On the 9th of January the Irish government announced the terms of the long sought after investigation into the deaths of 4,000 women and children at Irish Mother and Baby Homes between 1922 and 1998. The inquiry comes following research conducted by historian Catherine Corless which uncovered that 80 per cent of children in the homes died before reaching their first birthday, provoking outrage in Ireland. However, while campaigners have welcomed the investigation, many have been left frustrated that the treatment of women in Irish Magdalene Asylums has once again escaped formal inquiry.

The Magdalene Asylums, also known as Magdalene Laundries, became notorious during the twentieth century for their harsh treatment of women under their care. Run by Catholic orders, the asylums formed an integral part of the social welfare system. Women were sent to the asylums for a variety of reasons, giving birth to illegitimate children, promiscuous behaviour and even being the victim of a sexual assault were common reasons for families to send their daughters away. While at the asylums, the women were forced to work long hours in the commercial laundries on site for no pay in order to atone for their sins. Survivors allege that they were beaten frequently and subjected to punishments of humiliation such as head shaving if they attempted to run away. Many women were left traumatised by their experiences in the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996.

The fate of the Magdalene girls was largely forgotten until the discovery of a mass grave in the grounds of a former laundry in 2011. Bowing to pressure from the UN and human rights activists, the Irish government launched the McAleese Inquiry, which found that over a quarter of the girls in the laundries were sent there by the government. The inquiry, published in 2013, resulted in a landmark public apology for the Magdalene girls in which Prime Minister Edna Kenny described the laundries as ‘a national shame’ and promised that all victims would receive compensation. However, many campaigners remain frustrated by the government’s refusal to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses that continue to be associated with the laundries.

The UN remains highly critical of the Irish Government’s refusal to acknowledge the claims made by victims of the Magdalene Laundries. The Vice Chair of the United Nations Convention Against Torture denounced the McAleese Inquiry, arguing that it ‘did not conduct a fully independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour or ill-treatment’. Most frustrating for the former Magdalene girls was the omission of nearly 800 pages of detailing their experiences inside the laundries. These testimonies were not considered reliable evidence and in a letter to the UN the Irish Government stated that ‘in the absence of any credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene Laundries, the Irish Government does not propose to set up a specific Magdalene inquiry body’.

The Irish Government’s refusal to acknowledge the huge number of women who have complained of human rights abuses while working at the Magdalene laundries is compounded by the refusal of the nuns who ran the laundries to acknowledge any wrongdoing. While all four orders have apologised, they have defended their actions arguing they were ‘part of the system and culture of the time’. Two of the orders still refuse to contribute to the €50 million compensation fund set up in the wake of the McAleese Inquiry.

The UN have demanded that the Catholic Church launch its own investigation into the running of the laundries, where they describe women working in ‘slave-like conditions, and… often [being] subject to cruel and degrading treatment as well as physical and sexual abuse’. No such investigation has been announced.

Of the estimated 30,000 women who entered the laundries, only around 400 remain alive today. Many of these women still campaign for their experiences to be formally acknowledged, both by the state and by the Church. The Magdalene Laundries mark an undoubtedly painful chapter in Ireland’s history, yet it is a chapter that must be fully investigated before it can be put to rest. Both the Irish Government and the Catholic Church owe it to the women who were put under their care to launch a transparent inquiry into what happened. By avoiding the issue they will only prolong the suffering of their victims, all of whom deserve to see justice in their lifetime.



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