News / Europe

Ireland’s Magdalenes Seek Amends for Years of Forced Labor

Mary Smyth who was born in a
Mary Smyth who was born in a "Magdalene Laundry", reacts during a "Magdalene Survivors Together" news conference in Dublin, February 5, 2013.
Cecily Hilleary
Ireland’s Labor Party is calling this week for an official apology and compensation for survivors of the so-called Magdalene Laundries, workhouses run by Roman Catholic nuns through most of the past century.
 
For years, the government insisted that the workhouses were privately run by the Church. But last week, the government officially admitted its role in sending thousands of girls and young women into the laundries, where they worked in virtual servitude. 
 
Survivors of the workhouses are not satisfied. They say the government failed to offer the official apology and compensation the women say they deserve. 
 
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
x
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
In June 2011, the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) appealed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which subsequently called on Ireland to investigate the issue.  Last week, Ireland issued the findings of its probe, which showed that Irish governments not only admitted girls to the program, but held lucrative contracts with the laundries.  Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, said last Tuesday he is sorry for women forced to live in what he termed a “hostile and far-off environment.”  
 
Mari T. Steed is a JFM co-founder and Committee Director and herself a daughter of a laundry survivor.  She calls Kenny’s statement a “farce.”
 
“Obviously, we were very disappointed.  It was perhaps an expression of Kenny's personal ‘remorse,’ but certainly not a full, formal state apology,” she said.
 
“We spoke to all the survivors and my mum over the past week, and of course they are very disappointed and minced no words about Kenny,” Steed said.  “But they are so trusting in the process and us, they feel we will fight it to the end -- and we will.”

Background

The first of the “Magdalene Asylums” were established in the late 1700s to reform “penitent prostitutes,” who took in washing and sewing to pay for their keep.  The model quickly spread elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. By the 19th Century, most of these asylums had closed -- but not in Ireland. 

By the 20th Century, the Irish laundries had become workhouses for unwed mothers, orphans, the mentally disabled, the homeless -- and even girls the clergy judged to at risk of getting into trouble because they were too pretty.  Today, the term “Magdalene” is still associated with prostitution, which Steed says gives survivors a deep sense of shame.  
 
“The societal connotation has been that these institutions were for women who were prostitutes, criminals or insane,” Steed said.  “It was only recently that the public began to learn that there were girls and women in there merely for the "crime" of being pretty, that is, a moral danger to society.”
 
More than 11,000 women passed through 10 institutions between 1922 and 1996 operated by four religious orders: The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge; Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy; Religious Sisters of Charity; and Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The last laundry workhouse was shut down in 1996. 
 
The government report estimates there are between 800 and 1,200 survivors are still living.  But because records from two laundries are still missing, Steed believes as many as 2,000 to 3,000 are still alive.

  • High Park Convent Laundry, 2009
  • High Park Convent and Laundry, Dublin, Ireland
  • Good Shepherd Convent and Laundry, Cork, Ireland, Alwyn Jennings/AJ Photography https://www.facebook.com/AJ.Photography.Cork
  • Interior, Good Shepherd Convent, Cork, Ireland, Alwyn Jennings/AJ Photography https://www.facebook.com/AJ.Photography.Cork
  • Grave, Margaret Mullen, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Gravesite, former Magdalenes, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Graves, former Magdalenes, Donnybrook Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Magdalene graves at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Magdalenes, 19th Century
  • Magdalen Laundry Scene.  Note girl with shaved head (L).  Heads were often shaved upon entry to laundry or as punishment
  • Magdalenes at work
  • Description of Magdalene Workhouse, "Priests and People in Ireland," Michael J. F. McCarthy, 1903.
  • Magdalen Society Asylum, New York City, 1836
  • Scene from Magdalen Asylum, New York City, 1872.

Life in a workhouse
 

On entrance into a Magdalene Laundry, girls gave up their given names and were  assigned new names or numbers.  Survivors tell stories of long hours washing heavy laundry and ironing.  They were fed little and allowed to bathe only weekly.  If they tried to escape, they were hunted down by police and returned to face solitary confinement, public shaming, whippings or food deprivation.  

 
One such woman was Margaret Bullen — known as No. 322 — who spent 35 years in a Magdalene Laundry.  As a teenager, she became pregnant and gave birth to twin daughters.  The babies were taken from her and adopted out to an Irish family in the U.S.  One of her twins, New York resident Henrietta Thornton, tells VOA her story:
 

“My mother Margaret was born in the mid-1950s in a Dublin mental hospital called St. Brendans at Grangegorman.  Margaret’s own mother remained in the hospital, and she went home to be raised by her father,” Thornton said. 
 
“When she was two years and four months old, she and some of her other siblings were taken away from her father for neglect...into a system called ‘Industrial Schools,’ which were orphanages-slash-reform homes for children.”
 
Hunting rats
 
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret BullenThe only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
x
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
Thornton said even small children were given work to do.  “One of their first jobs in the morning was to kill the rats in the kitchen.  Starting at five years old, she was making breakfast for 70 girls,” Thornton said.
 
When Henrietta and her twin were in their early 20s, they grew curious about their past.  A social worker eventually found their mother.  That’s when the twin learned she was a Magdalene, still living in the convent after decades.  They also found out she was “mentally disabled.” 
 
“When Margaret was 13 her IQ was assessed as 50,” Thornton said. “It seems to me that the assessment concluded she was fit for work but unfit for an education.  The assessment just determined Margaret was eligible to be a slave.”
 
At 16, Margaret was transferred to the Gloucester Street Laundry in Dublin, where she would live out her days.
 
“I think there’s a misconception here that these girls were washing a few blouses for the nuns or something like that,” Thornton said.  “It wasn’t nuns’ clothes.  It was a factory situation, where they were doing laundry for prisons, the armed forces and other public and private organizations.  It was really a big business.”
 
Brief Reunion
 
Henrietta and her twin were reunited with their mother in 1995.  They met at a hotel café, where Margaret, then 41 years old, sipped her first cup of coffee.
 
“I learned afterwards that up to when she heard about the possibility of meeting us, she didn’t remember that she had children,” Thornton said.  “She had just blocked it from her mind.”
 
Henrietta Thornton visited Margaret in the High Park convent several times over the next few years.  Margaret died in 2003 of Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease caused by exposure to industrial chemicals.   Thornton says no one called to tell her about her mother’s death; she heard about the “death of the youngest Magdalene” on the radio. 
 
Full Redress
 
Survivors are not only looking for a full apology, but lost wages, pensions and health and housing services for the work they performed for the state -- in some cases, for decades. 
 
The Dáil Eireann -- Ireland’s main house of parliament -- will debate the issue this week. 
 
Only one religious order, the Sisters of Charity, has apologized “unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt” while in their care. The other three orders have issued statements of regret on their websites.
 
VOA requested an interview with the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, which did not respond.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Richie from: Dublin
February 13, 2013 5:46 PM
The report did not say that the laundries had "lucrative" contracts with the state. The state for sure did use the services of the laundries but in fact the report concluded that they were break even or subsistance based. One of the laundries ran a deficit in 2011 terms of €200k a year before bequests and donations. They were not profitable.

by: Rob Swift from: Great Britain
February 13, 2013 1:55 PM
Dating from Herod having the children murdered in order to subvert the historical process there has been widespread persecution of the chosen ones. (Recent export from England to Australia etc of illegitimate children). Now we have this reported from Ireland. (Thanks to VOA the voice of freedom)
The antichrist brigade (The masonic movement) has already lost it's power base and is plunging into materialism because it has nowhere else to run. Places have been reserved for all masons. When they are called they will all come.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs