These were places where “loose girls” or “fallen women” could be packed off to, girls impregnated by their fathers or uncles or the local priest, girls who were considered too flightly or flirtatious or headstrong to be biddable members of society. They could be put to work all day, washing sheets for the military, fed on bread and dripping, forbidden to speak and offered no way out, or any explanation about why they were imprisoned. Half of them were teenagers, doomed to spend their best years in a workhouse, being humiliated by nuns, told they’d offended God and that their parents didn’t want them.
Prisons. Slavery. For girls who were considered too something or other.
Ireland has had a chronic problem of keeping church and state matters apart. Government and church traditionally, if tacitly, support each other – which meant, in the past, the authorities turning a blind eye to abusive priests. The girls sent to the Magdalene Laundries had committed no crime – they were accused of committing sin – but they could be taken by Gardai and locked away in prisons funded by the state.
No wonder the government didn’t want the ghastly business coming into the light. It’s vital Mr Kenny tries to frame some response to the victims’ families beyond feeling sorry for what the victims endured. And the Magdalene report confirms the importance of keeping church and state matters separate – even if, as we’ve seen in this week’s historic Commons vote, the institutions are heading for a fight.
More important to frame a response to the victims than to their families – they’re not all dead, after all.