Bell was one of thousands of young girls who were sent to the Magdalene workhouses run by Roman Catholic nuns when she got pregnant at age 16. She worked long hours washing clothes with no pay and little rest; after giving birth, her daughter was put in an orphanage.
Bell never recovered from the shame.
“I felt I was beneath everybody for 40 years,” she said. “It was only when I got a little older that it eased off a little bit.”
Bell kept quiet until Magdalene victims in the Republic of Ireland sparked international attention in February, demanding the government apologize for the laundries’ practices of forced unpaid labor and psychological abuse.
Though Bell shares many of the same painful memories as those in the Irish Republic, she and victims in Northern Ireland — which is part of the United Kingdom — haven’t received the same apology, and it remains uncertain if they ever will.
In the Irish Republic, an estimated 10,000 girls were locked up in laundries run by the Catholic Church between 1922 and 1996, according to an inquiry report published in February. The report acknowledged that in addition to Ireland, laundries existed in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. While the majority were Catholic-operated, Protestant institutions also existed.
“The Magdalene Sisters,” a film released in 2002, was one of the first to draw attention to the laundries. The majority of victims said they did not experience the same sexual or physical abuse as depicted in the movie. But the report did acknowledge that the “overwhelming majority” of victims described verbal abuse and “being the victim of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments.”
Reasons for the forced labor ranged from minor offenses, such as skipping a train fare, to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Some women entered voluntarily, seeing the laundries as a better option than homelessness. About 900 women, including one as young as 15, died in Ireland’s laundries.
The Republic of Ireland launched an investigation of the laundries in 2011 after pressure from victims intensified and the United Nations Committee Against Torture took notice, says Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International in Belfast. The outrage in the Irish Republic has since found its way to the North.
“It spilled across the border with people saying,’My experience was just like that. Why is my government not responding? Where is my inquiry?’” Corrigan said.
The government’s tense relationship with the Catholic Church in the North is one reason for the delayed response. Northern Ireland is mostly Protestant, while the government in the Irish Republic had stronger ties to the Catholic Church. According to the inquiry, the Republic of Ireland was directly involved in sending one in four women to the workhouses.