Hanging Ireland’s dirty laundry out to dry

Ireland’s last Magdalene laundry is up for sale. Campaigners want a memorial to the women abused at the hands of religious orders.

The Magdalene laundries were religious institutions where single mothers and “wayward” women were forced to work in wretched conditions. Seán MacDermott Street, Dublin, is the site of the last operating laundry, closed in 1996. The land belongs to the City Council, which intends to redevelop it for housing. Yet, survivors and local politicians want a memorial placed there to commemorate lives were blighted by cruelty and religious bigotry.

In mid-March, councillors blocked the sale of the site until survivors groups have been consulted and a suitable memorial constructed. They also called for an investigation into potential unmarked graves on the site.

Seán MacDermott Street (named after one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising) was one of a network of laundries run by four Catholic orders during the 20th century. Between 1922 and 1996, over 10,000 girls and women passed through their doors. Some were victims of domestic abuse, some were committed by courts, and others were unwed mothers.

Despite being owned and operated by religious orders, Magdalene laundries often won state tenders and were able to undercut other businesses by using unpaid labour. An employment act passed in 1936 specifically exempted nuns from the obligation to pay workers.

Magdalene(2)There were many such establishments. On the north side of Dublin, there used to be an old convent called High Park. Ten years ago, its owners, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, sold part of the grounds for a million pounds. A small estate of modern town houses now stands there. But after the land had been sold to the developers, it was discovered that it also held the graves of 133 women who had been incarcerated in the Magdalene laundry attached to the convent. Their remains were reinterred in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, their names listed on an austere limestone monument.

In 2013, an Irish government report absolved the four religious institutions who ran the laundries. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny did apologise for the stigma and conditions saying they were a product of a “harsh and uncompromising Ireland” and he expressed his sympathy with survivors and the families of those who died. But he stopped short of a formal apology. Later that same year, in view of the damning fact that a quarter of the thousands of women forced to work in the laundries had been sent there by the Irish state, the government agreed to pay up to 58 million euros in reparations.

Two films have made the public more aware of the Magdalene scandal. In 2002 Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters told the story of three Dublin women who endured the sadism of the malevolent Sister Hildegarde McNulty (called Sister Bridget in the film). It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. And in 2014 came Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and based on a true story recounted in Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search.

The inhuman treatment of these women, the trampling on their dignity and rights, and the sheer misery of the Magdalene laundry system must not be forgotten. Dublin City Council has no option but to turn the laundry in Seán MacDermott Street into a fitting memorial.

Magdalene(1)

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