DUBLIN — The inscription above the door claims it was a place of refuge. But for Margaret Bullen and thousands like her, the Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s city center was a prison and a workhouse.
In 1967, a 16-year-old Bullen was sent to the laundry, which was run by nuns, from an industrial school for neglected children. She did not leave until it closed in 1996. She remained institutionalized until she died in 2003 and was buried in a communal grave.
“It was white slavery,” said Samantha Long, one of the twin daughters who were taken from Bullen by the nuns and put up for adoption. “Margaret never got paid and wasn’t allowed to leave. There was never enough food, just enough to keep them working.”
For more than a decade, the Irish government has denied responsibility for the 10 Magdalene laundries across the country, which were operated by religious orders from the 19th century until the mid-1990s.
But Tuesday, a government report published evidence of “direct state involvement” in the committal of a quarter of the estimated 10,000 women sent to the workhouses between 1922 and 1996.
The state played a role in funding and regulating the laundries, which were commercial operations that never paid wages to inmates who often did not know why they had been committed or for how long. Police also returned women who escaped.
“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,” says the report, which was prepared by Martin McAleese, husband of former Irish president Mary McAleese. “The psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting.”
Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, said: “To those residents who went into the Magdalene laundries from a variety of ways, 26 percent from state involvement, I’m sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment.”
However, he stopped short of issuing a full state apology — in contrast to the government’s apology to survivors of state-run industrial schools, where an investigation uncovered widespread physical and sexual abuse. A redress fund in these cases will have to pay out more than $2 billion, it is now estimated.
Contrary to testimony provided by some survivors — and the brutal regimen depicted in the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” — the government report found little evidence of physical or sexual abuse. Instead, the 118 survivors interviewed depicted “a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer.”
The report absolves the four religious institutions who ran the laundries of blame, saying they responded in practical ways as best they could by providing marginalized women with shelter, board and work.
From a survey of records at eight of the 10 Irish laundries, the report concludes the average age of women committed was 23 years. The youngest was nine, and the eldest was 89. Almost two-thirds of women sent to the laundries were released within a year while about 8 percent spent longer than a decade there.
Committals took place for a wide variety of reasons, and the vast majority of women were not “fallen women” who had had children out of wedlock or engaged in prostitution. This “wholly inaccurate characterization” had helped create a social stigma that led many women not to come forward and created a culture of “secrecy, silence and shame,” the report said.
Women were referred to the laundries by courts on the basis of minor criminal convictions or referred directly from state-run industrial schools for neglected children. Social services and priests also made referrals, while some women were simply poor and needed shelter and voluntarily committed themselves. Others were committed by their own families, says the report.
Survivors criticized the lack of an official apology from the state and elements of the report.
Marina Gambold, 78, a former inmate of a laundry in County Wexford, said she had experienced abuse. She said she was made to eat off the floor for breaking a cup and locked out on a cold balcony for two nights during her three-year incarceration.
“An apology would be worth a million dollars to me,” she said.
— Financial Times