Magdalene Laundries: Ireland PM Apologises

Ireland's prime minister has apologised to thousands of women sent to Catholic-run workhouses where they were subjected to a regime of hard work and prayer.

The Magdalene laundries started in the late 1700s as places to rehabilitate so-called "fallen" women.

A committee - led by Martin McAleese, the husband of former Irish president Mary McAleese - was set up 18 months ago to investigate exactly what role the Irish state played in the institutions between 1922 and 1996.

It found that more than 2,100 women, more than a quarter of those who were held in the Magdalene laundries for whom records survived, were sent directly by the state.

The Irish government has always previously denied direct involvement in the system, which was run by four religious congregations: Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Good Shepherds, The Sisters of Mercy and the Religious Sisters of Charity.

But as the report was published, Irish PM Enda Kenny said: "To those resident who went into the Magdalene laundries from a variety of ways, 26% from state involvement, I'm sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment."

He said action should have been taken before to clear the names and reputations of the women put to work in the laundries.

"That the stigma, that the branding together of the residents, all 10,000 needs to be removed and should have been removed long before this and I'm really sorry that that never happened, and I regret that never happened."

Women were forced into Magdalene laundries for crimes as minor as not paying for a train ticket, the report found. The majority of those incarcerated were there for minor offences such as theft and vagrancy. A small number of the women were there for prostitution.

The Magdalene Survivors Together group quickly dismissed the prime minister's apology.

"He is the Taoiseach of our country, he is the Taoiseach of the Irish people, and that is not a proper apology," Maureen Sullivan said.

Mary Smyth said she endured inhumane conditions in a laundry, which she said was worse than being in prison.

"I will go to the grave with what happened. It will never ever leave me," she said.

Survivors told the committee the atmosphere in the institutions as "cold, with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer, with many instances of verbal censure, scoldings or even humiliating put-downs".

The report found that many of the women sent to the laundries went there after becoming involved with the courts or police.

Government inspectors routinely carried out checks at the institutions and the state paid welfare and other payments to women in laundries.

However, the report also noted that none of the 118 women that spoke to the committee made any allegations of sexual abuse against those who ran the laundries and compared them favourably to the Industrial School system in which physical punishment and abuse was "prevalent".

"Some of the women the committee met stated clearly that the laundries were their only refuge in times of great personal difficulty," the report said.

More than 10,000 women, aged from nine to 89, were sent to eight of the ten laundries from which records were available between 1992 and 1996.

Advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) said it was aware of at least 988 women who were buried in laundry plots in cemeteries across Ireland, meaning they stayed in the institutions until death. The inquiry could confirm only 879.

Dr Katherine O'Donnell, director of the Women's Study Centre at University College, Dublin, said: "The state sent girls and women into the Magdalene laundry system through courts and mother-and-baby homes.

"They never checked on those girls and women to see if in fact they ever left."