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The Magdalene laundries were used as reformatories where girls were sent without due process. But they were not brutal: anti-Catholics have lied about them

The laundries were tough places, undoubtedly. But there was no sexual abuse and no physical punishment

By on Monday, 25 February 2013

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny (Photo: PA)

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny (Photo: PA)

I usually maintain a general scepticism about the BBC’s reporting of stories involving the Catholic Church, but I have to admit that I missed out on this one, maybe because it has to do with Ireland, and because there have been so many true Irish stories one really didn’t want to contemplate. The saga of the Magdalene laundries has been one I just didn’t want to think about; here we go again, I thought: now, it’s Irish nuns. And last week, the BBC reported (as did everyone else) that another enemy of the Church, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has formally apologised on behalf of the state for its role in the story.

Some 10,000 women and girls, reported the BBC, were made to do unpaid manual labour in laundries run by Catholic nuns in Ireland between 1922 and 1996. More than a quarter of those who spent time in the laundries had been sent there by the Irish state.

Mr Kenny apologised to all the women affected.

He said their experiences had cast a “long shadow” over Irish life and that it had been “humbling and inspiring” to meet them. “For 90 years Ireland subjected these women, and their experience, to a profound indifference,” he said. “By any standards it was a cruel and pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in mercy”.

Cruel and pitiless: that was the story; and most cruel and pitiless of all were allegedly the Irish sisters who presided over the women’s incarceration. The popular perception of the story of the Magdalen laundries has been a growing certainty which in the end led, politically, to the Taioseach’s apology (itself an implied attack on the Church) and it has been formed over the past 20 years by a series of plays and movies about what went on in the laundries. None had greater impact than the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. It is about four teenage girls committed to a laundry where they experience or witness routine physical and sexual abuse by nuns and a priest. It depicts the laundries as profitable, money-making rackets, and shows the women subjected to various indignities including head-shaving.

But how true was all that? According to the Irish Times, a striking feature of the government report by Senator McAleese is the number of women recorded as speaking positively about the sisters, women who absolutely rejected allegations of physical abuse. Most agreed that there was what was termed “psychological abuse”: most “described verbal abuse and being the victim of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments. Even those who said that some Sisters were kind to them reported verbal cruelty as occurring during their time in the Magdalene Laundries”. The real question about these places is whether they should have existed in the first place in the way that they did, and whether the women sent there understood why. Why was their freedom taken from them? Often they were never told, and for that, the State is directly responsible (usually the sisters didn’t know either). But these were not, as is widely believed, brutal institutions.

I quote directly from the government report by Senator Martin McAleese:

“33. A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalene Laundries.

“34. In this regard, women who had in their earlier lives been in an industrial or reformatory school drew a clear distinction between their experiences there and in the Magdalene Laundries, stating clearly that the widespread brutality which they had witnessed and been subjected to in industrial and reformatory schools was not a feature of the Magdalene Laundries.

“The following examples and quotations relate to the majority of women who shared their stories with the Committee and who indicated that they had never experienced or seen physical punishment in a Magdalene Laundry:

“One woman summarised her treatment in a Magdalene Laundry by saying ‘I might have been given out to, but I was never beaten’.

- Another woman said about the same Magdalene Laundry ‘I was never beaten and I never seen anyone beaten’.

- Another woman said ‘It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched myself by any nun and I never saw anyone touched and there was never a finger put on them … Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will … we worked very hard there … But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after’.”

Fr Tim Finigan described an article by Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph, the standfirst of which was “Catholic-bashers have embellished the truth about abuse in Catholic institutions. It’s time to put the record straight” (and which pointed me to much of the above) as being “The kind of article Catholics dare not write”. Well, Brendan O’Neill wasn’t writing as a Catholic (though he may well be one); I, however, unavoidably am. So if Fr Tim is correct, I expect I’ll get it in the neck for this one. I’m not saying that the use by the Irish state of the Magdalene laundries as reformatories to which people could be sent without explanation or due process was in any way defensible. And Irish nuns could undoubtedly be tough in those days (my wife has fond memories from her convent school in Swanage, now a holiday hotel, of being called “a bold girl” and having her hand thwacked with a 12-inch ruler). But, says one woman quoted above, there was in the Magdalene laundries no physical punishment that she saw, and though things were “not rosy”, “we were treated good and well looked after”.

Needless to say, none of that was reported by the BBC.

  • Fiona Cashel

     It is indeed VERY sad. Do  more research and you will hear evidence of both physical and sexual along with emotional abuse within the Magdalene Laundries.  Horrifying atrocities occur all over the world and should not be minimized,  but when not only the government, but the hierarchy of the holy  church covers up the abuse, this causes many to lose faith….not in God so much…but in organized religion in general, including the Catholic church.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Can I assume you are being facetious? I hope so.

  • Fiona Cashel

     The overwhelming majority of Magdalene Laundries were controlled by the previously.. .very powerful Catholic church, along with the Irish government. You are correct that it is wrong to point the finger at the Catholics and the church only. But the fact that the Catholic church wielded so much power and influence and covered up the atrocities instead of eradicating them is shameful, and in your own words…ludicrous.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Amen to that.  Attempting to control individuals through fear, guilt, and degradation with or without physical abuse is in short, brutal. I can’t help wondering if Mr Odie still thinks it is a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. I would enjoy seeing him eat some crow.

  • Fiona Cashel

     I agree. The true Catholic (universal) church consists of its people…not its
    institution. The body of Christ is its heart and soul, not its hierarchy. 

  • Fiona Cashel

     God Bless Josephine and all the Maggies.

  • Fiona Cashel

    Amen…and AMEN

  • Fiona Cashel

     I agree, Emmy on everything you said. They were so beaten down, both emotionally as well as physically.  Well, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around, and I pray for their day of justice.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Freedom of speech is precious. I disagree vehemently with Dr Oddie’s article, but would defend his right to make a donkey kong out of himself.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Cheers to you, Mari. You speak the truth.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Golly gee….I can’t help wondering how many of the derisive and supposed disbelief comments expressed regarding the Magdalene Laundry victims have been made by men?  Men who perhaps have never been subjugated to humiliating emotional, verbal and physical abuse. Perhaps a few, who if they were women, may have suffered the same fate?  But because they were men…or should I say, boys will be boys…walked away while the women they impregnated were enslaved like caged animals, stripped of their dignity and self-esteem and after they gave birth, had their babies torn away from them. Perhaps there have been exaggerations in some cases…but the overwhelming evidence points to ungodly cruelty by those who were looked up to as upstanding pillars of the community and “holy” servants of God.These victims (some men as well as women) deserve at the very least, heartfelt apologies from the almighty Catholic church…and the same recognition and compensation as so many abused men have gotten due to the widespread scandals from sexual abuses involving young men and the clergy. Wake up and smell the coffee, JabbaPapa. It’s right under your nose.

  • Fiona Cashel

     There should be outcries against any and all abusive institutions. Perhaps the difference here is not only that the church is involved, but that many survivors have banded together to create a stronger voice. Also, the “sanctuaries” they entered and the “saintly” people who were supposed to help them, betrayed them instead.

  • Fiona Cashel

     I am not anti-Catholic or a Christian hater. However, the church deserves to be hammered because it claims to be close to God and therefore, is held up to a higher standard. The higher the climb, the farther the fall.

  • Fiona Cashel

     God bless Mary Smyth.

  • Fiona Cashel

    We’re all capable of wrong-doing. In fact, I know I’m being a little wicked with my replies on this web- site. But I can’t seem to help myself because the self-righteous insensitive comments about the Magdalene Laundry victims try to whitewash the Catholic church involvement in the horrible scandal, which makes me sick at heart. In the end, we’ll all be judged by our actions…as well as our failure to take action. And it appears to me the church has tried to look away for far too long. To state a famous quote by Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. If any Maggies read this posting, please know that my heart hurts for you. Hold your heads high and don’t listen to anyone with the gall to try and minimize or ridicule your suffering. They are ignorant fools.

  • Fiona Cashel

     God bless you, Livia.

  • Fiona Cashel

     This is my first time commenting on this blog and guess what? I am not hostile to the Catholic church…or to any church. I came across this blog while doing research on the Magdalene Laundries, which I have been doing for some time. What I am hostile to… lies, cover ups, and hypocrisy.  I find the article written by Mr Oddie to be patronizing, biased, and disrespectful toward victims of the Magdalene Laundries….and there are many, many victims. If you have not already done so, I suggest you do some research on your own. Perhaps then you will understand why some postings on this blog appear to sound hostile.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Gee Sandi,
    If that is true (about the deleted posts) it will be a shame. I posted a number of comments tonight and although many are critical, none contain profanity. So I would hope whoever is webmaster will have the integrity to leave them alone. I welcome constructive criticism and would hope this is not an entirely close minded collective. If it is…that’s a scary concept.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Your opinion and/or truth is appreciated…..and needs to be heard. What is evil and hidden must be revealed for the good of the church. I pray that the Catholics who have their heads stuck in the sand because of blind faith will open their eyes to see the truth before it’s too late. Most young people who were brought up Catholic no longer practice and it’s not because they are hostile to the church. It is because they have witnessed too much hypocrisy and are apathetic. It remains to be seen whether this is a forum for intelligent discussion or a gathering of die hard Catholics-R-US. Oh, by the way, yes…I am Catholic. Does this mean I get to join the “club” and if so….must I agree with the general consensus? I don’t always play well with others. I’m not hostile toward the church…but I am upset at this Mr Oddie’s blatantly biased article.

  • Fiona Cashel

     Well said, Liam! God bless you.

  • Alan199

    I know of folk who suffered merciless brutality in the laundries. Your article is as one-sided as you accuse others of being.

  • Guest

    For goodness’ sake – it’s NOT OK for the laundries to have perpetrated psychological abuse. Even if there wasn’t physical abuse, mental abuse is a terrible thing!

  • lyn

    I cannot believe that anyone could write this!!! How could you even try and defend the men and women that ran this organisation?? The fact that some of the inmates were not beaten does not seem to be to be any reason for celebration. It is as though saying that because some children have not been abused by thier parish priest we should be pleased about that, rather than focusing on the ones that were abused. It is such attitudes and seemingly wilfull misunderstanding that is doing our faith such a great disservice. It is often not so much the historical facts that cause so much pain, but the fact that the church either continues to deny that they were the cause of the pain, and if, faced with proof that they WERE the cause of the pain, seek to mitigate the offence and deny that as many people were hurt as claimed. If you have any honour at all you would write and say sorry for this article.

  • 11dianimal22

    Having just read the apologies you cite, I find the very shallow.

  • jrae
    indeed, corporal punishment. it appears in many many listings regarding the magdalene laundries. makes me think it did happen after all. in ANY asylum, there was corporal punishment and neglect, so by that standard alone you can just assume there was abuse here.

  • mary

    My own mother was put in one of these god awful places her son stolen from her and after years of ill treatment and slave labour, through sheer determination she escaped came to England and went on to have a life and four more children. The damage she suffered and the torment was carried by her throughout her life. My mother never ever got to see her first born son ever again after he was taken away she was told he died from TB. A short while ago we revived a call from banardos to say her son was alive in a community home and were we interested in communication. Unfortunately this call came to late for my mother to ever be reunited with her child as she died when she was in her early 60s Ironically her son our brother has just celebrated his 62nd birthday his first ever birthday with family. He spent more then 30 years in institutions which have mentally affected him and his life skill abilities how the hell can anyone say this was not cruel no one has the right to cover up the truth and horror that went on in the name of god religion and unholy girls!

  • MacTurk

    First, let us deal with facts. One fact is that up to 30,000 women were incarcerated in the various Magdalene Laundries, not 10,000. Mr Oddie’s attempt to reduce the size of the problem by two thirds is quite a good trick, no?

    Second, women and girls died in these institutions, and their deaths were not recorded. We know this because the bodies were discovered in unmarked graves in the grounds of the institution, recently.

    Mr Oddie’s oleaginous article is symptomatic; there are none more blind than those who will not see. Far too many of the senior sections of the Catholic Church, both clerical and lay, are in complete denial about the degree and kind of abuse perpetrated by this international pedophile protection scheme.

    We now know, in Ireland, because we have the records, that this was not ‘a few bad apples’. It was an institutionalised racket, which abused children of both sexes, young girls and young women. And it went on for at least 150 years(we have those records). While the degree of sexual abuse in the Magdalen Laundries may have been less than in the reformatories like Daingean, the bloody awful food, hard(and utterly unpaid) labour and physical punishments were the same. And throwing a few selective quotes around does not make much of a case.

    If he believes that the Magdalen Laundries “…were not brutal…” he is being disingenuous at best, deceiving himself at worst.

  • madge

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I would like to draw
    your attention to the fact that what went on in Irish laundries
    went on all over the world in one form or other then and still goes on today in
    the sexual and many other trades, big time and is well and alive ALL over in what we are supposed
    to call a Civilized world
    with little or no comment from big governments, so may I ask what or why the big stigma on Ireland or the Irish
    people??? It’s happening under are very nose and the majority couldn’t give a dam. Logically we can’t be
    responsable for our ancester’s wrong doings but as normal human beings we
    should at least be able to learn from their errors and make sure this tragedy
    is never repeted. However what have we learned or achived today, nothing
    aparently as the cruelty and wickedness in todays world is just as bad or in my
    opinion much worse in today’s society than ever before, the only difference it’s
    much more sofisticated and hidden under the carpet from the public view! How
    many thousands of woman and children have dissapeared the world over let’s say
    in the last 10 or 20 years?? How many millions are working under slave wages
    and conditions just to satisfy the western world’s greed? Is there any need to
    go on…. ???

    If we want to do something positive about
    fixing the world it would be a great idea to start protecting little children
    from child pornography which as everyone knows is a billionair
    business, don’t you think so? Why is it today that millions of
    babies are murdered legaly in the
    abortion mills and nobody blinks an eye? It would be very interesting to see
    how many people out there who are highly critical of Ireland and the Irish people in the past, are out on
    the streets of the world protesting against the dreadful atrocities to women
    and babies in these abortion mills as the latest scandal of Dr. Kermit Gosnell In
    Pennsylvania has reveled?

    Constantly licking old
    soars will not help healing and much less amend for what these poor women had
    to suffer and are still suffering the world over today. It is the Irish State’s
    moral obligation (as it is of all States around the world) to ensure that these
    poor victims have adequate housing and a good pension to live comfortable and
    all the social services they require for their mental well being. Once these need
    have been met, these ladies should be allowed to live in peace to enable them
    to come to terms with their traumatic past, without closure no healing is

    For those of you
    interested in historical facts it was the Anglican church in
    Victorian England in the middle 18th century who founded
    and established laundries in both UK and Ireland and their colonies for
    the so called fallen women and girls of society of the day, where children as
    young a 9 years of age where locked up for simple petty crimes like stealing fruit
    at the public market etc. The Catholic Church didn’t follow suit until many
    years later when it got religious liberty in Britain!

    Obviously it’s a total
    lack of ethics and right reason and historically misleading to
    accuse any one country or church for these abuses. By the way, I’m not
    Irish so no personal interest involved, I just detest one sided and untruthful

    Statistics tell us
    that 90% of sexual and physical abuse is connected with the home or connections
    to the home and why is it not constantly highly publicised, to stigmatise it, obviously
    some hidden agenda is been played out here!

    I’s time we all got our
    thinking caps back on and start thinking for ourselves instead of been zombies
    led along like sheep to the slaughter by the mass media! It’s about time we all
    began been just in our own sphere and not let greed over rule our lives to the
    victimization of other defensless human beings especially women and children!

  • Crusader00

    Shameful disgusting attack upon a venerable institution through which fallen women did penance for their debauchery and crimes.

    “The ‘Magdalene System’ has of course been vilified by our ‘liberal mafia’ but it had much to recommend it. Women who commit such grave sins against the moral order often feel a need for cleansing through penance. Modern society does not allow them this opportunity. Instead, we reward such gross misbehavior with welfare payments and a benign attitude. …” — Tradition in Action

    For a defense of the honorable institutions see

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