Irish Women Emerge From Shadows Of 'National Shame'
In post-independence Ireland, thousands of women found themselves incarcerated in church-run laundries. For the first time, the state has apologized for their treatment.
These women were a diverse group: former prostitutes, unwed mothers, orphans, homeless women, convicts and industrial school transfers put in the care of the Catholic Church.
Nuns ran the facilities, known as Magdalene Laundries, on a commercial basis, doing laundry for the state, private companies and individuals. But the inmates were never paid for the work, and all profit went to the church. The first of such places opened in the 1930s, and the last laundry in Ireland closed in 1996.
Until last Tuesday, these women never received any official recognition for their years lost in the system.
"As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes," said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. "This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies."
A Life In The Laundries
Mari Steed is committee director of the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes, and her mother was one of the women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Her mother was born out of wedlock in the early 1930s, and later put in an industrial school. In 1947 she was sent to the laundry of Sunday's Well in the city of Cork.
"She spent the next 10 years there doing sewing for them. This would have been anything from embroidery to smock dresses, items for the clergy, altering surplices, that sort of thing," Steed says. "And obviously there was profit being made on these items, but she was never paid for that."
She, like some other lucky girls, was let go with a work referral in 1957. She worked as an aide in a Dublin hospital run by the church.
"At this time, of course, you know, she's out from under the care of the nuns, essentially," Steed says. "But having been raised completely by the nuns, she exited with absolutely no world skills, no sexual education, didn't know anything about men."
In less than two years, she was pregnant. The nuns sent her back to Cork, to a mother-and-baby home. She gave birth to Steed in 1960 and stayed with her until a U.S. adoption was arranged — about 18 months later.
'Exceedingly Meaningful' Apology
Steed has since reunited with her mother, and worked for years to get the state to recognize the abuse that happened in the laundries. She says hearing the prime minister's apology was huge.
"To get an apology was exceedingly meaningful for me, for my mother, for many of the women that suffered with this notion that they were 'fallen' or somehow damaged," she says.
Steed says it has always been difficult for her mother, now 79, to talk about her experience. But the announcement might help her open up.
"I think she recognizes the importance of that weight coming off her shoulders. I think it's freed her up considerably to talk about her past, and that's going to be the case for a lot of women," Steed says.
Steed credits the U.N. Committee Against Torture for provoking an official state response. The committee found the state at fault and called for an investigation, which Ireland then conducted.
"That was the tool that really held their [feet] to the fire and made them act on it because the world was now watching," she says.
The results of the investigation were released Feb. 5. Ireland's Justice Department "found evidence of direct State involvement" in funding and oversight of the laundries. It also cites state involvement in referring girls and women to the facilities.
Ireland will now devise a compensation plan for the survivors; the report estimates that about 800 to 1,200 women are still alive.
Steed says her mother ended up better off than others. She married, but had no other children because she was too afraid.
"This is a theme that we found very common with mothers of loss who either or weren't even in Magdalene Laundries ... that they're just too afraid that their child might be snatched, either by the religious or by God through death," Steed says.
Steed's mother also had difficulty coming to terms with the family she lost, even with her brother who wanted to reunite.
"There's also a great deal of prejudice and bullying among the Irish expat community in the U.K. [where my mother lives]," Steed says. "Many of them don't out themselves as being former industrial school students or Magdalenes because they'll be made fun of, even by their own Irish community."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, the fading language of Aramaic. But first, we continue our Catholic theme today with a look at a shameful period for the Irish branch of the church.
From the early 19th century to as recently as 1996, thousands of women and girls were incarcerated in church-run laundries in harsh abusive conditions without pay. The Magdalene Laundries were a virtual prison for unwed mothers, industrial school dropouts and orphans. Survivors had campaigned for decades for an official state apology. Finally, this past Tuesday in a televised speech before the Irish parliament, Prime Minister Enda Kenny did just that.
PRIME MINISTER ENDA KENNY: For many years, we failed you. We forgot you, or if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame, for which I say again, I'm deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.
LYDEN: Joining us now to discuss the apology is Mari Steed. She's the committee director of the advocacy group Justice for the Magdalenes. And her mother was one of the women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s in Ireland.
Mari Steed, thank you very much. You're joining us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.
MARI STEED: Thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: So please tell us your mother's story in Ireland.
STEED: Well, my mother, like many other children in Ireland, was born at a time of Catholic Church repression in the early 1930s, and she was born out of wedlock. She was placed in an industrial school. But at the age of 14, I believe, from what we understand, her mother tried to take her out and there was some sort of a row with the nuns. And their answer to keep her away from her mother was to simply send her to the Magdalene Laundry at Sunday's Well in Cork.
And this was in 1947. She spent the next 10 years there doing sewing for them, anything from embroidery to smock dresses, items for the clergy, altering surplices, that sort of thing. And obviously, there was profit being made on these items, but she was never paid for that.
LYDEN: So she's there from about the time she's 14 to her mid-20s and she can't leave?
STEED: Correct. They actually did let her out in 1957 with a work referral. But having been raised completely by the nuns, she exited with absolutely no world skills. So within a year and a half, she found herself pregnant with me and then was sent to one of the mother and baby homes run by another religious order and remained there with me until my adoption to the United States was organized. She left and eventually ended up in Wales.
LYDEN: So your group has worked for years to get the Irish state to recognize the injustice, the harshness, the abuse that went on in these institutions. What was your reaction to Prime Minister Enda Kenny's speech?
STEED: Obviously, it was very emotional for me. I kind of got teary just listening to your clip of it again. To get an apology was exceedingly meaningful for me, for my mother, for many of the women that suffered with this notion that they were fallen or somehow damaged.
LYDEN: And is your mother still alive?
STEED: She is, yes. She lives in the U.K.
LYDEN: What was her reaction?
STEED: It was very meaningful to her. I know, you know, it's been a very difficult period of her life to talk about, and she still has great difficulty with it even with me. But I think she recognizes the importance of that weight coming off her shoulders. I think it's freed her up considerably to talk about her past. That's going to be the case for a lot of women.
LYDEN: There's been a lot of stigma over the years against the girls who were in the Magdalene Laundries. And now, along with his apology, the Irish prime minister has said that there will be a compensation package given to these women. Is this enough, do you think?
STEED: No. At the moment, we're kind of frightened because it's not looking like what we had envisioned. But, you know, it remains to be seen.
LYDEN: Well, what do you envision? What would be better?
STEED: Well, we looked at a multiprong approach and tried to base it on things like length of time there, what abuse they might have suffered, what were the lifelong repercussions of that, and using a scale to determine what each woman was entitled to, so sort of an individual approach rather than a one-size-fits-all scheme.
LYDEN: And how many women are alive today, do you think, who've passed through the Magdalene Laundries?
STEED: We're looking at anywhere from 800 to 1,200 women. Now, we may end up with a few more that come out of the woodwork or that might not have been correctly recorded, but at most, perhaps 2,000 women.
LYDEN: So I would just like to ask you, Mari Steed, how old your mom is today and what her life is like now?
STEED: Well, she's approaching 80 years old. And, you know, I guess in comparison to other women that I've met who really, really suffered, she came out of it fairly decently. She married, but she was too frightened to have more children. And this is a theme that we found very common with mothers of loss, this notion of secondary infertility that they're just too afraid that that child might be snatched either by the religious or by God, you know, through death.
And then her inability to come to terms with the family that she had lost. She has a brother who wanted very much to reunite with her and I found him. But at first, she denied him. She sort of felt like, I was the one that got sent off to the industrial school while he was raised in family. So those were painful aspects of her life and things that she still has grave difficulty coming to terms with.
LYDEN: Mari Steed is the daughter of a survivor of the Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, and she's the committee director of Justice for the Magdalenes, an advocacy group. Mari, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
STEED: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.