The Magdalene Laundries: An Ongoing Human Rights Violation

AuthorAnna Carroll
PositionBA (Law, Sociology and Politics) NUI Galway
Pages38-62
(2019) 18 COLR 38
38
THE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES: AN ONGOING HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION
Anna Carroll*
A INTRODUCTION
This article makes the claim that the Irish State is in breach of its obligations under the UN
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the European Convention on Human Rights
(ECHR), among other human rights instruments, in respect of its current treatment of survivors
of the Magdalene Laundries.
It addresses the assumption that this is merely a historic human rights violation, and outlines
how the continuing failure of the Irish State to adequately compensate and ensure redress for
victims of the Laundries, constitutes an ongoing breach of the right to a remedy guaranteed in
the UDHR and the ECHR, leaving Ireland in breach of its international human rights
commitments.
I History of the Laundries
The Magdalene Laundries operated in Ireland between the 1760s and 1996.
1
They were
'residential, commercial, and for profit laundries',
2
in which women and girls from the age of
nine were incarcerated, attached to convents in towns and cities around the country.
3
The laundries were run by four orders of Catholic nuns: the Sisters of Mercy (Galway and Dún
Laoghaire), the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (Drumcondra and Sean McDermott Street,
Dublin), the Religious Sisters of Charity (Donnybrook and Cork), and the Good Shepherd
Sisters (Cork, Limerick, Waterford and New Ross).
4
It is estimated that tens of thousands of
* BA (Law, Sociology and Politics) NUI Galway. I would like to thank Dr Maeve O’Rourke for her research
recommendations; my mother, Paula Carroll, for her encouragement and support in every aspect of my education;
and Elizabeth Coppin, to whom this art icle is dedicated, for sharing her exper iences o f life in the Magdalene
Laundries and teaching me about the ongoing failure of successive governments to provide redress to survivors.
1
James Smith, Ireland's Magdalen Laundries And The Nation's Architecture Of Containment (1st edn,
Manchester University Press 2007) xiv.
2
Maeve O’Rourke, Justice f or Magdalenes: Submission to the United Nations Working Group on the Universal
Periodic Review (Twe lfth Session o f the Work ing Group o n the Universal Periodic Re view, Human Rights
Council, 6th October 2011) 2.
3
Maeve O’Rourke and James Smith, ‘Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: Confronting a History Not Yet in the Past’
in Alan Hayes and Máire Meagher (eds), A Century of Progress? Irish Women Reflect (Arlen House 2016) 3.
4
ibid.
(2019) 18 COLR 39
39
women passed through the laundries between the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and
the closure of the last laundry, in Sean McDermott Street, in 1996.
5
Women were incarcerated because they were unmarried mothers, were the daughters of
unmarried mothers, had grown up in the care of the Church and State',
6
or were detained as
part of a judicial sentence.
7
Detainees were forced to do laundry, sewing and ironing for religious orders and for both State
and private contracts.
8
Women were deprived of adequate nutrition, sanitation and medical
treatment, subjected to humiliating punishments and physically abused.
9
II State Involvement in the Operation of the Laundries
The Laundries were run by religious orders; however, State involvement occurred through
commercial contracts, the judicial system, the involvement of the Gardaí and the transfer of
children from industrial schools.
10
The Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) to establish the
facts of State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries 'reported that 26.5% of referrals to
Magdalene Laundries were made or facilitated by the State'.
11
O’Rourke and Smith argue that
the real figure may be higher, as the IDC:
treated transfers from other Magdalene Laundries (the second most common route of
entry) as non-State referrals, and treated Legion of Mary and NSPCC referrals as
neither State nor non-State because they included State and non-State referrals in
unknown proportions.
12
5
ibid 5, 6.
6
O’Rourke (n 2) 2.
7
Department of Justice and Equality, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State
Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (February 2013) 204
accessed 13 March 2019.
8
O’Rourke (n 2).
9
ibid 5, 6.
10
Maeve O’Rourke, NGO Submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Respect of Ireland
(Justice for Magdalenes Research, July 2017) 12.
11
O’Rourke and Smith (n 3) 3.
12
ibid.

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