From today’s NYT: Irish Premier’s Apology Fails to Appease Workhouse Survivors

Magdalene laundries

The official 1000-page report has landed. Its finding: The Irish state is responsible for having forced thousands of young women to labour in Catholic workhouses (“Laundries”), the last of which closed in 1996.

The existence of the so-called Magdalene Laundries is not, itself, news. We’ve long known that beginning in the 1760s, Irish women and girls who were deemed “fallen” (think: unwed mothers, prostitutes, or alleged ‘loose’ ladies) or “socially dysfunctional” were forced to toil as slave labourers in a variety of asylums.

It’s true that these asylums popped up across Europe and North America, but they were particularly numerous in Ireland, where they were known as “Magdalene laundries”–after Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who was redeemed by Christ. The asylums were often Church-run, and housed either Protestants or Catholics.

Sometimes women entered the laundries on their own accord. But many were coerced. For others, the line between free choice and coercion was blurred; women of faith were under immense pressure to atone for their perceived sins. Many women were admitted for petty offenses.

And conditions were abysmal. Women–the majority under 23–were left open to all sorts of abuse. And they were not paid for their labours. The women washed linen and clothing from major hotels, the armed forces, etc.


But here’s the rub: The Irish state has long insisted that it played no hand in these institutions. This has left compensation-seeking women in the lurch.
The new report stresses that indeed about a quarter of the 10,012 “Maggies” who were detained in laundries between 1922-96 were sent by state authorities.

What’s more: state officials inspected the laundries under the Factories Act. in doing so, the new report argues, the state illegally helped to oversee the system of forced and unpaid labour.

What’s MORE: The state gave laundry contracts to the asylums, in violation of fair wage clauses.

And to top it all off: Irish police officers  helped to track down escaped Maggies.


So, cue: state apology.

Or not. At a press conference Tuesday, Irish prime minister Edna Kenny failed to formally apologize for Ireland’s role in the abuse. Surviving Maggies have demanded an official apology and financial compensation.

What Kenny did muster was: “I’m sorry that this release of pressure and understanding for so many of those women was not done before this.”

Sort of the state equivalent of: “I’m sorry you’re upset”–when what you want is, “I’m sorry for what I did.”