Remembering the Magdalene Women on International Womens’ Day

We are pleased to welcome this post from Claire McGettrick of Justice for Magdalenes. This post is an updated version of a statement given to Oireachtas Retort for an article commemorating Election Day 2016.

Last Sunday, hundreds of people around Ireland honoured the women who lived and died behind Magdalene Laundry walls as part of the fifth annual Flowers for Magdalene commemorations held at various cemetaries around Ireland.  Every year, I walk around the Magdalene graves at Glasnevin prior to the ceremony to ascertain if there have been any changes. It has been six years since the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity claimed they were at ‘an advanced stage in making arrangements for the full and accurate details relating to these women…to be recorded in Glasnevin Cemetery’. In that time, just 10 new names have been added to the High Park gravestones, with no changes in the past 12 months. None of these changes rectify the discrepancies identified by Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) over a year ago.

The very idea of celebrating International Women’s Day under such circumstances seems futile, even disrespectful. Regardless of how you mark International Women’s Day, please take a moment to read the following and consider how it is possible in 2016 for some of our most vulnerable citizens to be treated with such contempt.

On 19th February, we marked the third anniversary of Enda Kenny’s emotional apology to Magdalene survivors. When footage from that day is shown it usually focuses on the moment when the Taoiseach was reduced to tears in the Dáil chamber. Two weeks previously, when the McAleese Report was published on 5th February 2013, there were no such tears. Refusing to apologise, the Taoiseach alleged that because of the McAleese Report, ‘the truth and reality‘ had been ‘uncovered and laid out for everyone to read and to understand‘. Two weeks later, however, the historic apology finally came and thereafter, there was little interest – from media or otherwise (Conall O’Fátharta is a notable exception) – in anything other than the former government’s ‘good news story’, which began and ended with the apology.

Was the Taoiseach’s tearful apology the result of a ‘road to Damascus’ moment that occurred at some point between 5th and 19th February? Or, was it a political decision designed to make the Magdalene problem go away? The experiences of survivors in contact with our organisation would suggest that, unfortunately, it was the latter.

During that two-week period, the Taoiseach came under immense public criticism for his performance on the day the McAleese Report was released. Mr Kenny also faced pressure at cabinet level from his coalition partners, while junior Labour TDs and senators also threatened a walk out from a parliamentary party meeting.

The Taoiseach also had a busy diary between 5th and 19th February. Just days prior to the release of the Report, Senator McAleese resigned on 1st February. On 11th February the Taoiseach met with Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh, Senator Martin McAleese’s legal advisor and co-author of the McAleese Report. Also on 11th February, Enda Kenny met a group of Magdalene survivors. On 14th February, the Taoiseach had a meeting at Beechlawn Nursing Home, also the location of the generalate of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, who ran the High Park and Gloucester Street laundries in Dublin. The facts surrounding the purpose of this meeting and who was in attendance remain unknown. Two days later on 16th February Enda Kenny travelled to London to meet Magdalene survivors, many of whom left or escaped from the laundries to leave Ireland behind by emigrating to the UK.

On 8th February, JFM was also approached informally by a civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs about organising a meeting between the Taoiseach and survivors in contact with our organisation. In accordance with our survivor-centred ethos, we wished to ensure that survivors could make a decision regarding their attendance at such a meeting in an informed capacity. Thus, we responded to the civil servant the same day, requesting a letter from the Taoiseach’s office setting out the purpose of the meeting; the format of the meeting; the agenda for the meeting; who would be present and whether it would be open to all survivors who wished to attend. We also asked what guarantees could be given that survivors would be protected from the media. No response was forthcoming from the Taoiseach’s office and therefore, survivors in contact with JFM did not meet with Enda Kenny during this time.

On the night of the apology, Enda Kenny announced that he had asked Mr Justice John Quirke to make recommendations to government on a scheme for Magdalene Laundry survivors. In June 2013, Mr Justice Quirke published The Magdalen Commission Report and while the financial element of the ex gratia scheme fell far short of what survivors deserve, JFMR nonetheless welcomed it, in recognition of the other recommended benefits and services, particularly the establishment of a Dedicated Unit and the provision of an enhanced medical card which would provide access to ‘the full range of services currently enjoyed’ by HAA Card holders.  We were pleased when the government announced that it would accept all of Judge Quirke’s recommendations.

A month previous to the publication of the Quirke Report, on 22nd May 2013, Felice Gaer, Rapporteur for Follow-up on Concluding Observations at the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) wrote to the Irish State as part of the follow-up process on UNCAT’s recommendations in 2011. In this letter, the Rapporteur noted that the McAleese inquiry ‘lacked many elements of a prompt, independent and thorough investigation, as recommended by the Committee [Against Torture] in its Concluding Observations’.  The letter went on to ask the Irish State whether it ‘intends to set up an inquiry body that is independent, with definite terms of reference, and statutory powers to compel evidence, and retain evidence obtained from relevant religious bodies’.

On 8th August 2013, just six months after the apology, the Irish State responded to UNCAT, asserting that ‘[n]o factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions was found’ by the McAleese Committee and ‘in light of facts uncovered by the McAleese Committee and in the absence of any credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene Laundries, the Irish Government does not propose to set up a specific Magdalen inquiry body’.

Three years later the government has seriously undermined Magdalene survivor’s trust, as it has cut corner after corner on the implementation of the ex gratia scheme. Survivors are still awaiting the establishment of a Dedicated Unit, a measure that should have been put in place immediately and not after the women, in many cases, have had to navigate the Ex Gratia Scheme alone. Some survivors have difficulty in proving duration of stay because of the religious orders’ poor record keeping, yet incredibly, the government affords greater weight to the religious orders’ contentions than survivor testimony.

The healthcare provisions as outlined in the RWRCI Guide do not provide Magdalene survivors with the same range of drugs and services made available to HAA cardholders. The women who have signed up to the Magdalene scheme thus far were required first to waive their rights to take additional legal action against the State, In return, they were led to expect that they would receive the full range of benefits and services recommended by Mr Justice Quirke.

In July 2015, six months after JFMR called on the HSE to provide survivors with a comprehensive guide to their entitlements under the scheme, the HSE sent survivors a five-page document. The Guide to Health Services under the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015, is an insult when compared to the comprehensive 48-page guide provided to HAA cardholders.

The government has failed Magdalene survivors living overseas. In this regard the government has repeatedly said it is ‘examining the practical arrangements’ for the provision of health services to women living abroad, however no timeframe has been given as to when this ‘administrative process’ will be in place. The needs of elderly survivors who are part of our Diaspora appear to have dropped off the State’s agenda.  This is particularly the case for survivors based outside of Ireland and the UK.

And, if survivors who are still alive have dropped off the agenda, unsurprisingly, the deceased do not feature at all.

To-date, JFMR has recorded the details of 1,663 women who died in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, almost twice the figure cited in the McAleese Report. The Report does not count the deaths of women who died in the laundries before 1922. Neither does the report count women who lived and died in institutionalized settings, still in the charge of the religious orders, after the laundries closed down. The McAleese Report maintains that the ‘vast majority’ of women who entered the Magdalene Laundries prior to 1922 were no longer in the institutions after the foundation of the State and consequently these so-called ‘legacy cases’ were ‘excluded from the statistical analysis’

Alice K, Agnes D and Maggie M are three of the women who were compartmentalised into the category of ‘legacy cases’ and who were thus omitted from the McAleese Report.

Alice K was twenty-nine years old when she was recorded in the 1911 Census for the Peacock Lane laundry in Cork.  On 26th November, 1961 an Alice O’K died and was interred in the Peacock Lane grave site at St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.  If this is one and the same woman, Alice spent a minimum of 50 years at Peacock Lane.

At the age of twenty-eight, Agnes D appears in the 1901 Census record for High Park Laundry. The 1911 Census was recorded differently at High Park, with only initials used for each woman.  An ‘A. D.’ is recorded as aged thirty-four and from Dublin City. An Agnes D is interred at the High Park burial site at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. She died on 4th August, 1967.  Agnes’s name does not appear on the exhumation licence for High Park and it is unclear whether or not she was one of those exhumed there in 1993.  Again, if this is the same woman, Agnes spent at least 66 years at High Park.

Maggie M is recorded in the 1911 Census for the Good Shepherd Laundry in Limerick at just eighteen years of age.  On 2nd December 1985, Margaret M died and was interred at the Good Shepherd Laundry grave at Mount St Oliver Cemetery in Limerick.  If this is the same woman, Maggie was confined for her entire adult life, a minimum of 74 years in the Good Shepherd Laundry in Limerick. Maggie is doubly excluded from the McAleese Report as she entered before 1922 and died after the laundry closed.

As part of our various submissions to the McAleese Committee, JFMR (then JFM) provided/shared all of its research materials and databases of names on Magdalene graves. Despite having this information, as well as enjoying access to the records of the religious orders, the IDC nonetheless managed to omit certain deaths from the Report and did not identify the discrepancies as outlined by JFMR here. These discrepancies include the fact that 51 women from Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry whose names are inscribed on three headstones at a particular location in Glasnevin are not buried at that location, but are interred elsewhere.

For JFMR, and our sister organisation Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), thoughts of celebration are far from our minds. Our work continues in reporting to the United Nations (for example, our submissions to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women here and here). We are also assisting with the provision of information to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters and in the coming months we will be making a joint announcement in this regard.

During the week of the general election a vulnerable Magdalene survivor – we’ll call her Bridget – phoned to say she had spent 17 hours on a drip, sitting in a chair in a crowded A&E.  Bridget shed tears of happiness in the Dáil on the night of the apology. She phoned me the next day, concerned about the Taoiseach – ‘the poor man was very upset’ she said. Three years later however, she feels completely hoodwinked. Her lump sum payment is gone – she had debts to clear and had family to look after. Bridget has serious health issues and for her the enhanced medical card is of the utmost importance. She read Appendix G of Judge Quirke’s report and signed away her right to sue the State based on the legitimate expectation that she would receive a comprehensive healthcare suite of services. She certainly expected better than waiting 17 hours in A&E. Bridget has lived a hard life which has been a constant struggle, but she is a fighter – again and again she picks herself up and keeps going. She’s tired however, and keeps asking me when it will be over. The State apology represented hope and she thought the fight was finished on 19th February 2013 – I haven’t the heart to tell her that it’s nowhere near finished, and that the State itself will likely resist her every step of the way.

On this International Women’s Day, take a moment to think of Bridget, Alice, Agnes, Maggie and the other women who were incarcerated in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. Indeed, think of all the women who have had to shoulder the burden of progress – Louise O’Keeffe, Joanne Hayes, Eileen Flynn, Ann Lovett, the women infected with Hepatitis C, symphysiotomy survivors, Ms X, Ms Y, Savita Halappanavar, Philomena Lee and the thousands of women whose children were forcibly adopted – to name but a few.

Think of them, remember them and honour them however you see fit.

Remembering the Magdalene Women on International Womens’ Day

One thought on “Remembering the Magdalene Women on International Womens’ Day

  1. Lyndsay says:

    So well written. I for one will continue to fight for justice or force this Government or the next one to honour their promises and not to exclude any lady.

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