Irish Government Acknowledges Role in Magdalene Laundries; Offers No Apology or Reparations

For a while now, this blog has followed Maeve O’Rourke, LLM ’10, a former Global Human Rights Fellow, as she works with other advocates to secure reparations for thousands of women and girls who labored in Ireland’s so-called Magdalene Laundries. Tuesday marked a milestone for the group, Justice for Magdalenes: After years of ignoring the issue, the Irish government released a 1000-page report into the laundries, which were run by various orders of nuns from 1922 to 1996.

The Good Shepherd Convent/Magdalene Asylum, which operated as a residential laundry until the late 1970s. Photo courtesy of Tarquin Blake
A residential laundry at the Good Shepherd Convent/Magdalene Asylum. Photo: Tarquin Blake

For the first time, the government acknowledged its own “significant” role in the forced labor: more than a quarter of the women and girls in the laundries were referred there by the government. Some came from the criminal justice system, prosecuted for nothing more than petty theft; others came from residential institutions; still others from homes for unwed mothers.

After decades of speculation, the government also confirmed a number: more than 10,000 women and girls worked in the laundries. The youngest was 9. The oldest was 89. The average age was 23.

For all the report’s revelations, the government’s formal response to it on Tuesday fell stunningly short. In comments before the Irish Parliament, Prime Minister Enda Kenny expressed mostly sorrow. There was no apology for the government’s role. There was no talk of reparations.

As Maeve wrote in a damning opinion piece yesterday:

“Mr Kenny said the overriding requirement of the report had been to deal with the stigma attached to those who worked and stayed in the laundries.

No it wasn’t, Mr Kenny. It was set up to establish whether or not the State, the State that he now leads, was involved.

Mr Kenny said the Ireland to which the report refers was a very far-off and hostile environment, in the past. No it wasn’t, Mr Kenny. The last laundry closed in 1996.

Mr Kenny said that the State should provide the very best facilities and support for any of the women who are still with us.

Yes it should, Mr Kenny. So where is the promise of pensions, back pay and reparation? We cannot let this lie. There will be a Dáil debate in two weeks’ time which will provide the elected representatives of this State with yet another opportunity to do the right thing, to recognise the abuse, the suffering and the misery and to put it right.”

Further reading:

“Abused in the Past and Abandoned in the Present” ( Op-Ed/The Irish Times)

“Ireland Finally Admits State Collusion in Magdalene Laundry System” (Breaking News/The Guardian)

“Seeking Redress in Ireland Over a Magdalene Laundry”  (Feature/The New York Times)