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Irish leader apologizes for infamous Magdalen laundries

February 19, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Kathleen Janette, who worked at the Catholic-run workhouses known as the Magdalen laundries, reacts along with other women after leaving the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on Tuesday.
Kathleen Janette, who worked at the Catholic-run workhouses known as the… (Peter Morrison / Associated…)

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered an emotional apology Tuesday for  government involvement in a harsh system of laundries run by Roman Catholic nuns, where women and girls labored long hours behind locked doors, unpaid and often bewildered about why they were there.

“As a society, for many years we failed you,” Kenny said in a televised official apology Tuesday before the Irish Parliament. “This is a national shame.”

Kenny stopped, his voice breaking, and then concluded, “Let me hope that this day and this debate heralds a new dawn for all those who feared that the dark midnight might never end.”

The apology came two weeks after a report found that the Irish government had been involved in the infamous Magdalen laundries, helping to send girls and women into the workhouses, paying them through government programs and contracts, and bringing runaways back in the hands of police.

The report painted a picture of a punishing regime of work and prayer, imposed on women and girls who felt trapped, often told little or nothing about why they were at the laundries and when they could leave. More than 10,000 women worked in the laundries between 1922 and 1996, it found.

The women ended up in the workhouses for many reasons, more than a fourth of them sent there by courts, reform schools and other state institutions, others dropped off by their families, still others turning there themselves after becoming homeless or fleeing abuse.

Although some saw the laundries as “their only refuge in times of great personal difficulty … others spoke of their real sense of being exploited,” former Sen. Martin McAleese wrote in the introduction to the report.  

The secrecy and shame enshrouding the workhouses kept their stories hidden for decades, as women who spent time in the laundries were widely stigmatized as “fallen women.” Kenny lamented “the ignorance and arrogance that saw us publicly call them ‘penitents’ for their ‘crime’ of being poor or abused or just plain unlucky.” Some still fear coming forward to tell their stories.

Women held in the workhouses had pressed repeatedly for a state apology. For years, the government had argued that it bore no responsibility, saying that the institutions were privately run with scant state involvement. Irish news media reported survivors were overjoyed Tuesday after Kenny spoke, saying his speech went far beyond what they expected.

Even getting an apology at all floored some. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen,” Magdalene Survivors Together member Maureen O’Sullivan told the Irish Examiner earlier this week of the anticipated apology. “It just goes to show that you must never give up.”

The apology is also a first step toward compensating the women once confined in the laundries. Kenny said Tuesday that a judge would undertake a three-month review, then offer recommendations on how the government could help the women, including payments, counseling and other assistance. One group, Justice for Magdalenes, has called for the women to receive 100,000 euros, about $133,000, in addition to pensions and lost wages.

“But today is not the day to focus on that,” board member James M. Smith said, growing emotional in a phone interview after Kenny spoke. “What happened today was very, very significant. Irish society finally did right by these women and told them that they were wronged.”

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