Critiquing the McAleese Report.

It took a long time to get to the McAleese Report ; the report of an independent inquiry set up in response to UNCAT Recommendations in 2011, investigating the extent of State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries regime. The Report finds that:

  • Sean Aylward and others were entirely wrong to claim that the Magdalene Laundries were largely private institutions outside the remit of the state and that the majority of women who lived and worked in the laundries entered voluntarily.
  • At least 2,500 women were sent to the laundries by the State.
  • The State gave laundry contracts to the Magdalene Laundries, participating in a system which ran on forced unpaid labour and which did not comply with social insurance obligations.
  • The State oversaw that system of forced, unpaid labour in that it inspected the Laundries under the Factories Acts.
  • The State, in various contexts and for various purposes, funded some of the activities of the Magdalene Laundries.
  • The Gardai pursued and returned some women who had escaped from the Magdalene Laundries, often on an informal, non-statutory basis.

Justice for Magdalenes and UNCAT’s Feliz Gaer, along with Amnesty, SIPTU and others, are asking for a state apology, and for the implementation of a fair, inclusive, non-adversarial reparations scheme (see the details of JFM’s proposals here at p.61). The Government has not issued an apology (see Maeve O’Rourke in the Examiner here responding to this statement by the Taoiseach) and is taking two weeks to consider its response, though the Taoiseach did say that “[w]e will see that the State provides for them with the very best of facilities and supports that they need in their lives.” The Labour Parliamentary Party is now calling for a state apology.  The matter of compensation raises the old issues of distribution of financial burdens between church and state. Clare Daly TD has called for the religious orders who ran the laundries to bear the costs of compensation.

This report will be key to our framing of church and state responsibility for gendered harms into the future. If it is presented as establishing what Enda Kenny called  “the facts”, then we need to interrogate the production and framing of those facts. Chapter 18, in warning us not to judge non-state agents by ‘today’s standards’, and in its simplified summaries of the work of Irish historians, echoes similar tactics in the Walsh Report on Symphysiotomy in Ireland. Other difficulties with the Report go deeper than rhetoric. This is a long Report, and there is a lot to say about it (see Simon McGarr’s analysis here). For now, here are a few observations:



Unlike the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, this committee did not have statutory powers to compel witnesses or demand non-State records. This means that the Inquiry does not meet the standard required in the Recommendations of UNCAT (see s.5 here) or in the recommendations of the IHRC. The Interim Report of the Committee states that the religious orders ‘take seriously their responsibility as data controllers’ and their obligations to ensure the privacy of residents and their families.  The Committee therefore agreed a Data Protection policy with the orders consulted, under which the Committee could access records containing personal data, but could not publish the names of the residents of the laundries – even those of deceased women to whom data protection law no longer applies. We should think about the ways in which this approach to data protection interacts with a records system (i) which is already prone to losses, gaps and errors (especially around the circumstances of women admitted to the Laundries “informally”, since these records are not easily verified by cross-checking with government) (ii) which is weakened by patchy application of the death certification system  (see e.g. the account of unrecorded deaths and burials at High Park Laundry here at pp.45-56) and (iii) which connects to a convent system which required women to be called by a name other than their own.  Some of the information presently in the gift of the religious orders is available to the State – in accurate condition – via other channels. For instance, as Bruce Arnold points out, every census taken since the birth of the State contains the names and details of the identities of women who lived in the Laundries.  The Committee returned all records held by the religious orders to those orders, only retaining anonymised data for its archives. So far, it looks as though the orders, and not a neutral repository, will remain the gatekeepers to that information (see further s.5 here).

Findings of Fact: Living and Working Conditions and Physical Abuse.

Chapter 19 contains the testimony of individuals connected with the Laundries on the living and working conditions within the Laundries. Unlike other chapters, it relies entirely on oral testimony or ‘stories’. Those interviewed include a small sample of 118 survivors, of whom 58 still live in the care of religious orders. Most were introduced to the Committee via representative organisations and survivors’ groups. They were interviewed in private. There were no public hearings. Claire McGettrick of  Justice for Magdalenes describes the manner in which the Committee interviewed survivors of the Laundries here.

Initially, the committee didn’t even want to speak to women in person, but we fought for that. The women gave their testimony verbally and then we were given very little notice of a second meeting where we were to look at the format of the initial testimony. Instead, the women were brought in one by one for a meeting with the commission where they asked repeated questions.

Their overall impression was that they were being checked to ensure that their memories were correct. The women came out of those meetings very quiet and subdued. None of them, none of us, had been expecting for them to be questioned like that.

Although the Committee notes that it is not empowered to make findings of fact in individual cases, but only to ‘record stories shared’, the contents of this chapter are already being represented in the media as findings of fact and this is deeply troubling. Discussion of physical abuse is very short, and consists of disjointed quotations from anonymised women, selected apparently at random. The women are allowed scant quotations in which to share their stories. (This is in contrast to, for instance, the long passages of quotation from identified benign male authority figures later in the chapter – GPs who attended the Laundries, the chaplain of the Sean McDermott Street Laundry [who appears again at length in Chapter 9 to explain, unchallenged, the famous photograph of police and women from the Laundry marching in a religious procession] and John M Kennedy who took over the running of the Good Shepherd Laundry at Limerick – which build up narratives praising the running of various identified laundries in the 1970s and 1980s. None of these narratives is evaluated or contested.)

Senator McAleese’s introduction tells us that the ‘vast majority’ of the women interviewed had not seen or experienced physical punishment in the laundries, but the report does not give numbers. Some of the women quoted testify – they are allowed brief quotations – to experiences of physical abuse of varying degrees of severity. Others do not. (3 witnesses to the Ryan Commission testified to physical abuse in Magdalene Laundries – see p.18). No attempt is made to  link conduct to individual laundries [a problem throughout the Report] or to specific periods of time, or to systematically categorise the types of interaction described. By comparison with equivalent sections of the Ryan Report, for example, this document is near useless. The division of this chapter into physical harm, hair-cutting and working conditions further tends to soften the report’s presentation of related issues and experiences.

At other points, the Report simply fails to evaluate the material before it. For instance, Chapter 14 considers laundry contracts between state departments and Magdalene Laundries. These contracts are important because they represented a site of indirect funding of the Laundries by organs of the state, and because the terms can tell us about the state’s attitude to the women’s pay and conditions. From p. 722 onwards, the Chapter discusses the “fair wages clause” common to state contracts, and its possible application to an industry in which women were not paid. The Chapter outlines two state attempts to reconcile this clause with practice in the laundries. One argument was that the women’s accommodation, food etc., provided by the laundries, substituted for fair wages.  The other was that direct state funding of the laundries substituted for fair wages. Both of these positions are presented without evaluation and without comparison to the financial records of the relevant Orders or to the operation of the clause in other contexts. For a Report which, in Senator McAleese’s introduction, promises to fill gaps in memory and to tell the complex stories of the Laundry system, this really isn’t up to snuff.

It is extremely doubtful whether this can be what UNCAT had in mind when it demanded a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into abuses in the laundries (see s.5 of JFM’s follow-up Report to UNCAT).

Not For Profit?

Much has been made of the Report’s findings that the laundries, despite large incomes and an unpaid workforce, did not turn significant profits. But, even though the Committee was given full access to Orders’ financial records, this part of the Report consists in very broad statements of accounts (often summaries of income and expenditure over long periods of time) coupled with extracts from statements of  firms of accountants who worked for the Laundries. Where the running costs that eat up the profits of the Laundries are mentioned, they are not detailed. Details of per person amounts spent on maintaining the residents (clothing, food etc) are not provided. No real details are provided of the purposes – e.g. capital expenditure – to which the, perhaps small, profits generated by the Laundries were put. Senator John Crown has noted that the Committee did not conduct any detailed forensic analysis of the financial statements included in the Reports. We need to watch carefully for moments in which the Laundries might be re-spun as charitable enterprises rather than as places of industry and employment.





Critiquing the McAleese Report.

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