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Guest Contribution: Smith on Court Referral to the Magdalen Laundries

We were very pleased yesterday evening to receive the following from James Smith, one of the more prominent members of Justice for Magdalenes. It is the text of a letter also published in yesterday’s Irish Times and available here. We have written previously about the Magdalen Laundries here, here and here. James himself is an Associate Professor at Boston College. James’ professional profile is here. James is also the author of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Confinement (2007, University of Notre Dame Press). Today’s Irish Times reports that Justice for Magdalenes described the meeting with the Department of Education, which is referred to in the post below, as “helpful”.

Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, is due to meet officials in the Department of Education today. The meeting follows statements in recent days by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, revising his assertion last September that “the State did not refer individuals nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries”.

In a letter addressed to me (dated January 27th), Mr O’Keeffe acknowledges that the Department of Justice has now “confirmed that some women were referred by the courts to the Magdalen laundries”. The Minister repeated this new understanding in his response to two Parliamentary Questions in the Dáil on Thursday last. Justice for Magdalenes welcomes the Minister’s acknowledgment of State complicity and suggests that it provides the basis for moving towards the establishment of a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors.

We assert, however, that evidence of State complicity also involves the Department of Education directly. Mr O’Keeffe continues to avoid this issue, in his letter and his comments in the Dáil. Rather, he maintains the distinction between “children who were taken into the laundries privately or who entered the laundries as adults” as “quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions.” Justice for Magdalenes agrees with Mr O’Keeffe that section 1 (3) of the Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002 provides redress to survivors who as children “were transferred to a Magdalen laundry from a State regulated institution.”

We would ask, however, that the Minister make public the number of children transferred in this manner and the number of survivors who have applied to the Redress Board on this basis.

Justice for Magdalenes disagrees with Mr O’Keeffe with respect to “children who were taken into the laundries privately”. We assert that the State failed to meet its Constitutional obligation to protect all such children from forms of abuse occurring outside the home. Ireland’s Constitution governs the State’s obligation to ensure that all children receive a “certain minimum education” (Art. 42, sec. 3, sub. 2). It indicates the State’s obligation to “supply the place of the parents” in cases where parents “fail in their duty towards their children” (Art. 42, sec. 5). It outlines the State’s obligation to protect very young “workers” from abuse and exploitation (Art. 45, sec. 4, sub. 2).

The means by which a child ended up in a laundry is immaterial, as this did not obviate the State’s constitutional obligation to protect her. That surely is what Dáil Éireann meant when it voted unanimously “to cherish all of the children of the nation equally”.

Justice for Magdalenes also points to the Department of Education’s awareness historically that children were confined within Magdalene laundries.

Despite this awareness, the State never intervened to protect these children. The Reformatory and Industrial School Systems Report, 1970 (ie, the Kennedy report), commissioned by the minister for education, documents this awareness. In a discussion of children placed in “religious convents” by “parents, relatives, social workers, welfare officers, clergy, or gardaí,” the report states that “the committee is satisfied that there are at least 70 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 years confined in this way who should properly be dealt with under the Reformatory Schools’ system” (page 39). Likewise, in a table attempting to represent the “total number of children in care,” the report asserts there were “617 children . . . resident in ‘Voluntary Homes’ which have not applied for approval” (page 12).

These “voluntary homes”, as officials in the Department of Education can confirm, were typically Magdalene laundries and other “religious convents”. Mr O’Keeffe contends that the Magdalene laundries “were not regulated or inspected”.

Justice for Magdalenes would ask Mr O’Keeffe to explain why, given the department’s awareness that children were confined in them, these institutions were never visited, inspected or licensed? We ask that the Minister for Education now account for every child confined to a Magdalene laundry since the founding of the State. We demand that the State produce records for all the women and children it was complicit in referring to the laundries. We urge the State to enter into dialogue with the four religious congregations involved so that they too might make available their records for all women and children entering Magdalene laundries after January 1st, 1900. Access to these records is the crucial next step in understanding this aspect of the nation’s history and in establishing an appropriate redress scheme for survivors.

Finally, Justice for Magdalenes contends that the State should apologise to survivors for its part in the abuse of women in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.

Court referral to Magdalene laundries


  • Madam, – Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, is due to meet officials in the Department of Education today. The meeting follows statements in recent days by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, revising his assertion last September that “the State did not refer individuals nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries”.

    In a letter addressed to me (dated January 27th), Mr O’Keeffe acknowledges that the Department of Justice has now “confirmed that some women were referred by the courts to the Magdalen laundries”. The Minister repeated this new understanding in his response to two Parliamentary Questions in the Dáil on Thursday last. Justice for Magdalenes welcomes the Minister’s acknowledgment of State complicity and suggests that it provides the basis for moving towards the establishment of a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors.

    We assert, however, that evidence of State complicity also involves the Department of Education directly. Mr O’Keeffe continues to avoid this issue, in his letter and his comments in the Dáil. Rather, he maintains the distinction between “children who were taken into the laundries privately or who entered the laundries as adults” as “quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions.” Justice for Magdalenes agrees with Mr O’Keeffe that section 1 (3) of the Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002 provides redress to survivors who as children “were transferred to a Magdalen laundry from a State regulated institution.”

    We would ask, however, that the Minister make public the number of children transferred in this manner and the number of survivors who have applied to the Redress Board on this basis.

    Justice for Magdalenes disagrees with Mr O’Keeffe with respect to “children who were taken into the laundries privately”. We assert that the State failed to meet its Constitutional obligation to protect all such children from forms of abuse occurring outside the home. Ireland’s Constitution governs the State’s obligation to ensure that all children receive a “certain minimum education” (Art. 42, sec. 3, sub. 2). It indicates the State’s obligation to “supply the place of the parents” in cases where parents “fail in their duty towards their children” (Art. 42, sec. 5). It outlines the State’s obligation to protect very young “workers” from abuse and exploitation (Art. 45, sec. 4, sub. 2).

    The means by which a child ended up in a laundry is immaterial, as this did not obviate the State’s constitutional obligation to protect her. That surely is what Dáil Éireann meant when it voted unanimously “to cherish all of the children of the nation equally”.

    Justice for Magdalenes also points to the Department of Education’s awareness historically that children were confined within Magdalene laundries.

    Despite this awareness, the State never intervened to protect these children. The Reformatory and Industrial School Systems Report, 1970 (ie, the Kennedy report), commissioned by the minister for education, documents this awareness. In a discussion of children placed in “religious convents” by “parents, relatives, social workers, welfare officers, clergy, or gardaí,” the report states that “the committee is satisfied that there are at least 70 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 years confined in this way who should properly be dealt with under the Reformatory Schools’ system” (page 39). Likewise, in a table attempting to represent the “total number of children in care,” the report asserts there were “617 children . . . resident in ‘Voluntary Homes’ which have not applied for approval” (page 12).

    These “voluntary homes”, as officials in the Department of Education can confirm, were typically Magdalene laundries and other “religious convents”. Mr O’Keeffe contends that the Magdalene laundries “were not regulated or inspected”.

    Justice for Magdalenes would ask Mr O’Keeffe to explain why, given the department’s awareness that children were confined in them, these institutions were never visited, inspected or licensed? We ask that the Minister for Education now account for every child confined to a Magdalene laundry since the founding of the State. We demand that the State produce records for all the women and children it was complicit in referring to the laundries. We urge the State to enter into dialogue with the four religious congregations involved so that they too might make available their records for all women and children entering Magdalene laundries after January 1st, 1900. Access to these records is the crucial next step in understanding this aspect of the nation’s history and in establishing an appropriate redress scheme for survivors.

    Finally, Justice for Magdalenes contends that the State should apologise to survivors for its part in the abuse of women in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. – Yours, etc,

    Dr JAMES M SMITH,

    Associate Professor,

    English Department and Irish Studies Program,

    Boston College,

    Chestnut Hill,

    Massachusetts,

    US.

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  1. aoifenolan
    February 3, 2010 at 11:38 am

    The Irish Times reports today that the Justice for Magdalenes group said it had a positive and constructive meeting with Department of Education officials yesterday and that it would now seek a similar meeting with the Department of Health. (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0203/1224263659704.html)
    It remains to be seen whether the Minister and other relevant officials will repond to JFM’s call for a distinct redress scheme for all survivors of the Magdalene laundries.

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