Magdalene Laundries: Northern Ireland's Hidden Shame

Today, it is our generation's and our governments' reputation for honour, not that of the Magdalene women, which is at stake.

Today, it is our generation's and our governments' reputation for honour, not that of the Magdalene women, which is at stake.

The Church of the Good Shepherd on Belfast's Ormeau Road is a gorgeous bit of red-brick Victorian splendour.

I was married there. But, on that joyful day, little did I realise the desperate, tragic stories which cling through history to its bricks.

For it was here that one of Northern Ireland's own 'Magdalene Laundry' institutions was to be found, where thousands of girls and women, from the 1850s right through to the 1970s, lived lives scarred by shame, family separation and servitude.

Two weeks ago, an Irish government commissioned report gave a glimpse into the experiences of over 10,000 women and children inmates of ten Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland.

It makes for 1,000 pages of grim reading. It reveals that:

Some 14,607 inmates were recorded across the ten institutions.

Some 1,500 were locked up for more than a decade.

The average age of inmate was 23; the youngest entrant just nine, the oldest, 89.

Over a quarter of the Magdalene inmates were ordered there by the state - by the courts, the police, or social services - and almost 40% by priests or other Church bodies.

Unmarried mothers and girls from broken homes were dispatched to live lives of servitude.

The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, appeared apologetic about the findings, but stopped short of actually apologising. This was despite the report finding direct state involvement in the operation of the Laundries.

The report will be debated in the Irish parliament tonight. Kenny should take the opportunity to announce a fully independent investigation and both apologise on behalf of the state and establish a redress scheme for former inmates. It might be late, but the wheels of justice are at last turning there.

However, the report does not cover any of the numerous similar institutions which operated in Northern Ireland, so what was the situation in the north?

As noted, the Good Shepherd Sisters ran a laundry and home in Belfast from the late 19th century right up until 1977 and 1990 respectively. Thousands of girls and women passed through its doors. The same order of nuns ran two other laundries, one in Newry which operated into the 1980s, and another in Derry.

Another Magdalene Asylum, including steam laundry, was operated by the Church of Ireland on Belfast's Donegall Pass, with the home continuing into the 1960s, while the Presbyterian Church ran the Ulster Female Penitentiary.

That we know much less about these Northern Ireland Magdalene Laundry-type institutions is clear. For one thing, we have had no government investigation accessing public records and files from the responsible religious orders and taking evidence submitted by former inmates.

What is clear, though, is that there are many women in Northern Ireland, aging but very much alive, who were resident in these institutions in decades past.

In terms of human rights law, from what we know, many of them appear to have suffered arbitrary detention, forced labour and ill-treatment. It was on this very basis that the UN Committee Against Torture directed the Irish government to establish an independent inquiry.

For those who were resident in such institutions in Northern Ireland as minors, there is now an official mechanism for recording their experiences and seeking justice for any abuses which they may have suffered. The Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry is now up and running and ready to hear testimony from people who suffered abuse as children in residential homes in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995.

However, it currently has no mechanism to consider allegations of abuse perpetrated against inmates over the age of 17, a 'justice gap' which should be addressed by Northern Ireland's first minister and deputy first minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

The inquiry only exists because courageous survivors of institutional abuse ran a campaign, supported by Amnesty International, to expose the truth of crimes committed behind closed doors. To their credit, Stormont ministers heard the cries for justice and the Northern Ireland Assembly produced enabling legislation which reached the statute books last month. Now is the time for Northern Ireland's 'Magdalene women' to step forward and tell their stories.

Out of a sense of shame, Irish society - families, churches, courts and police - on both sides of the border sent thousands of girls and women to lives behind red-brick walls. Not able to cope with girls and women rejecting the repressive controls of the time, our society saw to it that they were separated from their families and from wider society. Many suffered loss of identity and loss of dignity. Many never fully recovered their lives.

To avoid shame, Irish society, north and south, acted shamefully for more than a century.

Today, it is our generation's and our governments' reputation for honour, not that of the Magdalene women, which is at stake.


What's Hot