“The women lost everything – the right to a life of their own, an education, to have relationships and families, and to self-esteem.”

Iron, press, wash, clean, sow, cook and repeat. Twelve hours a day, every day. In silence. Starving, unwell, abused and drained.

Up until 1994, when the last Magdalene asylum was closed, girls and women across Ireland were being sent to “training schools” by their family or the state to be “disciplined” and educated on becoming “domesticated women”. The only problem was that these institutions were not training schools, but torture asylums ran by nuns, where young women were imprisoned by forced labour.

The girls lived on a diet of three small meals per day: one slice of stale bread twice a day and porridge in the mornings. Fainting was common and not something to be sympathised with. Some watched their friends die in front of them from illnesses, attempts to escape, and suicide. Those who were caught trying to escape underwent severe punishments; the most common was having your entire head shaved off.

A report on the State’s involvement in the Magdalene Laundries stated: “The State regarded the Magdalene Laundries as an opportunity to deal with various social problems (e.g. illegitimacy, poverty, disability, so-called licentious behaviour, domestic and sexual abuse, youth crime, infanticide). It repeatedly sought to funnel diverse populations of women and girls to the Magdalene Laundries and in return the Religious Orders obtained an entirely unpaid and literally captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises.”

The government and the Church’s responsibility

Patsy McGaryy, Religious Affairs Correspondent for The Irish Times, reported the unveiling of the plaque in memory of the Magdalene women in Dublin in 1996. He has campaigned and supported the survivors for years, as well as attended meetings with the Department of Justice about the dark period in history. Speaking to the IPF, Patsy said:

 “They were slaves and treated as such. When they were ‘released into the world’ most were too institutionalised to survive outside. All were deeply scarred by the experience; some were severely dysfunctional for the rest of their days.”

Once the women began to tell their stories to the press, many years after they had left the laundries, the Sisters of Mercy and the State of Ireland were forced to apologise unconditionally for their wrongdoing. On 19 February 2013 the Irish Taoiseach, Edna Kenny, apologised to all the women who had been incarcerated. Members of the audience included the victims who stood in unification with Steven O’Riordan, the founder of the Magdalene Survivors Together group.

Patsy said that the government has made efforts to help the survivors and commended the 2013 apology by the Taoiseach as “hugely important”, noting that the public acknowledgment over the terrible things that had happened to them now gave them the chance to some self-respect. However, he also noted that the apology didn’t lead to much else.

“Sadly, the apology to the Magdalene women from the four religious orders concerned was mealy-mouthed, to say the least. This lack of generosity was compounded by the outright refusal of any four orders of nuns involved to contribute a cent to compensation for the women or towards comfort in their old age.”

Patsy believes that the reason so few women report their stories to the state and commissions is because they are exhausted of reliving them. Some have given evidence multiple times to different state enquiries, but are constantly asked to provide more.

While Patsy is doubtful over what authorities can do now to make up for it, he is adamant to see the women live the rest of their lives in a dignified way.

“I do not believe that either the Church or State can ever make up to these women what was so deliberately denied of them. All that can be done is to ensure they have what they need for the remainder of their lives. And this should be done with grace and generosity.”

Although the apology and recognition was a milestone within the movement for justice, 30,000 women were forced into the brutal workhouses and many survivors say the harrowing memories will stay with them until the day they die. A large number of the survivors continue to experience depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other psychological illnesses to this day.

Mental effects linger from the past

Eamon McCrory, professor of developmental neuroscience and psychopathology, explained to the IPF that the institutionalisation of the Magdalene Laundries has documented long-term effects on social and psychological functioning.

“Victims may have an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety in adulthood. While some individuals show remarkable resilience, many have their lives irrevocably shaped by such early trauma.”

Evidently, a mere apology and some financial compensation is not enough to wipe away years of cruelty and imprisonment – driving some to a lifetime of insanity. Many question how it is possible to ever repay someone for taking away their identity, pride and mind.

It seems surviving institutions is one thing, but to carry on living your life afterwards is an entirely different story. Tormented with the words “the devil finds work by idle hands”, the women will never forget their days of heavy labour.

If you are a survivor of a Magdalene Laundry and want to share your story, please contact the IPF Women’s Section at claire@the-ipf.com. If you are seeking support, please visit magdalenelaundries.com.