An article by Rachel Cooper about the tragedy of the women of the Magdelene Laundries.
Justice could be imminent for the women who toiled in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. Rachel Cooper talks to Maeve O’Rourke, the lawyer who has made sure their voices are heard. They have been described as ‘Ireland’s disappeared’.
Thousands of women are thought to have passed through the gates of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, some of them never to emerge again and others to leave with deep emotional scars.
The women – some of whom had fallen pregnant outside marriage, or were the daughters of unmarried women – worked for years in church-run laundries, at times allegedly enduring both mental and physical abuse.
Campaigners have long been calling for justice for the Magdalene women and this week, it could finally come.
‘The women have waited too long’
The Irish government will tomorrow present a report into the laundries, which supporters hope could be the catalyst for an apology and compensation.
‘The women have waited too long for the apology that they’re due, for their pension, compensation and unpaid wages,’ says Maeve O’Rourke, a 26-year-old lawyer with the Justice for Magdalenes campaign. ‘It’s time that everybody acknowledges that they were innocent victims of a system that included society, state and church. They were sacrificed for the sake of an ideal – and it was only an ideal – of a pure society.’
From the early 1920s, it is estimated that tens of thousands of women worked in the laundries, which were run as businesses while the women were said to go unpaid. Women worked in the laundries sometimes for years. On arrival at the laundry, they were said to have been given a different name by which they would be known. Those who have spoken about their experiences talk of constantly washing laundry in cold water, of using heavy irons for hours, of close friendships being forbidden, and of never feeling free to leave.
Named after the Bible’s redeemed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, the laundries were first used to reform so-called ‘fallen women’. But, they then expanded. Justice for Magdalenes says the laundries took in girls who were considered ‘promiscuous’, those who were unmarried mothers or were considered a burden on their families.
Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996. Three years earlier, the laundries were brought to light when a convent sold off part of its land and the remains of 155 inmates who had been buried in unmarked graves on the property were exhumed…read more
Joni Mitchell was inspired to write a song about the plight of these women. Take a listen -it’s a very moving lyric.