A harrowing picture of humiliation and exploitation suffered by Irishwomen and girls in workhouses known as the Magdalene laundries has been laid out in an official report which characterised them as “lonely and frightening places.”
At least ten thousand women were housed in the laundries, which were run by Catholic nuns, over a seventy year period. Ten laundries operated in the Irish Republic between 1922 and 1996, with a quarter of the 10,000 inmates placed there by the state. The youngest person was aged 9 and the oldest 89.
The report found they were given poor food, often became infested with lice and fleas and forced to do “harsh and physically demanding work” which was both compulsory and unpaid.
The findings have confirmed most of the stories of life in the laundries, which for years have been notorious as centres where “fallen women,” orphans and others suffered psychological ill-treatment by nuns.
Irish prime minister Enda Kenny said he was sorry for what women had gone through but issued no formal apology on behalf of the state, which was shown to have had substantial involvement in the system. He has not yet responded to calls for compensation for survivors.
The report’s author, Dr Martin McAleese, wrote: “None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again.”
He found most women who were interviewed described the laundries as “cold with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer and many instances of verbal censure, scoldings and humiliating put-downs.”
After the report’s publication one woman, Mary Smyth, described the regime: “You got up at six in the morning and went to the laundry, then ate at two o’clock. The food was just horrific - dripping every day. Six o’clock was the rosary, then back to bed we went.
“Nobody was allowed to talk whatsoever. It was worse than any prison. I’ll go to my grave with this pain – it was absolutely soul-destroying, it’ll never leave me.
“The government and the church should stand up and admit the damage they did to us and the scars that they’ve left.”
The report found one allegation of sexual abuse, by another inmate, and little in the way of physical ill-treatment. But it listed many examples of mental cruelty, saying a majority of women spoken to had reported being victims of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments.
One woman told investigators: “The nuns were very nasty. They’d say, 'Your father is a drunkard' in front of everyone. It would degrade me.” Another said: “They were very, very cruel verbally – ‘Your mother doesn’t want you, why do you think you`re here.’”
Another witness, who had no known family, described being driven to the laundry, saying: “In the car the nuns were saying I had the devil in me, shaking holy water and saying the rosary.” She added: “We were never happy. You were lonely.”
General rules included the avoidance of “particular friendships with each other.” Punishments for a variety of offences included the withholding of meals, being deprived of general recreation and the cutting of hair.
One woman whose hair was cut said: “It was the ultimate humiliation – it changed me as a person to authority, God forgive me I learned to hate people then.”
Fergus Finlay of Barnardos said the report catalogued “how the state turned a blind eye to the appalling conditions in which women lived, while supporting the religious orders who enslaved them in financial and other ways. These women were treated like slaves.”
One of the orders who ran the laundries, the Religious Sisters of Charity, welcomed the report, saying: “We apologise unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt while in our care. In good faith we provided refuge for women.”
The report commented: “It must have been particularly distressing for those girls who may have been the victims of abuse in the family, wondering why they were the ones who were excluded or penalised by being consigned to an institution.”