MARKING the end to one of the darkest threads running through modern Irish history, the Irish Times revealed that the last Magdalene asylum for ‘fallen women’ was shutting its doors for good on this day, September 25, in 1996.
The Laundry, Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, was closed on October 25, 1996, shortly after the horrors of the Catholic-run convents, kept hidden and spoken of only in hushed tones for so long, were finally exposed.
Some years earlier in 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, in Dublin, sold part of their ecclesiastical estate to a property developer.
Once diggers were put to work on the ground, one hundred years of wanton neglect and cruelty was unearthed in the form of the remains of 155 people – former inmates of the asylum.
Predictably, a steady stream of survivor testimonies began to emerge, each one giving new confidence to the next person considering whether to come forward.
The mounting body evidence became difficult for the church to ignore or refute.
So there were few tears shed when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street, in Dublin 1, the last vestige of a venal and outdated institution, closed its doors.
After kicking the can down the road for several years, the Irish government eventually acknowledged in 2001 that the so-called ‘fallen women’ of the Magdalene laundries had in fact been victims of abuse by the nuns, and the institution of the church more broadly, during their time there.
The following extract from the research and advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes offers a glimpse into hash conditions endured by women and girls at these austere institutions:
“Their hair was cut, and their clothes were taken away and replaced with a drab uniform. A rule of silence was imposed at almost all times in Magdalene Laundries and, in many women’s experiences, friendships were forbidden. Correspondence with the outside was often intercepted or forbidden. Visits by friends or family were not encouraged and were monitored by nuns when they did occur.
“The girls and women were forced to work from morning until evening – washing, ironing or packing laundry, and sewing, embroidering or doing other manual labor. These Laundries were run on a commercial, for-profit basis, but the girls and women received no pay. No contributions (‘stamps’) were paid on their behalf to statutory pension schemes. The laundry they washed came not only from members of the public, local businesses and religious institutions, but also from numerous government Departments, the defense forces, public hospitals, public schools, prisons and other State entities such as the parliament, the Chief State Solicitor’s Office, the Office of Public Works, the Land Commission, CIE and Áras an Uachtaráin (the President’s Residence)(to name but a few)."
To this day, victims, their relatives, and supporters continue their campaign for justice.
In August 2018, Pope Francis, known for his progressive outlook and reforming zeal, took the unprecedented step of meeting with victims of the laundries in Dublin to ensure that this history, fraught with humiliation, secrecy, and suffering, does not repeat itself.
While inroads have been made on several fronts, the fight for justice, as well as a fuller knowledge of the crimes that took place, continues.