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Panel: Ireland Confined Young Women In Workhouses


Investigators in Ireland have been pursuing an excruciating question: It is how women came to be stuck in a modern day workhouse. That's a kind of forced labor camp we associate with some earlier age, yet these Irish facilities persisted almost until the end of the 20th century.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports on what an investigative panel calls secrecy, silence and shame.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: They worked in laundries under the supervision of Catholic nuns. They were unpaid. They couldn't leave. They endured a harsh, physically demanding regime of work, prayer and regular tongue lashings.

Some 10,000 young women and girls went through this system over three quarters of a century. They include Maureen Sullivan.

MAUREEN SULLIVAN: I was only 12 years of age when I was brought there. And I was put to work in a Magdalene Laundry. My education was taken from me. My name was changed. Why would they do that?

REEVES: There were 10 so-called Magdalene Laundries in all. The last shut down in 1996. But anger over the treatment of the women lived on. Campaign groups were launched to lobby for an inquiry and redress for the victims.

Ireland's government eventually set up a committee to find out what part the state played in incarcerating the women. The findings make painful reading. Here's an excerpt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls. In many cases, little more than children, on entering the laundries, not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they'd done something wrong, and not know when if ever they'd get out and see their families again.

REEVES: The committee concludes Ireland's government had a hand in sending more than two and a half thousand women and girls to the laundries. It debunks a popular myth that many Magdalene women were prostitutes or unmarried expectant moms. Some were sent to the Laundries by the courts, it says. Some were orphans, or from abusive homes.

Some were sent from industrial schools for neglected children, from psychiatric hospitals, or by priests, foster parents and their own families. Two thirds stayed less than a year. Hundreds were confined for longer than a decade.

Former inmates of the laundries insist they were physically and sexually abused. The committee says it only talked to a few but found no evidence of this.

The nuns, meanwhile, say they acted in good faith by providing a refuge to women and girls in need.

Women from the laundries want compensation. Maureen Sullivan says getting an official government apology is also extremely important.

SULLIVAN: That would mean the world to us, that we'd be able to say at least we got an apology. It would make our lives that little bit better.

REEVES: Speaking in parliament, Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny used carefully nuanced words. He said he was sorry the stigma surrounding the Magdalene women wasn't lifted long ago and...

PRIME MINISTER ENDA KENNY: I am sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment.

REEVES: Mary Lou McDonald, of the opposition Sinn Fein Party, was not impressed by Kenny's words.

MARY LOU MCDONALD: I am disappointed for the women, for the survivors, that you cannot stand and say the state was culpable, the state was negligent.

REEVES: Yet the fact that Ireland's government seems to accept some responsibility is welcomed by some of those campaigning on behalf of the 1,000-or-so surviving Magdalene Laundry women. Ireland's parliament debates the issue later this month.

Katherine O'Donnell, from the Justice for Magdalenes campaign, says there'll be more pressure for a proper apology.

KATHERINE O'DONNELL: We want to see every politicians of every party stand up and make their voices heard on behalf of this shamed, forgotten, neglected segment of Irish population and institute a reparation scheme.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.


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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.