Private Members Motion on Magdalen Laundries


Dáil Éireann, 26th September 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion. Recent decades have seen huge progress in Irish society in terms of assessing how the country’s most vulnerable people were treated in past decades and an important part of that has been the assessment of the circumstances of women and girls who resided in Magdalen Laundries across Ireland.
Initially these institutions were designed as places of asylum for women and were found throughout Europe as well as in Canada and the United States. However, by the early 20th century in Ireland, these centres had adopted a more prison-like regime, with enforced labour and long periods of silence. Lest anyone think that these institutions belong to a dim and distant part of Ireland’s past, the last Magdalene asylum closed in Waterford just 16 years ago in 1996.
Their presence was widely accepted although the residents of these institutions were rarely seen in public. Áras an Uachtaráin, Bank of Ireland, The Department of Defence and the Department of Agriculture all used the services of these laundries. Frances Finnegan in her 2001 book on the subject ‘Do penance or perish: A study of Magdalene Asylums in Ireland’ suggests that it was the advent of the washing machine, as opposed to any moral outcry, that led to the demise of such institutions.
Survivors of these institutions report the prevalence of forced labour and the use of women and children as unpaid workers, all of which would appear to contravene the 1930 Forced Labour Convention.
The nation as a whole has to reflect on the brutal treatment meted out to these women, the acquiescence of a society in terms of this and the silence which surrounded this subject for many years. Such an assessment has to be carried out properly and deserves proper consideration and I believe that it is only right and proper that the Committee headed up by Senator Martin McAleese is afforded until the end of the year to concluded its work and submit a final report.
Fifteen months ago, this Government decided upon the establishment of an inter-departmental committee to consider the circumstances of the women and girls who lived in these institutions. I believe that that was the correct decision to take as a first step on the road to establishing the truth about that happened inside the walls of these institutions.
I believe that the proper course of action is that sufficient time is taken to produce this report and I believe that after decades of silence, the very least that we can do for the women and girls who lived in these institutions, often working for paltry or non-existent wages, is to give their cases the consideration it merits. To rush a report would not be providing justice to these women. Surely 18 months is not too long to allow for the production of such an important report, especially when one considers that it has to review such institutions over a 90-year period and also that submissions by relevant representative groups were being made up to mid-August.
I fully endorse the Government’s position in relation to this report, Senator McAleese and his colleagues on the inter-departmental committee must be afforded the time necessary to properly conduct their investigation and compile the results into a narrative that details the experience of these women.
I note Deputy MacDonald’s statements that the women involved are ageing and are very anxious to achieve closure on this issue, but I believe that to pre-empt the publication of such a report by making decisions in advance of its circulation would be foolhardy. These forgotten women of Irish history, many of whom disappeared behind the high walls of these institutions for decades, deserve to have their stories told in a proper fashion and deserve to have this explored properly in a way that respects their dignity while at the same time giving proper consideration to this important issue.