Only one of many routes

Anne Ferris TD, Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality, has a scorching article on the Magdalene laundries. If you read it it will make you feel angry.

In 1955 Halliday Sutherland was doing research for a book on Ireland and managed to visit a Magdalene laundry in Galway.

The day before he visited the laundry in Galway, Dr Sutherland visited the Mother and Baby home in Tuam. He noted that the accepted practice was that unmarried mothers in the Tuam home ‘agreed’ to provide a year of unpaid domestic service to the nuns, and that in addition to this servitude, the home received State support, via Galway County Council, to the tune of £1 per child or mother per week.

A year of slavery.

Sutherland was told that any child not adopted by the age of seven was sent to work in one of Ireland’s notorious Industrial Schools, no doubt a factor in the decisions of the thousands of Irish women who ‘agreed’ to the export of their children for Catholic adoptions abroad. Women who were re-admitted to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home on a second occasion were automatically sent to work at the Magdalene Home Laundry in Galway.  By directing the women to the laundry and the children to the industrial schools the State saved money and the Church made money.

And women were treated like dirt.

Today, thanks to the Magdalene survivors groups we know what the women suffered and that the Mother and Baby homes were only one of many routes by which the Church and State incarcerated women in the Magdalene laundries and similarly operated religious institutions.  This is why in February of this year, after successive governments failed to engage meaningfully with the Magdalene survivors, the current Taoiseach made a formal apology to the women on behalf of the State.

This week the Government announced a redress fund for the survivors. It remains to be seen if the amount and means of payment will prove sufficient to compensate for the State’s role in this tragedy. No sum of money can take away the pain that these women have endured.  In my capacity of Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality I personally undertake to closely monitor the progress of any necessary legislation designed to effect the speedy and appropriate distribution of redress to the women concerned. But there can be absolutely no ambiguity regarding the financial contribution to be made by the Church. There is now no hiding from the enormity of what these women suffered in the so called ‘care’ of these religious institutions.

One of the times I walked through Stephen’s Green I studied the pictorial map in hopes of finding the rest rooms. (Apparently there aren’t any. Ok Dublin that’s weird. It’s a busy, popular place.) I spotted a memorial to the Magdalene women. Oh, gotta see that, I thought, so I went looking for it. It turned out to be a little plaque on a bench. Calling that a “memorial” just renews the insult. It’s kind of like the nun who, when the brother of one inmate rescued her after years, tried to give the inmate 2/6 as payment. Half a crown! As payment for years of backbreaking work!

On the day in 1955 that Dr Halliday Sutherland visited the Galway Magdalene he met some of its seventy-three unpaid manual workers who lifted and toiled in the heat and wet doing laundry work for businesses, institutions and homes in Galway.  One woman told him she had been there for 25 years. He asked another if she liked the laundry.  She answered “yes” but according to Sutherland she did not look him in the eye. Later, he said, a nun told him that she was a bold girl.

“On Sundays they’re allowed to use cosmetics”, the sister-in-charge told him.

But…“Are the girls free?” asked Sutherland.

“Yes” said the nun.

“Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?

“No, we are not as lenient as all that.” said the Mother Superior.

That’s for sure.




  1. Claire Ramsey says

    “not as lenient as that.” Shit. Yet another vicious horror doled out to women by the church, and so convenient, it brought in the $$ too.

  2. CaitieCat says

    Evil. Just evil. Next time someone says priests are awful but at least the nuns aren’t so bad, show them this. :/

  3. says

    I think the timing of a monument to Magdalen Laundry survivors was all wrong. That’s just my opinion, anyway. I think a monument should be erected in the aftermath of the State / Religious apology, and when Redress is settled to their satisfaction. The monument should take prominent position in the heart of the city, alongside the State recognised one being erected for survivors of Industrial “Schools”.

    There is a monument to Magdalen Laundry survivors in Galway.

  4. says

    This brought back memories of similar abuses in Canada. I had a neighbour, back in the 1950s, a native “Indian”, who had been sent to the church-operated TB sanitarium. After she was pronounced healed, she was required to work for 7 years in janitorial work there, without pay, of course. She was rather bitter about it. So were other women who had also been trapped in the same way.

    The Magdalen laundries were just the tip of another large iceberg.

  5. says

    Susannah do you know if there’s any reporting on this? Do you know if it was some special policy for natives – if they got medical treatment they were enslaved for 7 years? (Sounds so biblical, doesn’t it.)

  6. CaitieCat says

    Our big nightmare of past evil is related to that one, Ophelia; we had the “residential schools”, where First Nations children were taken from their families to the schools, forbidden (and beaten for trying) from speaking their native languages or practicing native religions, along with endemic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

    I hadn’t heard about the specific instance that Susannah mentioned, though it’s not the least bit surprising in the context. These were Anglican and United Church schools, as well as the more usual Catholic schools. I believe the United Church has offered an apology, and there may have been some monetary recompense, but never enough to erase what was done.

    The Native Studies program at UBC has a great page of resources about it:

    It should be a source of abiding shame for Canadians, but too many don’t want to acknowledge it existed, or (like my mother) say that they had nothing to do with it, because they weren’t even in the country when it happened.

    I say, you’re born a citizen or you chose to be a citizern (as I and my mother did, having been born in the UK and immigrated), you get to bear the shame with everyone else. The number of treaties we broke, the number of us who are living on land stolen through a treaty violation, and the further shamefulness of police with an even worse record for racially-biased incarceration than Black folk in the US, when it comes to our First Nations peoples. As I recall, FN people are represented in the prison population at something like 11 times the per-capita rate of white Canadians, though just as in the US, when you control for poverty, they commit no more crime than white citizens do.

    I love my country, but it’s not without some seriously shameful events to own up to.

  7. says

    Ophelia, I don’t know if there was a spelled-out policy, TB treatment + 7 years, or whether it was just the luck of the draw. The woman – Margaret – when I knew her had been out for about 8 years. I babysat her kids; the oldest then was just 6. Her husband had been in the residential schools, and badly abused, too. He told us his story; taken from home by force, beatings for speaking his language, Kwakiutl, then solitary in a woodshed, more beatings. They’d be in their 80s, now.

    I roomed with a girl from Ahousat, for a few months back then. Same story. She was very resentful, and never let down her guard around white people, not even me, a few years younger than she was.

    It was still going on in the ’50s; the last time I heard the same story, in the mid 1980s, was by Cora, a middle-aged Chilcotin native. Same thing; “kidnapped” to go to the school, beaten, her language forbidden, pressured to convert, more beatings.

    As for Margaret, no, there was no reporting. It was just “the way things were”. The Protestants blamed it on the terrible Catholics. But the Protestant schools were just as bad.

  8. carlie says

    CatieCat – we have that kind of history in the US, too. Not just forced re-education facilities for children, but also a long pattern of social services deeming parents on reservations unfit. There are stories of people visiting villages and finding no children there at all, because they had all been taken away. It’s one of the reasons why the Indian Child Welfare Act was created, which has been in the news recently for the “baby girl v. adoptive couple” case the supreme court just ruled on.

  9. says

    In Western Germany, during the 50’s and 60’s, more than 120.000 kids from “broken homes” or who were “asocial” were put into some state-run, but mostly church run (Catholics and Protestants) homes where they were tortured, abused and forced to work, but not given actual professional training so they could fend for themselves in the world.
    But now they’ll only get a compensation if they can prove that they’re in a difficult situation now. If you survived and made it and even found happieness in your life then, well, it shows that things were OK and no harm was done, right?

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