Magdalene Laundries or asylums were slave labour laundries which were established to house “fallen women”, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity and therefore considered to be of poor moral character.They operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. London’s Magdalene Asylum was active from 1758 to (unbelievably) 1966. In Ireland, it is estimated that, since their inception, up to 30,000 women had been incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries. The last such institution in Ireland closed incredibly, as recently as 1996.The Magdalene movement in Ireland was appropriated by the Catholic Church following Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions.
The terrible conditions in these laundries have been well-documented, notably in the 2002 film ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ and the 1997 Channel 4 documentary ‘Love in a Cold Climate.’ In the latter, former inmates testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time.The tales are horrific-As one survivor said: “if there was a just god in heaven we wouldn’t have suffered like that.” One lady called Phyllis spent EIGHT YEARS in a Laundry simply because she was too pretty. She had grown up in a orphanage run, typically, by nuns and because she was pretty, she was sent to a laundry as a precaution – to ensure she didn’t fall pregnant and give them another mouth to feed. She spent eight years in basic slavery for just looking a certain way. And this was justified as moral and fair?
Since 2001, the Irish government has acknowledged that women in the Magdalene laundries were victims of abuse but the Irish government has resisted calls for investigation and proposals for compensation, maintaining that the laundries were privately run and abuses at the laundries were therefore outside the government’s remit. But evidence exists that Irish courts routinely sent women convicted of petty crimes to the laundries, the government awarded lucrative contracts to the laundries without any insistence on protection and fair treatment.In 2011, a government inquiry into the laundries was established and it reported in February this year.It was fairly damning and admitted that the state took advantage of slave labour. The Fine Gael leader Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered Magdalene survivors an official state apology, and last month details were announced of a financial compensation scheme.This week’s New Statesman reported that: “The scheme… will cost the state about €58 million. You might think, what with the millions they earned from selling land, that the various religious orders would be paying for some of this. But yesterday it was announced that they are refusing to contribute. This is depressing but not surprising, as they’ve repeatedly failed to apologise for running their lucrative labour camps.” The Catholic Church is even now trying to re-write history with Bill Donohue, the Catholic League President claiming that the brutal treatment of women at Ireland’s infamous laundries is “All A Lie.” But I think the truth is already out there: The Catholic Church has an awful lot to answer for.