Thoughts on a New Ireland: Oral History and the Magdalene Laundries.

As part of the blognival ‘Thoughts on a New Ireland’, HRinI is pleased to publish this post by Katherine O’Donnell, Director of Women’s Studies, (UCD School of Social Justice) and member of the Advisory Committee of Justice for Magdalenes.

Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) has been focused on providing evidence of the Irish State’s collusion in the punitive, recarceal, for-profit-enterprises known as the Magdalene Laundries which were operated at ten locations by four Catholic religious orders – the last one closed in 1996. JFM has been circulating a draft ‘restorative justice and redress scheme’ for the women and girls who were incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundry system.

We propose that, following an apology by the State, a dedicated unit within the Department of Justice is established with the remit of facilitating surviving women and their families to access all state social services to which they are entitled and to operating as an ‘inter-departmental’ hub in further facilitating other State services and expertise. We are currently working on the detail of a compensation scheme, for lost wages, pension contributions and personal damage, the funding of which is envisaged will be provided by the Religious Congregations. In coming to terms with the complexities we have become avid students of  the wide variety of truth commissions and redress schemes which everywhere have to navigate the  gap between best Human Rights practice such as that enshrined in the 2005 UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law etc. and  individuals’ rights to privacy, family life and a good name.

JFM has endeavoured to chart this course by separating the elements of our putative scheme into four parts: an apology, a dedicated Departmental unit; a non-adversarial compensation scheme; and an element we are currently calling: Transitional Justice: Historical Record and Future Generations.


While Transitional Justice is most commonly understood a pertaining to countries that are recently coming into stable participative democracies such as the former Yugoslav states (there are also a number of prominent African and Latin American examples). We have found international examples of Transitional Justice and peace-building initiatives in Northern Ireland to be useful and inspirational models in addressing issues that are key to confronting the damage done to individuals by the Magdalene Laundry system.

We are currently in the pilot stage of an Oral and Archival History project (ethically approved by UCD College of Human Sciences) which seeks to collect personal accounts and papers from women who worked in the laundries, religious sisters, visitors to the institutions (secular and clerical), children and other family members. Not only will this collection form a crucial part of any further academic work to be undertaken on this subject, but we intend to develop an educational module suitable for Transition Year students on the wider issue of Residential Institutional Abuse in Ireland (setting it in an International context) and to create a ‘virtual’ nation-wide museum. Whereby podcasts of the voices and historical narratives can be downloaded and played anywhere – in the car, classroom, home, public arena, and at the foreboding sites of the ten former Magdalene Institutions – where even the mute immense walls and stark dumb buildings, speak volumes.


Thoughts on a New Ireland: Oral History and the Magdalene Laundries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *