A new report out of Ireland last week has shed some light on the grim history of the Magdalene Laundries, the all-female workhouses that imprisoned over 10,000 women and girls throughout the 20th century. Though the Irish government has insisted for years that its involvement with the institutions was minimal, new information suggests otherwise. According to the report, a quarter of the women sent to the laundries were referred by the government. Survivors and advocates for the victims of the Magdalene Laundries are demanding an official apology, as well as reparation, but so far the government has yet to offer either.
The Magdalene Laundries were run by Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1922 through 1996. Young women who were considered to be burdens to their families or communities were sent to the workhouses and forced into unpaid labor (these were actually functioning laundries) for up to years at a time. Many of the girls and women who were shipped off to the laundries were unwed mothers, orphans, victims of sexual or physical abuse, or somehow disabled. Any young woman who was thought to be straying from the chaste and wholesome path that was so institutionally demanded at the time was in danger of being forced into the infamous system of workhouses.
The physical and emotional strain experienced by the Magdalene women was so intense that it warranted a submission to the U.N. Committee Against Torture. The women, who were often kept in the laundries against their will and recaptured by police should they escape, were left scarred by their experiences. Depression, suicide, and a deep sense of shame followed the women once they were released from the laundries. The new information garnered from this latest report shows that almost 900 women perished during their time in the laundries, and that the youngest “Maggie” was only nine years old.
Advocacy groups like Justice for Magdalenes are insisting that the Irish government make a full apology to the victims of the Magdalene laundries. Given the new information about the government’s involvement with the workhouses (not only were women referred by the state, but the laundries also had contracts with the Irish armed forces that didn’t stipulate fair wages), it would only seem appropriate for the government to offer some sort of compensation to the women involved.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny has recognized the findings of the report, which was conducted by a government committee, and has apologized for the “stigma” that follows former Maggies. But until the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries are given compensation for pensions, wages, and healthcare at the very least, advocacy groups will not rest. Seeing as the last laundry only just closed in 1996, there are still many women who carry the scars of life in the workhouses. For their sake, and in memory of all the women who were unwillingly imprisoned throughout the laundries' history, justice must be done.