The Story of the Magdalenes

On Wednesday afternoon 30th July, at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival,  Claire McGettrick, co-founder of Justice for Magdalenes (now JFM Research) will speak at the Firkin Crane in Shandon, Cork,  about the story of the Magdalenes.

Claire is an activist, researcher and also co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance.

She worked as Research Assistant on the project Magdalene Institutions: Recording an Archival and Oral History, which collected the oral histories of 79 interviewees, including 35 Magdalene survivors. The Magdalene Names Project, which is central to Claire’s work with JFM Research, makes use of historical archives to develop a partial, repaired narrative of the lives of some of the women who died behind convent walls, with the aim of creating a lasting memorial to these women.

Claire McGettrick

Claire McGettrick

Origins and growth of the Magdalenes.

The Magdalene system of sending young women into institutional homes developed from the appalling poverty, disease, prostitution and poor conditions which existed in Ireland in the early 19th Century. Later the effects of the Famine consigned thousands of women to a life of desperation on the streets with little hope of income or shelter. It was the era of Workhouses, Lock hospitals and Asylums.

Cork with a population of about 80,000 had a particular high level of poor housing and bad sanitary conditions throughout the City. In 1809 a Catholic Magdalen Asylum was established in Peacock Lane, Blackpool by a Mr Terry. Later, the Irish Sisters of Charity were asked to take over the running of the Asylum and following the completion of the St. Vincent’s Convent on the grounds, the Order took over the Asylum in 1846. In 1810 another Refuge was founded on the South Terrace by Protestants, which took in women mainly from prison.

In July 1872 the Good Shepherd Nuns opened a Magdalen Asylum at Sunday’s Well in Cork, which was followed in 1873 by the opening of the Convent and later still by an Industrial School. The original aim of the Magdalene Asylums was to provide training and shelter for prostitutes anxious to reform however this rehabilitation gradually became a punitive based system, particularly after the foundation of the Irish State.  The regime involved harsh working conditions for no pay, where the women and girls were incarcerated against their will, not knowing if they would ever be released.

The concept that these women were to do lengthy penance for their sins became deeply ingrained in the reasoning behind their removal to the Magdalene Institutions. Some escaped, some were released to family members, while over 1,000 died behind convent walls, never seeing freedom.    And, a significant number remained within the institutions, dependent on the religious orders for the rest of their lives.

The Magdalene Institutions remained attached to the local religious convents which ran their day to day activities. These institutions established laundries which using the readily available and cheap labour became important sources of income for the religious orders. Thousands of women and girls worked in the Magdalene Laundries, as more and more “fallen”, destitute or perceived troublesome women were incarcerated. In reality, most were frightened young girls, often transferred from the industrial school system.

Forgotten by society and abandoned by their own families, these women and girls remained captive behind the high walls, invisible to society and ignored by successive governments.

 

In 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge decided to sell some of their land at High Park, Drumcondra and applied to the Department of the Environment for the exhumation of 133 women. The exhumation order was granted by the Department on 25th May 1993. When the undertakers were carrying out the task of exhuming the bodies on 23rd August 1993, an additional 22 remains were discovered. The Department of the Environment then supplied an additional exhumation order to allow the removal of “all human remains” at the relevant site.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge told the Department of the Environment that they could not produce death certificates for 24 women on the exhumation order who appear under fictitious names. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge also told the Department that they could not produce death certificates for a further 34 women on the exhumation order. The remains of 154 out of 155 of the women were then cremated and reinterred at Glasnevin Cemetery. Questions about the circumstances of these women and their exhumation remain unanswered.

Inaccessible Magdalene burial plot, Sunday's Well Cork.   Plaque beneath broken cross reads: "A memorial to the Residents of St. Mary's Good Shepherd Convent, Sunday's Well. 1873-1993"

Inaccessible Magdalene burial plot, Sunday’s Well Cork. Plaque beneath broken cross reads: “A memorial to the Residents of St. Mary’s Good Shepherd Convent,
Sunday’s Well 1873-1993″

 

Growing questions.

Do Penance or Perish, A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland, by Francis Finnegan published in 2001 traced the development of the Magdalene movement and provided the 19th century history of four of Ireland’s Convent Magdalen Asylums.  More and more voices were being raised questioning the stillness of the injustice. In addition to some early articles, a Channel Four Television production Sex in a Cold Climate released in 1998 broadcast the distressing accounts of the system by former inmates of the Irish Magdalene system.

This was followed in by the 2002 film by Peter Mullan called the Magdalene Sisters.  Survivor advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes was founded in 2003, asking questions about the circumstances surrounding the High Park exhumations. In 2007 Prof James M Smith’s (Boston College/JFM Research) Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment charted the 20th century Magdalene regime, offering the first crucial evidence of State involvement in the laundries. Steven O’Riordan’s film “The Forgotten Maggies” appeared in 2009. Some fearless articles by the late Mary Raftery in the Irish Times also added to the growing disquiet around these institutions.

The last Magdalene Laundry, located at Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin, closed in 1996. Many convents also declined and due to the lack of entrants closed. The laundries, no longer useful or profitable could not compete with huge national and multinational industrial operations and with the advent and widespread use of washing machines, they fell into disrepair.

Increased media exposure and the growing strength of survivor advocacy groups such as the Justice for Magdalenes group, (JFM) which began its political campaign in 2009, saw a growing clamour for the establishment of a Compensation Scheme for all Magdalene survivors as well as an official apology from the Irish State. The official apology on the 19th February 2013 by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the Magdalene survivors marked an important milestone in the campaign as the women were finally vindicated. While the Taoiseach described the “Nation’s Shame”, neither Church nor State will acknowledge the human rights violations which have taken place, although the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on the Vatican to conduct an enquiry.

What remains is to ensure that the sentiments expressed in the Taoiseach’s official apology are now delivered on.  Judge Quirke was appointed by the government to devise a scheme of payments to the survivors reported in May 2013, subsequently his recommendations were accepted by the government. A scheme of ex-gratia payments has now begun and the implementation of the recommendations is continuing. By April 2014, some 731 applications for compensation have been received and some €10 million has been paid to 280 Magdalene Laundry survivors.

JFM Research says it is preparing a response to the McAleese Report, which falls far short of honouring the lived experience of the women and girls who were incarcerated.  Will we ever know the full truth of what went on behind the Irish Magdalene Laundries’ walls for over 100 years?

Following the recent reports of serious questions around the mothers and baby homes and the promised Government inquiry into what occurred, many social justice organisations are urging that the inquiry would be widened to include a full investigation into the Magdalene Laundries, due to the extent of movement of women and children between both institutions.

Claire McGettrick has played an active role in the pursuit of truth and justice on these issues, her lecture will take place on Wednesday afternoon 30th July at 3pm at the Firkin Crane centre, and everyone is welcome.

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