Report to establish the facts of state involvement with the Magdalen Laundries

 

 

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Below is the Introduction from Senator McAleese, the independent chair of the Committee.

 

Introduction by the Independent Chair

Senator Martin McAleese

1. There is no single or simple story of the Magdalen Laundries.

 

2. This Report has established that approximately 10,000 women are known to

have entered a Magdalen Laundry from the foundation of the State in 1922

until the closure of the last Laundry in 1996.  Of the cases in which routes of

entry are known, 26.5% were referrals made or facilitated by the State.

 

 

 

3. Many of the women who met with the Committee - and particularly those who

entered the Magdalen Laundries as young girls - experienced the Laundries

as lonely and frightening places.  For too long, they 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 Magdalen Laundry has only added to the confusion

and pain they feel about that period in their lives.

 

4. The mandate of the Inter-Departmental Committee was to establish the facts

of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.  These facts are set out in

this Report as the Committee has found them. During this fact-finding

process, the Committee also gained a deeper and broader understanding of

the Magdalen Laundries and the context in which they operated.  The

Committee has, in this Report, drawn on all available information and sought

to record as comprehensive a picture as possible of the operation of the

Magdalen Laundries.

 

5. In doing so, the Committee was conscious that the operation of the Magdalen

Laundries since the foundation of the State has, prior to this process, not

been fully understood, as many State records were neither readily available

nor easily accessible and the records of the Religious Congregations were not

available for inspection or analysis.

 

6. It is understandable that – fuelled by this absence of information – stories

grew to fill these gaps.  Indeed, the answers to questions as basic as how

many women and girls passed through the Magdalen Laundries or how long

they remained there have, until the release of this Report, not been known.

Otherwise, the chronicle of the Magdalen Laundries  was for many years

characterised primarily by secrecy, silence and shame.

 

7. The picture that the Committee has been able to  put together tells the

following story. The women who were admitted to and worked in the

Magdalen 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’.  This  is a wholly inaccurate

characterisation, 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 Magdalen

Laundries since 1922 were prostitutes. The reality is much more complex.  As

set out in detail in this Report, the women who entered the Magdalen

Laundries were from many backgrounds and the circumstances which led to

their admission were varied:

- Some women were referred to the Magdalen Laundries by Courts on

remand, on probation or otherwise on foot of criminal convictions

ranging from vagrancy and larceny to manslaughter and murder.

-           Some were children, released on licence from Industrial or Reformatory

Schools to the Magdalen Laundries before they reached 16 years of  age.

- Some were former Industrial School children referred onwards either

directly from these Schools or during the period of their post-discharge

supervision.

- Some were young girls who had been boarded-out and were rejected

by their foster parents when maintenance payments from the

authorities ceased.

- Some were young women over 16 years of age, who had been

orphaned or who were in abusive or neglectful homes (in many of

these cases, their younger siblings would have been committed to

Industrial Schools).

- Some were women with either mental or physical disabilities which

rendered them unable to live independently, at a time when supported

living facilities did not exist. Some had psychiatric illnesses and were

referred from psychiatric hospitals.

- Some were referred by social services at a time when appropriate

accommodation for teenagers was not available.

- Some were simply poor and homeless and either voluntarily sought

shelter in or were referred to the Magdalen Laundries by County

Homes or, later, by social services.

- Many girls and women were placed in the Magdalen Laundries by their

own families, for reasons that we may never know or fully understand,

but which included the socio-moral attitudes of the time as well as

familial abuse.

These and a myriad other stories make up the background of the women who

spent some period of time in a Magdalen Laundry between 1922 and the

closure of the last such institution in the State in 1996.

 

8. The girls and women referred to the Magdalen Laundries by officials in the

criminal justice system, social services, or even from psychiatric hospitals and

County Homes would have been made aware why they were there and – in

the case of court referrals - how long they were required to stay.

 

9. However, this would not have been the experience of the young girls referred

to the Magdalen Laundries from industrial schools or by non-state agents,

including girls referred by their own families.  None of us can begin to imagine

the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little

more than children, on entering the Laundries - not knowing why they were

there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something

wrong, and not knowing when - if ever - they would  get out and see their

families again.  It must have been particularly distressing for those girls who

may have been the victims of abuse in the family, wondering why they were

the ones who were excluded or penalised by being consigned to an institution.

 

10. To add to this confusion, most found themselves quite alone in what was, by

today’s standards, a harsh and physically demanding work environment. The

psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting.  In

meeting some of them, and listening to their stories, the Committee was

impressed by their quiet determination to find answers to the many questions

concerning their lives both before and after entering a Magdalen Laundry.

 

11. The Committee is aware that there are other women who find it difficult or

even impossible to share their stories of the Magdalen Laundries.  Some may

not have even told their husbands or children of that period in their lives, but

instead are carrying those experiences silently in their hearts.  Many of these

women will choose never to reveal their “secret”, because of the impact they

fear it might have on their lives.  It is the absolute right of every woman to

make this choice for herself and the Committee wants to reassure these

women that their right to privacy is utterly respected throughout this Report.

The Committee nonetheless hopes that the contents of the Report, insofar as

it is able to present the facts and set the record straight, may in some small

way be of help to them.

 

12. It is also true to say that many of the Sisters of the four Religious

Congregations which operated these institutions – whether they worked in

them or not – have experienced a profound hurt in recent years as the debate

on the Magdalen Laundries gained increasing public  prominence. Their

position is that they responded in practical ways as best they could, in

keeping with the charism of their Congregations, to the fraught situations of

the sometimes marginalised girls and women sent to them, by providing them

with shelter, board and work. They state clearly that they did not recruit

women for these institutions.  The Committee found no evidence to contradict

this position.

 

13. In addition to their legal obligation not to disclose the personal data they hold,

the Sisters also continue to feel a strong moral responsibility to protect the

privacy of the women who passed through their doors.  The Committee

believes that it is for this reason, and not for secrecy or self-interest, that their

archives, which were so willingly opened to this Committee, have not been

opened more broadly to researchers or the general public.  The Sisters have,

however, consistently made available all the personal records they hold

directly to the women concerned or, in the case of deceased women, to their

next of kin, when requested, and have confirmed to  the Committee their

intention to continue to do so in the future.

 

14. The Congregations informed the Committee that this commitment to ensure

anonymity and to protect privacy was also the reason why, in some but not all

of the Magdalen Laundries, women were given a “House” or “Class” name

which was used instead of their birth name.  Many of the women who met the

Committee, however, found this practice deeply upsetting and at the time, felt

as though their identity was being erased. The Congregations have expressed

to the Committee their regret that women who were in their care hold this or

other painful memories.

 

15. This Report examines five main areas in which there was possible State

involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.  In each case, the Report sets out

both the policy and practice as the Committee has found them, as well as the

legislative basis for State action (where applicable).  The five main areas are:

- Routes by which girls and women entered the Laundries;

- State inspections of the Laundries;

- State funding of and financial assistance to the Laundries;

- Routes by which girls and women left the Laundries;

- Death registration, burials and exhumations.

In each of these areas, the Committee found evidence of direct State

involvement.

 

The Committee’s findings regarding each of these areas are outlined in the

Executive Summary and detailed in the Report, as are a number of other

miscellaneous areas of State involvement including issues relating to electoral

registration, insurability of employment, provision in relation to rationing during

the Emergency, and industrial surveys under the Census of Distribution and

Services.

 

17. In the course of the Committee’s work, material was also uncovered that is

central to answering many frequently arising questions concerning the

Magdalen Laundries.  The Committee is aware that some of this material is,

strictly speaking, outside its core remit.  However, while mindful of its Terms

of Reference, the Committee considered these issues to be consequential on

its principal findings and decided, in the public interest, to include these

additional findings in a separate section of the Report (Part IV), with relevant

statistics contained in the body of the Report at Part II.

 

18. The material in these sections of the Report and in particular the statistical

analysis may also contribute to future historical study and research, without in

any way breaching the trust or privacy of the women referred to.  It is also

likely to be of considerable interest to the women, their families and the wider

public.  These findings, summarised below, may challenge some common

perceptions.

Background of the women who entered the Magdalen Laundries:

Without identifying any person, the profiles of the women who entered

the Magdalen Laundries (including those who were not referred by the

State or State agents) are set out in some detail in the Report.  These

profiles include details on the geographical origin of these women

(those who came from rural or urban backgrounds); parental

background (whether one or both parents were deceased) and those

who had been previously institutionalised.

There is a perception that the vast majority of women who entered the

Laundries spent the rest of their lives there - in fact, as set out in this

Report, the majority (61%) spent less than one year there.  This and

other information is contained in these profiles, including information on

the average age on entry, average duration of stay, as well as the

minority of women who remained in the Magdalen Laundries until their

deaths.

 

Conditions in the Laundries:

The Report also addresses the question of the conditions experienced

by and the treatment of women in the Laundries, including the

questions of sexual abuse, physical abuse and verbal or psychological

abuse. This is a particularly sensitive and difficult issue to deal with,

made more difficult by the very small sample of women available and in

a position to share their experiences with the Committee.

The Committee does not make findings on this issue. Rather, the

Report records the stories shared with the Committee by these women,

as well as the medical reports and recollections of General Medical

Practitioners who served the Laundries in more recent times and

others who were closely associated with the operation of the

Laundries.

No woman referred to a Magdalen Laundry on foot of  a criminal

conviction made contact with the Committee.  Instead, the majority of

the small number of women who engaged with the Committee had

been admitted to the Laundries either by a non-state route of referral

or, most common of all, following time in an Industrial School.

Many of these women drew a clear distinction between their treatment

in Industrial Schools and their experience in the Magdalen Laundries.

They made no allegations of sexual abuse against any of the Sisters,

but one allegation was made against another woman. The vast majority

also told the Committee that the ill-treatment, physical punishment and

abuse that was prevalent in the Industrial School system was not

something they experienced in the Magdalen Laundries.  However, the

majority of women described the atmosphere in the Laundries as cold,

with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work

and prayer, with many instances of verbal censure, scoldings or even

humiliating put-downs.

In that regard, some women and others associated with the operation

of the Magdalen Laundries told the Committee that the atmosphere

“softened” in more recent decades and particularly  after the second

Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Some of the women the Committee met stated clearly  that the

Laundries were their only refuge in times of great  personal difficulty.

Others spoke of their real sense of being exploited.  But the large

majority of women who engaged with the Committee and especially

those who had previously been in Industrial Schools spoke of the deep

hurt they felt due to their loss of freedom, the fact that they were not

informed why they were there, lack of information on when they would

be allowed to leave, and denial of contact with the outside world,

particularly family and friends.

Financial viability of the Magdalen Laundries:

The issue of the financial viability of the Magdalen Laundries is also

addressed. There have been suggestions that the Laundries were

highly profitable institutions.  The evidence identified by the Committee

and analysis of the financial records of the Magdalen Laundries during

various periods of their operation indicate that this was not the case.

The Laundries operated for the most part on a subsistence or close to

break-even basis rather than on a commercial or highly profitable

basis.  The financial accounts tend to support the fact that, what came

to be known as the Magdalen Laundries, were historically established

as refuges, homes or asylums for marginalised women and girls. The

subsequent establishment of the Laundries was for the purposes of

financially supporting and maintaining them.

 

19. The members of the Committee approached their work in a committed and

professional manner and both they and their Departmental colleagues are due

thanks and credit for their considerable efforts.  Searching for official records

and materials relating to the Magdalen Laundries presented many problems.

Information relevant to the Committee’s work was contained in a very wide

variety of records across many bodies, agencies and individuals. Much of the

material held by the State was not archived or catalogued.  In this age of

instant online searches, it is easy to forget that  access to digitised historic

material is the exception rather than the rule.  Accordingly and to complete

their work, members of the Committee and their Departmental colleagues

hand-searched paper archives in their Departments,  National Archives, the

National Library; explored boxes of uncatalogued materials and indeed

physically searched Departmental basements in an attempt to discover any

misplaced files and folders.  Similar detailed searches were conducted in

State agencies and bodies. Given the significant efforts made to gather these

scattered files and records, the Committee decided to recommend that copies

of all official records identified should be preserved as a distinct archive in the

Department of An Taoiseach.

 

20.  The Committee wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the tremendous

contribution to its work and to the preparation and drafting of this Report by

Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh. Her work ethic and commitment were outstanding.

 

21. A large variety of private archives were voluntarily made available to the

Committee and it is important to acknowledge that without them the work of

the Committee would have proved very difficult, if  not impossible, to

accomplish. In particular and of critical importance to the progress of the

Committee’s work is the fact that the four Religious Congregations – the

Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the

Religious Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of Mercy – voluntarily opened all

their records to inspection and analysis and made themselves available at all

times to provide the Committee with the fullest information they could.

In conducting its work, the Committee also relied heavily on the voluntary cooperation and goodwill of many individuals and organisations. The help and  support offered by the Central Statistics Office was invaluable to the process

and the assistance offered by private archives, in  particular by the Dublin

Diocesan Archive and organisations such as the Irish Society for the

Prevention of Cruelty to Children, was significant.

 

23. A number of former residents of the Magdalen Laundries shared their

experiences with the Committee as members of representative and advocacy

groups (53), while others did so directly in their own right as individuals (7).

Some of these women shared their stories on a strictly confidential basis.  A

valuable contribution was also made by women (58) who are currently

resident in nursing homes under the care of the Religious Congregations.

 

24. The stories shared with the Committee by these women provided invaluable

insights into the operation of the Laundries and helped the Committee greatly

in preparing this Report. The majority of them expressed the fact that they

had, for many years, felt forgotten and not believed. This took great courage

and the Committee acknowledges its indebtedness to  them for their

contributions and for the dignified way in which they were presented.

 

25. The representative groups Irish Women’s Survivors Network UK and

Magdalen Survivors Together and the advocacy group  Justice for

Magdalenes also made a significant contribution to  the work of the

Committee.  From the outset, they cooperated fully  with the Committee,

sharing their research, analysis and views.

 

26. The work of the Committee commenced in July 2011 and took eighteen

months in total to complete. The initial preparatory work was carried out within

six months, while the substantive research, investigation and drafting of the

 

Final Report was concluded in a further twelve months.  No member of the

Committee received a salary or stipend in relation to its work. The only direct

costs arose from travelling expenses and room hire  for meetings.  These

costs amounted to € 11,146.06.

 

The Committee has produced a substantive and detailed Report, identifying

hitherto unknown facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries and

clarifying ancillary matters more broadly in the public interest.  It is possible

that some more detail could be added with more time, but the Committee is of

the view that such additional time or probing would, at best, add only

marginally to the facts already clearly and unambiguously established in this

Report.

 

28. In light of the Committee’s mandate, there is an understandable focus in this

Report on the cases of State referral to the Magdalen Laundries, in particular

Criminal Justice System and Industrial and Reformatory Schools referrals.

The Committee urges a strong word of caution against generalisations in this

respect.  An unforgivable injustice would be done to the facts and complexity

of the story – and more importantly to the women concerned - if public

discourse was to simply replace one label with another, by shifting the

terminology from that of the ‘fallen’ to the ‘criminal’ woman.  Respect for the

complexity and sensitivity of this story means that any new caricatures of the

women who spent time in Magdalen Laundries, or indeed of the Religious

Congregations who operated them, must be avoided.

 

29. The Committee found significant State involvement with the Magdalen

Laundries. Its findings in many cases may also encourage a review of some

perceptions about these institutions and the women who were admitted to and

worked in them.  The Committee hopes that the facts established for the first

time by its work, and set out in this Report, will contribute to a more complete,

accurate and rounded understanding of these issues. Most important of all,

the Committee hopes that this Report will be a real step in bringing healing

and peace of mind to all concerned, most especially the women whose lived

experience of the Magdalen Laundries had a profound and enduring negative

effect on their lives.

 

Senator Martin McAleese

Independent Chair

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