Irish Women Enslaved for Decades, Government Finally Admits Involvement

The Irish government has admitted that, for more than seven decades, it was in collusion with laundries operated by religious congregations which kept generations of women and girls (as young as 12) in virtual enslavement. While some of the women were unwed mothers, the majority were placed there due to mental illness or physical disability, homelessness or petty offenses.

The Magdalene laundries took their name from Mary Magdalene, the biblical figure who (at the time the workhouses were founded in the mid-1800s) was thought to have been a prostitute. They were run by religious congregations and the Irish government has long claimed that the laundries were privately owned and controlled by nuns.  But according to a just-released 1,000-page government report, the Irish state was responsible for sending over a quarter of at least 10,000 young women to the laundries.

In addition, the state gave the laundries lucrative contracts which were out of compliance with its own Fair Wage Clause. Those who escaped from the laundries were pursued and returned by the Gardai, the police.

Irish Government Fails To Issue an Apology to Survivors

While the Irish government has admitted its complicity in sending women to the Magdalene laundries, Prime Minister Enda Kenny failed to issue a formal apology. While saying that he was “sorry that this release of pressure and understanding for so many of those women was not done before this, because they were branded as fallen women,” he said that the state could not respond until a full parliamentary debate has been held.

Survivors of the workhouses and their supporters from groups including Justice for Magdalenes have immediately called foul on the Irish government which had actually received the report two weeks ago. Steven O’Riordan of the lobbying group Magdalenes Survivors Together said that Kenny’s response was “halfhearted at best” and that he was “annoyed because it sounded like a throwaway gesture.”

Just hearing about the Magdalene laundries, which operated from 1922 until as late as 1996, suggests that Kenny and the Irish government have yet to grasp the suffering of so many innocent women and of their families. Once taken to the workhouses — 60-year-old survivor Maureen Sullivan recalls that she was taken to one directly from school in a laundry van — all the women were given different names by the nuns, on the pretext that such would protect their privacy.

In reality, “Maggies” (as the girls and women in the laundries were called) were shorn of all rights. They were forced to work day in and day out doing laundry (including that of major hotel groups and the Irish armed forces) and denied any contact with the outside world and certainly with their families.

As Sullivan tells the Guardian, she was physically and verbally abused for “infractions” of nothing more than not walking fast enough around the laundry:

“There was physical abuse where they would dig you in the side with a thick cross off the rosary beads, where you got a thump on the side of the head and where there would be constant putting you down, shouting, verbal abuse. You got the cross in the side of the ribs if you slowed down on your way around the laundry.

“[The nuns] ate very well while we were on dripping, tea, bread. I remember another torture – one when we were all hungry – we could smell the likes of roast beef and cooked chicken wafting from where the nuns were eating. That was like another insult.”

Sullivan received no education while imprisoned in a Magdalene laundry and, after leaving, was homeless for a period.  In the 1970s, she sought counseling about what had happened to her and, as she says, “then it all came back, all the abuse and exploitation I had suffered in those places.”

Elderly survivors of the Magdalene laundries are threatening to go on a hunger strike if the Irish government does not offer financial redress. I shiver at the thought of women who have already suffered enough for several lifetimes having to subject themselves to such. Kenny and the Irish government need to apologize and compensate these women in full for a cruel and inhumane punishment that not a single one of them deserved.

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Photo from Thinkstock


Marylyn E.

I also watched this movie on HBO about the Magdalene sisters.Totally disgraceful how these women were treated by their families and the nuns,Catholic church.Between the nuns and the pedophile priests throughout history,the Catholic church has very little to feel proud of.I stopped going to church years ago and have absolutely no respect for them.They are just another form of big business that preys on the uneducated minorities around the world.Their wealth is tremendous and yet they do little for their poor followers.SHAME on them!!!

Tammy B.
Tammy B.6 years ago

I had been told that slavery still exists today. I did not want to believe it. But now I have too. What do you think Sex Traffic victims are? Just as Puppy Mill owners make all form of breeders look bad. So does these kinds of things make religion look bad. Until we stop to consider how seriously involved can any person be in their religion and at the same time treat other humans in this way? Could be they were either in a false religion or pretending to be in it and using their religious place to promote this awful thing. Oh well to each his own, we will all have to answer for what all we do and say in our lifetimes right here on earth.

Christine Harrison

The Church and Government knew for years what was going on and effectively sanctioned the laundries by turning a blind eye. It's ironic that, if the story was a fictional one, we would probably be criticising it for being too horrific - the sad part was that these places really did exist. If the Church really wished to be seen as an upholder of moral principles, then the first thing they should be doing is giving the inmates a very large amount of compensation and a full unreserved apology. After all, religion is about doing what is right ..... isn't it?

Mimi N.
Mimi Ness6 years ago

Abandoned by society and cast out by their families for crimes they did not commit, these women found themselves stripped of their liberty and dignity and condemned to indefinite sentences of manual labor. Within the church-run Magdalene Laundries, these women were forced into unbearable institutional servitude in order to cleanse themselves of the "sins" of which they had been accused. As much as they portray themselves as a "loving church" they are a huge bunch of abusers, power and control freaks, enslavers of puritans and "righteouss" fanatics that continue with archaicic/ancient retarded "beliefs" that instill to their children so the religion's business continues forever and ever, making feeble minds fall into fear, guilt and shame, ashamed of being humans, so they can be easily control and manpulate. Asking for money for the powerful vatican , because they are "poor" and help others (well most religions /sects/cults are crazy about money, I wonder if their god is so powerful, why he doesn't invent billions and trillions and eradicate poverty, diseases and abuse?) Most criticize talibans but, blind fanatic christians are indeed cruel talibans also.

tricia r.
tricia rizzi6 years ago

There's an excellent film called the Magdalene Sisters. Definitely worth a watch.

Diane K.
Diane K6 years ago

I never heard of this. Terrible that these girls were treated that way. thanks

Teri P.
Teri P6 years ago

Just three years ago, Sinèad O'Connor wrote the below article cristicising the Pope for his rather hollow apology for the abuse of Irish children by Catholic priests. She mentions in her article, that she was detained in the Magdalen laundries herself. I hope that Sinèad and other younger victims of the Irish Catholic Church stand together with the elderly Magdalen victims and demand justice for their suffering.

Teri P.
Teri P6 years ago

What a shameful period in the history of the Catholic church, and of Ireland! Disgraceful.

Jim Lauder
Jim Lauder6 years ago

I heard Maureen Sullivan interviewed recently on CBC radio and was stunned to learn of this tragedy. I could not believe this existed as late as 1996 in a country I supposed was civilized. Organized religion again rears its ugly head.

Anne Marie M.

I have no intention waiting for judgement day! The "universal Roman Catholic Chuck as I said before, is corrupt, greedy, arrogant, with sex criminals from the bottom to the top. A sex criminal is does not have to commit a sex act to be a criminal, but enabling and covering up a sex act is just as bad as if one committed it.

Anyone who thinks is ok for the "universal" church to ruin the lives of young children and women need to have their head examined. Women must fight for their rights, and not allow any religion to dictate to them what they can and cannot do, by rapists, by those who commit sodomy on little boys, and other horrible sex crimes, ...we should never wait for someone else to, even God, to take up our cause....we need to be ouor own advocates, as well as the advocates for children.

This "shameful episode" is much more than that. It is not an "episode" it went on for years...and its criminal .....which means the priests, the nuns, and the government need to be brought to justice....but, since it went on for so long, many of them are already burning in hell!!!!!!!!

Stop being so damn weak, Ashley. Stand up for your self and for the children! Shame???? Shame on you!