Magdalene Laundries: Victims Await Report

Vicki Hawthorne, Ireland Correspondent

A report into the running of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland is due to be published.

The religious-run institutions started in the late 1700s as places to rehabilitate so-called "fallen" women.

It is estimated that around 30,000 women, mainly single mothers and teenage girls, were placed in the laundries to work.

There were 10 Magdalene laundries across Ireland and the last one closed its doors in 1996.

In the years since, women who lived in the laundries have spoken out about the harsh and gruelling work they had to carry out.

They also detailed horrendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the religious congregations which ran the workhouses.

The Irish government has always denied that the state was involved in the operation of the Magdalene laundries, but survivors' accounts claim the opposite.

A committee was set up 18 months ago to investigate exactly what role the Irish state played in the institutions between 1922 and 1996.

It was led by Martin McAleese, the husband of former Irish president Mary McAleese.

The plight of the women inspired the film The Magdalene Sisters in 2002.

Steven O'Riordan now represents some of the women after making a documentary about them.

"I would believe their families and wider society were fooled into thinking that these women or children would get a better education if they went into these institutions," he said.

"But what materialised in my own opinion is that they became a money-making scheme and these women became victims of slave labour."

The Magdalene laundries were run by four religious congregations: Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Good Shepherds, The Sisters of Mercy and the Religious Sisters of Charity.

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."

Many of the Magdalene women have since died.

Those who remain, and their families, say they have been ignored in Ireland, while other abuses within the Catholic church and state-run institutions have been recognised, apologised for and compensation issued.

The report may give the Magdalene women the voice and, in turn, the apology they have longed for.

Solicitor Leslie Keegan is representing some of the laundries' survivors and believes the Irish government is accountable.

"There is irrefutable evidence of the involvement of the state in the confinement of these women," he said. "So absolutely the state should take responsibility."