Fallen Women Forgiven: Enda Kenny and the Magdalene Laundries

Fallen Women Forgiven: Enda Kenny and the Magdalene Laundries

Prompted by the UN Committee against Torture in 2011 to set up an inquiry, the Irish government has released a report on State collusion with the Catholic Church in the treatment of girls and women in the work houses known as the Magdalene Laundries. These laundries were run by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns.

The laundries were institutions started by the Catholic Church in 1922, in which thousands of vulnerable women were incarcerated. While in reality those sent to the laundries were products of poverty, homelessness, and dysfunctional families, the myth of the “bad girl” and “fallen woman” sent to the laundries to reform has persisted.  Those that were sent to these institutions spent months or years in hard labour, with no access to education, little respect and in many cases lived in constant fear. Work included doing laundry for hotels, hospitals and prisons.

Chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, the interdepartmental committee, set up to compile this report, has been working since July 2011. The report, released on 5th February 2013, has defined and exposed the relationship between ten laundries and the State; that more than a quarter of all official referrals to the laundries were made by the state.

McAleese opens the report with, “There is no single or simple story of the Magdalene Laundries.”  The laundries affected approximately 10,000 women in Ireland from the creation of the Irish state in 1922 until the closure of the last laundry in 1996. McAleese rightly points out that these women “have been and have felt forgotten.  Indeed for many of them, an inability to share their story in the years after their time in a Magdalene Laundry has only added to the confusion and pain they feel about that period in their lives.”

Survivors, Marina Gambold and Maureen Sullivan, have spoken up about the wide range of experiences from the laundries to the BBC. Gambold was brought to a Magdalene Laundry at the age of 16. The treatment of these women from the four sisterhoods was cruel and unusual. Gambold told the BBC “One day I broke a cup and the nun said, ‘I will teach you to be careful’. “She got a thick string and she tied it round my neck for three days and three nights and I had to eat off the floor every morning.”

Sullivan, abused by her stepfather, was placed in a Magdalene Laundry in Wexford when she was 12. The BBC reports: “The nuns noticed, called in a priest and convinced her mother that Maureen would be going to a ‘lovely school.’ She never saw her school books again, was forced to work night and day, seven days a week, and was given a new name, Frances.”

Life in the Magdalene Laundries included forced and unpaid labor, inflicting emotional and physical abuse on incarcerated women. This system was, in many cases, a total and complete denial of human rights for some of the weakest members of society in twentieth-century Ireland.

For those that managed to escape life in the laundries, the stigma of a stint in one of these instituions followed them. McAleese refers to this in the introduction to the committee’s report: “The women who were admitted to and worked in the Magdalene Laundries, whether for short or long periods of time since the foundation of the State, have for too long felt the social stigma of what was sometimes cruelly called the ‘fallen woman’.”

To understand the power of the Catholic Church, how much it affected every Irish person’s daily life, one only has to look at the Irish Constitution. In its original conception, the Constitution originally granted the Roman Catholic Church a “special position” within the state, right up until the Fifth Amendment removed this provision in 1972. This gave the Catholic Church carte blanche to impose its morality through social and political influence. The Church became involved in every part of Irish society, from schooling to social life. As the Irish State originated with the “special position” of the church explicitly stated – to be a good Irish man or woman, you had to be a good Catholic. With this background, both the State and the Church were seen in Ireland as the accepted institutions in which to deal with Ireland’s fallen women.

Magdalen Laundry Sculpture In Galway . (Flickr)

The idea of the Magdalene Laundries as a place where only “bad girls” and “fallen women” were sent has continued. A possible reason for this reputation is the lack of academic focus given to the inner workings of the laundries. Without any major historical studies undertaken on these organizations, the idea of the laundry, as presented by the Catholic Church, has persisted in Irish imagination as a place where “bad girls” were sent. As the State has only now researched its own level of involvement– it’s not hard to understand how this myth has continued. The religious orders involved have yet to open their archives for scholarly research.

The lobby group, Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), has pushed for the state to admit involvement in the operation of these laundries for years. When the release of this report was delayed last year, JFM sent a copy of their documents on the laundries to every TD and Senator at Leinster House.

The full report, “The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries,” is available to read here. While it was released in early February of this year, it took Taoiseach Kenny (The Prime Minister for those US readers) two weeks to respond.

When the report was released, Taoiseach Kenny apologised only for the stigma and conditions suffered by women who were inmates of the Magdalene Laundries.  Dr. Katherine O’Donnell of the Justice for Magdalene’s campaign said many of the women still operated under a “level of stigma, silence and shame” about what happened to them.

The story of the Magdalene Laundries is one of greedy capitalism, patriarchy and a too-powerful state religion. Church and State sponsored organizations that were supposed to protect the most vulnerable, but instead these women and girls were sent to the laundries as slaves, with many spending the remainder of their lives there. Stripped of their identity and their freedom, these women and girls, were cast as sinful “Magdalene” figures and punished according to the Church’s code.

Interestingly, Kenny, McAleese and the media have focused on the issue of how these women were deemed as “fallen.” While Ireland has begun to move away from the strict moral code of the Catholic Church, the furor over how the victims and survivors of the laundries were unfairly cast as “fallen women” has struck a chord. This suggests that we haven’t moved as far as we like to think.

McAleese stated in his introduction to the report:

“This is a wholly inaccurate characterization, hurtful to them and their families, that is not borne out by the facts.  The Committee found no evidence to support the perception that unmarried girls had babies there, or that many of the women of the Magdalene Laundries since 1922 were prostitutes. The reality is much more complex.”

This suggests that he finds “unmarried girls with babies” and prostitutes as fallen women. As there is no evidence to suggest that those who entered into the laundries were either of these things, Enda Kenny has now freed them of their fallen women stigma.

What emerges from this report is an insight into the partnership existing between Church and State in Irish society in the twentieth century and the long lasting effects of this partnership. That one of the major points of focus to come from this report is to clear these women’s names of the “fallen” moniker reveals how the sexist remnants of this partnership still exist today.

Featured image caption: Magdalene Laundries Washing Machine. (Flickr)

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.