Ireland's Magdalene laundries and the State's failure to protect

Date01 January 2011
Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the
State’s Duty to Protect
Irish society has recently begun to come to terms with a legacy of systemic
physical, sexual and emotional maltreatment of children from the 1930s to
the 1970s in State-funded, Catholic Church-run Industrial and Reformatory
Schools. Soon after the findings from a nine-year official inquiry into
institutional child abuse were released in Ireland in May 2009,1questions
began to surface as to why the Magdalene Laundries had not been covered
by the inquiry, nor their survivors compensated by the Residential
Institutions Redress Board, set up by the government in 2002.2
Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were residential, industrial and for-profit
laundries housed in Catholic convents where, between the foundation of the
State in 1922 and 1996 (when the last institution closed)3an as-yet unidentified
number of women and girls were imprisoned and forced to carry out unpaid
labour for the commercial benefit of four religious congregations.4They did
* BCL (NUI Dublin), LLM (Harvard). Many thanks to Professors Jamie O’Connell and
James M. Smith fo r their adv ice and com ments on ear lier drafts of this pa per. An
earlier version of this paper was submitted to the Irish Human Rights Commission in
2010 as part of a successful application by Justice for Magdalenes (http://ww w. for an enquiry into the Irish State’s responsibility for human
rights abuses i n the Magdalene Laundries; f or the Commission’s A ssessment and
Recommendation to the government, see Irish Human Rights Commission, Assessment
of the human righ ts issues arising in relation t o the treatment of women and gir ls in
Magdalen laundries, list/ihrc-assessment-of-magdalen-
laundries-nov-2010/ [Accessed 11 April 2011]
1See Irish Commissio n to Inquire into Child Abuse, Report of the Commission to
Inquire into Ch ild Abuse (2009), h ttp://www.childabusecommis
[Accessed 11 April 2011]
The Commission was established on 23 May 2000, pursuant to the Commission to
Inquire into Chil d Abuse Act, 2000 (as amended by the Commission to Inquire Into
Child Abuse (Amendment) Act, 2005), as an independent statutory body.
2See Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002, which established the R esidential
Institutions Redress Board; See also “Cal l for apology to survivors of laundries” The
Irish Times 6 July 2009, paper/ireland/20 09/0706/
1224250105643.html [Accessed 11 April 2011]
3James M. Sm ith, Ireland s M agdalen Laun dries and the Nation’s Archi tecture of
Containment (Manchester University Press, 2008), p.xviii
4Justice for Magdalenes, Proposed Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme, 27 March
pdf [Accessed 11 April 2011]
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so under conditions of severe psychological and physical exploitation by the
nuns in charge, including constant surveillance, physical and emotional
abuse, enforced silence and prayer, invasion of privacy, deprivation of
educational opportunity, denial of leisure and rest, and deprivation of
identity (through the imposition of “house names”, the cutting of hair, and
the confiscation of personal clothing and its replacement with shapeless
According to survivor testimony, the laundries received their commercial
business from the church, from the general public in the towns and cities in
which they operated, and from schools, hospitals, prisons, hotels and other
similar institutions, both private and State-run. Magdalene Laundry
survivors also speak of making items for sale and export by the religious
orders, such as rosary beads, lace, linen tablecloths and wedding dresses,
without ever receiving payment for their work.
The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included
those who had given birth outside marriage, who had been sexually abused,
were considered to be “promiscuous” or “at risk” of becoming so, were a
burden on the State or their families, or were already in the care of the State
and the Catholic Church as children. As the religious orders responsible for
the laundries have not afforded access to their post-1900 records5and there
has been no official inquiry into such abuse, it is impossible to know its
extent. It is unclear how many girls and women entered the laundries6;
likewise, it is unclear how many ever managed to leave.
“After the foundation of the Stat e (1922), lau ndries operated in Galway and Dun
Laoghaire (Mercy), Waterford, New Ross, L imerick, and Cork (Good S hepherds),
Donnybrook and Cork (Sisters of Charity), Dru mcondra and Glouces ter/Sean
McDermott Streets (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge)”
5Smith, supra note 3, p.24
6The number of women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries is estimated
to be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
See Justice for Magdalenes, News Bulletin, Vol. 1 Issue 4 (March 2010): “According
to the 1911 Census, there were 1,094 women recorded at the ten Magdalene asylums that
would continue to operate after Irish independence. In 1956, the Irish Catholic Directory
and Almanac reported a capacity for 945 women at these same institutions. Between
1926 and 1963, we know that the courts referred at least 54 women to Catholic
Magdalene laundries (a further 4 women were sent to the Protestant Bethany Home). We
know that in March 1944 there were 19 women “On Probation” at laundries and other
religious convents. We also know the numbers of Magdalenes buried in mass graves
around this country: … 101 at the Gloucester Street plot in Glasnevin, 72 Consecrated
Magdalenes as the Sisters of Mercy Foster Street convent in Galway (Galway’s ordinary
“penitent: class are buried at Bohermore cemetery), 241 at the Good Shepherd plot at
Mount St Laurence Cemetery in Limerick, 72 at the Sisters of Charity plot at St Finbarr’s
Cemetery in Cork …”,
4.pdf [Accessed 11 April 2011]
See also Joe Hum phries, “Magdalen plot had rem ains of 155 women”, The Irish
Times, 21 August 2003, referring to the exhumation (and cremation of all but one) of
155 bodies of Magdalene women f rom a gravesite at High Park Magdalene Laundry
in Drumcondra in 1993.
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The Irish Minister for Education stated in 2010 that Ireland’s Magdalene
Laundries were “privately owned and operated institutions which were not
regulated or inspected.”7As a result, the Irish government has so far resisted
calls for a Magdalene Laundries reparations scheme, distinguishing the
State’s admitted responsibility for child abuse in Industrial and Reformatory
Schools by noting that those schools were funded, regulated and inspected
by the State while the Magdalene Laundries were not. In September 2009,
the then Minister for Education stated: “In terms of establishing a distinct
scheme [of redress] for former employees8of the Magdalene Laundries, the
situation in relation to children who were taken into the laundries privately
or who entered the laundries as adults is quite different to persons who were
resident in State run institutions. The Magdalene Laundries were privately
owned and operated establishments and did not come within the
responsibility of the State.”9
This paper disputes the Irish government’s claim that the State is not
legally responsible for the abuse suffered by women and girls in the
Magdalene Laundries. It is argued here that the regime enforced by the
religious orders in the Magdalene Laundries amounted to slavery, servitude
and/or forced labour, which the Irish State has had legal obligations to
prevent and suppress since the 1930s. Indeed, protection from slavery has
the status of an obligation erga omnes under customary international law.10
As will be explained below, Dr. James M. Smith, author of Ireland’s
Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment,11 has
produced substantial evidence from state archives to show that the Irish
judiciary and other state officials were directly involved in the placement of
numerous women and girls in the laundries. There is further suggestion from
Irish parliamentary debate records that the State held army laundry
contracts with the Magdalene Laundries. In addition, several contem -
poraneous government departmental reports indicate a clear awareness of
the confinement of children and unmarried mothers in the laundries.
7Letter from Batt O’Keeffe, TD, Minister for Education & Science, to Dr. James Smith
(27 January 2010) (on file with the author)
8The Minister for Education later retracted the use of the term “employees”, changing
it to “workers”. See letter from Batt O’Keeffe, TD, Minister for Education & Science,
to Tom Ki tt, TD (23 Septemb er 200 9), re produced in Justice for M agdalenes,
Information Booklet, [Accessed
11 April 2011], p.7
9Letter from Batt O’Keeffe, TD, Minister for Educa tion & Science to Tom Kitt, TD,
(4 Se ptember 2009), reproduced i n Justice for Magdalenes, Information Booklet, [Accessed 11 April 2011], p.6
10 See Barce lona Traction, Light and Power Co ., Ltd. (Belgium v Spain), 5 February
1971, ICJ Reports 1970, p.33; Andrea Nicholson, “Reflections on Siliadin v France:
Slavery an d legal definition ” (2010) 14 In t. Journal of Human Rights 705; Cherif
Bassiouni, “International Cri mes: Jus Cogens and Obligatio Erga Omnes” (1996)
59:4 Law and Contemporary Problems 63, p.68; Maurizio Ragazz i, The Concept of
International Obligations Erga Omnes (Oxford University Press, 2000)
11 Smith, supra note 3
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