obligations to these women who suffered such injustice in the past.”

JFM Co-ordinating Committee Director Mari Steed said “Magdalene laundry survivors currently receive no pension reflecting the years they worked for no wages. Many of the women suffer long term physical effects from years of hard labour in the Laundries. All of the women speak of the psychological trauma of their experiences in the Laundries, in many cases the trauma of arriving in a laundry as young girls has stayed with them throughout their lives. We call on the Minister for Justice to implement a scheme in line with the ‘Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme’ submitted to Mr. Shatter in March by JFM. UNCAT committee member Nora Sveaass commended JFM for this scheme, saying that the State should look at it more closely.”

I am furious.

I am furious.  Absolutely furious.  Over a week ago, the Justice for Magdalenes organization issued a press release to all of the major newspapers and media in Ireland as well as to all members and parties of government (full press release is shown below).  We challenged the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored under the 2002 Redress Act.

Specifically we asked that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the Residential Redress Board are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

Not one media outlet or newspaper or government official responded or publicised the press release.  Not one.

For fourteen years, since the inception of the original Magdalene Memorial Committee (which morphed into Justice for Magdalenes in the late 1990’s), we have fought a Sisyphean battle to seek justice for the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.  Yet it would appear the media (and perhaps the public) are more interested in viewing again and again the ‘exoticness’ of survivor trauma – the gut-wrenching stories of misery these women were subjected to, often far worse than prisons.  How much more does the public need to see or hear before they take action?

We challenge Irish society to stop clamouring for the tragic stories, watching and reading as if bystanders at a car wreck scene, and stand up for the abrogated rights of these women.  Take action and write your local TD.  Tell them you support the cause of justice for Magdalene survivors – a decent pension for the unpaid labour they performed, a public apology from all the religious orders responsible for their incarceration, an investigation of the illegally unreported deaths at High Park Convent and the equally illegally exhumed bodies moved from those grounds, and acknowledgement that the fabled land of ‘saints and scholars’ was complicit in not ‘cherishing children’ equally and treating women as something less than human.


Press Release:  29 July, 2009 

Justice for Magdalenes committee calls on Government to provide redress for Magdalene survivors

Justice for Magdalenes welcomes the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009: Implementation Plan, and we look forward to witnessing the immediate implementation of the ninety-nine measures outlined therein.

However, we challenge the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored.

Specifically we ask that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the “Residential Redress Board” are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

“The fact that these children were never committed to a residential institution (e.g., an industrial or reformatory school) is immaterial,” said Justice for Magdalenes spokesperson Mari Steed, whose mother was a Magdalene.  “The fact that a family member signed these children into the ‘care’ of the nuns does not obviate the state’s responsibility for their welfare. These children were and are citizens of the state and they deserved to be cherished.  Yet increasingly we’re discovering they were all but ‘invisibly’ moved between residential institutions and Magdalene Laundries, with little or no record maintained by the religious orders or Departments of Health, Education, Children or Justice,” she added.

Children’s Minister Barry Andrews in his remarks insisted that Irish people no longer show deference towards the Catholic Church. But the government maintains precisely the same deferent attitude towards the religious congregations that operated the nation’s Magdalene Laundries, i.e., the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and Mercy Sisters. No one has apologised.  No one held accountable. And the core issue is still liability and the State’s evasion of all financial responsibility for institutions they continue to view as “private” and “voluntary.”  This deference is also clear in the government’s dismissal of claims submitted by non-Catholic survivors of such institutions as the Bethany Home.  JFM demands that the Minister for Children introduce amending legislation whereby survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, regardless of how they entered such institutions, are provided with redress and reparation for their abusive childhoods, the unpaid labour they performed and the abrogation of their civil and human rights.

Furthermore, JFM demands that the Minister for Justice introduce legislation for a distinct redress scheme for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries as outlined by JFM and submitted to all politicians in Dáil Éireann on July 3 (copy attached).


Justice for Magdalenes seeks to promote and represent the interests of the Magdalene Women, to respectfully promote equality and seek justice for the women formerly incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and to seek the establishment / improvements of support/advisory/re-integration services provided for survivors.