Later today the Irish premier is, at last, expected to issue a state apology to up to 10,000 women who were incarcerated in the Catholic-run Magdalene laundries, where they were treated as child slaves.
In the Telegraph Samantha Long, adopted at nine months, describes her quest to locate her real mother:
After a two year search, our social worker telephoned to say that she had located our biological mother and she was ready to meet. We expected to find a married woman with other children, who had moved on with her life and her past.
Nothing prepared us for what we found.
Margaret Bullen had been committed to Ireland’s Industrial School system at the age of two years because her mother was unwell and her father was unable to take care of their seven children. That was the end of Margaret and the outside world. By the age of five she was preparing breakfast for 70 children including herself. This work started at 4am after kneeling in the cold to say the rosary first. A fellow female child slave from this institution has told me that Margaret was a fretful bed-wetter, and to this day that woman can still imagine the smell of urine as the girls knelt to pray before dawn.
Margaret continued her childhood and puberty in these institutions, without the chance to grow up. At age 16, she was transferred to the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry just off O’Connell Street in our capital city. There she toiled, unpaid for the rest of her life. The working conditions were hard, with long hours of tortuous labour carried out in the strictest silence. Meals were meagre, and recreation time consisted of other types of unpaid work, such as embroidery or basket-making. When we were reunited, Margaret was 42, but looked like a woman 20 years older.
Margaret didn’t tell us all the details of her life. She was too ashamed and seemed to think that we might look down on her or her work. That was understandable, because the rest of society was conditioned to feel superior to these “fallen women”. Margaret was committed to the care of the Irish state, and the state sub-contracted that duty of care to the Catholic Church.
The state forgot all about the women once they went in. They should have checked on their physical, educational, nutritional, psychological, recreational well-being. But they didn’t – instead the state gave many laundry contracts to the religious sisters, and that slave labour was carried out by women like Margaret, who spent most of her life washing the bed linen and clothing from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin....
Margaret died whilst still on the inside. She was one day shy of her 51st birthday. The laundry ceased to operate in 1996, but the women continued to live there in the same conditions as before. Some people have asked why we didn't take her out but she was so deeply institutionalised that we would not have had the necessary understanding or qualifications to deal with her possible re-integration into society....
Her death certificate records her cause of death as Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease caused by inhalation of chemicals over many years resulting in end stage kidney and liver failure. She is buried in a communal grave in Glasnevin cemetery, in the shadows of Michael Collins and Daniel O’Connell – the great liberator.
The apology comes nearly two years after UNCAT (the United Nations Committe Against Torture) issued a statement highly critical of the Irish government, and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme.
Ireland has experience of dealing with the sins of its past. A formal apology was issued by the Irish government in 1999 to the tens of thousands of victims of child abuse in the country's vast industrial (residential) school system, run by Catholic nuns, brothers and priests. An exhaustive statutory inquiry produced the damning Ryan report, and a redress scheme has now cost around £1bn.
There has, however, been a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women. The state has wriggled and squirmed, claiming that the laundries were private institutions and all the women entered voluntarily. Uncat has now firmly rejected this, confirming what we in Ireland have long known in our hearts. We knew that women who escaped were caught by the police and returned to the punitive and often brutal regime within the laundries. Generations of Irish people colluded in this, using the laundries when it suited them to clean their clothes and control their daughters.
Some of the women in the laundries were unmarried mothers, others were locked away for what was euphemistically described as their own protection. Yet more were young girls transferred directly from the industrial schools....
Irish society was deeply complicit in the incarceration of women and girls in the laundries. In what has been described as a culture of containment, Ireland locked up more of its citizens per capita than anywhere else in the world – not in prisons, but in psychiatric hospitals, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools. Anyone who did not fit within the cruelly narrow definition of good behaviour was in danger.
This then is the legacy that Uncat is forcing Irish citizens to face before it is too late for the relatively few surviving Magdalene women, most of whom are now elderly and living in impoverished circumstances.