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Irish Women Emerge From Shadows Of 'National Shame'

Candles burn outside grounds of Leinster House, placed by relatives of victims of the Catholic-run work houses known as the Magdalene Laundries in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 19.
Peter Morrison
Candles burn outside grounds of Leinster House, placed by relatives of victims of the Catholic-run work houses known as the Magdalene Laundries in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 19.

In post-independence Ireland, thousands of women found themselves incarcerated in church-run laundries. For the first time, the state has apologized for their treatment.

These women were a diverse group: former prostitutes, unwed mothers, orphans, homeless women, convicts and industrial school transfers put in the care of the Catholic Church.

Nuns ran the facilities, known as Magdalene Laundries, on a commercial basis, doing laundry for the state, private companies and individuals. But the inmates were never paid for the work, and all profit went to the church. The first of such places opened in the 1930s, and the last laundry in Ireland closed in 1996.

Until last Tuesday, these women never received any official recognition for their years lost in the system.

"As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes," said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. "This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies."

A Life In The Laundries

Mari Steed is committee director of the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes, and her mother was one of the women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Her mother was born out of wedlock in the early 1930s, and later put in an industrial school. In 1947 she was sent to the laundry of Sunday's Well in the city of Cork.

"She spent the next 10 years there doing sewing for them. This would have been anything from embroidery to smock dresses, items for the clergy, altering surplices, that sort of thing," Steed says. "And obviously there was profit being made on these items, but she was never paid for that."

She, like some other lucky girls, was let go with a work referral in 1957. She worked as an aide in a Dublin hospital run by the church.

"At this time, of course, you know, she's out from under the care of the nuns, essentially," Steed says. "But having been raised completely by the nuns, she exited with absolutely no world skills, no sexual education, didn't know anything about men."

In less than two years, she was pregnant. The nuns sent her back to Cork, to a mother-and-baby home. She gave birth to Steed in 1960 and stayed with her until a U.S. adoption was arranged — about 18 months later.

'Exceedingly Meaningful' Apology

Steed has since reunited with her mother, and worked for years to get the state to recognize the abuse that happened in the laundries. She says hearing the prime minister's apology was huge.

"To get an apology was exceedingly meaningful for me, for my mother, for many of the women that suffered with this notion that they were 'fallen' or somehow damaged," she says.

Steed says it has always been difficult for her mother, now 79, to talk about her experience. But the announcement might help her open up.

"I think she recognizes the importance of that weight coming off her shoulders. I think it's freed her up considerably to talk about her past, and that's going to be the case for a lot of women," Steed says.

Steed credits the U.N. Committee Against Torture for provoking an official state response. The committee found the state at fault and called for an investigation, which Ireland then conducted.

"That was the tool that really held their [feet] to the fire and made them act on it because the world was now watching," she says.

The results of the investigation were released Feb. 5. Ireland's Justice Department "found evidence of direct State involvement" in funding and oversight of the laundries. It also cites state involvement in referring girls and women to the facilities.

Ireland will now devise a compensation plan for the survivors; the report estimates that about 800 to 1,200 women are still alive.

Still Afraid

Steed says her mother ended up better off than others. She married, but had no other children because she was too afraid.

"This is a theme that we found very common with mothers of loss who either or weren't even in Magdalene Laundries ... that they're just too afraid that their child might be snatched, either by the religious or by God through death," Steed says.

Steed's mother also had difficulty coming to terms with the family she lost, even with her brother who wanted to reunite.

"There's also a great deal of prejudice and bullying among the Irish expat community in the U.K. [where my mother lives]," Steed says. "Many of them don't out themselves as being former industrial school students or Magdalenes because they'll be made fun of, even by their own Irish community."

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