IRISH STATE FULLY AWARE OF WRONGS DONE IN MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES
Irish Independent, Wednesday, 6 February 2013
The findings by Senator Martin McAleese are a welcome if predictable outcome to an impressively swift and efficient investigation of material that has become well known to all of us over the past decade. And no one could take issue with his wish that the Report will bring “healing and peace of mind” to those women whose lives were mostly wrecked by their incarceration in one or other of these hideously cruel and vicious places.
That being said, it must also be recognized that the putting right of these innumerable wrongs comes too late for a vast number of the victims who endured the Magdalene Laundries. The system was worse than the industrial schools where the inmates, who were prisoners, were subject to the law. The young people sent to them served their time and were released at the end of their term imposed by the courts. The Magdalenes had no terminal date to their ‘sentences’ and many spent their lives in slave labour.
The tragedy lies in the fact that the Magdalene Laundry system was fully known about from the birth of the State. Its operation has been acknowledged in various ways covered by Senator McAleese’s Report. Beyond his findings, however, was a foolproof State system contained in the country’s census of population. This recorded all the inmates of Magdalene Laundries throughout the country and it did of Industrial School inmates.
The first 1911 census was pre-independence but is now of the utmost importance since it has been published and can be consulted on line. It is the first census to be published. It will be fifteen years before the next (for 1926, the State’s first) is published.
The 1911 census lists, for example, all the inmates of the High Park Magdalene Laundry, 166 women whose ages vary from 15 to 70, whose untold misery is masked by details of whether they were single, married or widowed, whether they had children and whether the children were alive or dead. Their place of birth is listed. They come from all over Ireland though more from Dublin. They are, without exception, described as ‘Dom,’ for their occupation as a ‘domestic servant’ concealing the primitive washing of soldiers underwear and hospital linen.
Similar listings for similar institutions occur throughout Ireland and the first national census was taken in 1926 when the laundry service was at full steam. The holding of the national census followed in 1926, 1936, 1946, 1951, 1956, 1961, 1966, 1971, 1979 (the census due in 1976 was cancelled as an economy measure), 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2002 and 2006.
Until the system was amended in 1993 control of the census was exercised by the Minister for Industry and Commerce and he had wide powers over the records collected. Did he wonder why High Park in Drumcondra needed 166 domestics and how much they were paid? Or did he know, along with most adults in the country, that it and similar places were commercial enterprises paying no taxes on their profit and giving over no income to their ‘employees’?
Of course he did. And he did nothing. Just as successive Ministers for Education did nothing about the Industrial Schools for which they was responsible, though they had full records. Not until 2027 will we have knowledge of the Magdalene Laundries as they had evolved in size and profitability when the next census was taken, in 1926. But those who ran the country knew it all and did nothing.
The most lamentable period of all, for the suffering victims of the laundry system, was the period between 1999, when Bertie Ahern made his hypocritical speech of so-called ‘Apology’ to the victims of the Industrial School system, and today, when a very belated measure of closure has come as a result of Martin McAleese’s Report.
What does it make us think of Mr. Batt O’Keeffe, the Fianna Fail Minister for Education and Science, rejecting the idea of an apology for women who had spent their lives in slavery, and were beaten, starved, had their heads shaved as punishment, their identity stripped from them, their names changed, and were kept in captivity for years longer than the industrial school victims?
What do we make of Seán Aylward, the former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, telling the UN Committee Against Torture that the women ‘volunteered’ to give up their freedom and wash dirty clothes for all their lives under the harsh rule of nuns devoted to lucrative laundry work which enhanced the wealth of the religious order?