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Ireland oversaw vilified workhouse laundries

Prime minister says depictions of sites inaccurate

Magdalene Survivors Together held a press conference in Dublin on Tuesday. They displayed a laundry ledger.Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

DUBLIN — Ireland’s government oversaw workhouses run by Catholic nuns that once held thousands of women and teenage girls in unpaid labor and usually against their will, a fact-finding report concluded Tuesday, establishing state involvement in the country’s infamous Magdalene Laundries for the first time.

But Prime Minister Enda Kenny stopped short of making any official apology for the decades of harsh treatment documented in 10 Magdalene Laundries, the last of which closed in 1996. He emphasized that the more than 1,000-page report offered a nuanced view of life in the laundries far less stark or one-sided than has been depicted on stage and in film.


Kenny rejected activists’ claims of laundry conditions akin to prison and slavery, and confined his statement of regret to the longtime popular view in Ireland that most residents of the Magdalene Laundries were ‘‘fallen women,’’ a euphemism for prostitutes.

‘‘The stigma that the branding together of all the residents, all 10,000, in the Magdalene Laundries, needs to be removed, and should have been removed long before this,’’ Kenny said. ‘‘And I really am sorry that that never happened, and I regret that it never happened.’’

Opposition leaders demanded that he offer an official apology for the state’s failure to enforce labor laws and human rights standards in the facilities, and to pledge to establish a taxpayer-funded compensation program for survivors. But Kenny instead said all lawmakers should read the report and debate its findings in two weeks.

James Smith, an associate professor of English at Boston College, wrote a book about the Magdalene Laundries and has been an advocate for women confined to them. He was in Dublin for the release of the report and criticized the Irish government’s refusal to issue a state apology to survivors.

“Once more, the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries are held hostage to a political system that continues to fail the very people it purports to serve,’’ Smith said in response to an e-mail from The Boston Globe.


The report’s lead author, former Irish senator Martin ­McAleese, said until now the facts and figures of the workhouses run by four orders of nuns had been shrouded in ‘‘secrecy, silence, and shame.’’

McAleese, the husband of Ireland’s former president Mary McAleese, said the failure of successive governments and the nuns to provide any public records on the laundries’ operations meant that ‘‘stories grew to fill these gaps.’’

He wrote in the report’s introduction that the investigators ‘‘found no evidence to support the perception that unmarried girls had babies there, or that many of the women of the Magdalene Laundries since 1922 were prostitutes. The reality is much more complex.’’

The report found that 10,012 women were committed to the workhouses from 1922, the first year of Ireland’s independence from Britain, to the closure of the last two laundries in 1996. It found that the average length of stay was just seven months, not the lifetime imprisonment commonly depicted in fictional works. It said 14 percent stayed more than five years, and 8 percent more than a decade. And many hundreds checked into the facilities repeatedly for short periods, reflecting their poverty and the Irish state’s inadequate facilities for women needing a home.

It found that 27 percent of the women were ordered into the facilities by an array of state employees: judges, probation officers, school truancy officials, social workers, doctors at psychiatric hospitals, or officials at state-funded shelters for unwed mothers and their babies. Some 16 percent entered laundries voluntarily, 11 percent were consigned there by other family members, and 9 percent were sent there on the recommendation of a priest.


It found that until recent decades, judges often ordered women guilty of crimes ranging from shoplifting to infanticide into the laundries rather than the prison system.

The report disputed depictions of physical beatings in the institutions, noting that many Magdalene residents had transferred there as teenagers from other Catholic-run industrial schools where such violence was common, and some survivors failed to distinguish between the two. It found no evidence of such attacks in the nuns’ care and no complaints of sexual abuse by the nuns.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, which ran the two biggest laundries in Dublin, in a statement expressed ‘‘deep regret’’ that many residents ‘‘did not experience our refuge as a place of protection and care.’’ But they suggested that women in their care faced worse conditions and fewer options in the hostile Ireland outside the laundry.

Campaigners for justice for the ‘‘Maggies’’ expressed disappointment with the report and particularly the government’s response.