Irish Premier's Apology Fails to Appease Workhouse Survivors

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DUBLIN -- Advocates for survivors of a Catholic workhouse system that kept generations of young women and girls in virtual slavery expressed disappointment and anger on Tuesday at Prime Minister Enda Kenny's failure to formally apologize after a report found extensive state involvement in the institutions.

Reacting to the 1,000-page government report, which found the state responsible for committing thousands of young women to the workhouses, the last of which closed in 1996, Mr. Kenny told Parliament that the women had been sent at a time when Ireland was a harsh, uncompromising and authoritarian place.

"I'm sorry that this release of pressure and understanding for so many of those women was not done before this, because they were branded as fallen women," he said.

However, Mr. Kenny stopped short of issuing an official apology on behalf of the state for its involvement in the so-called Magdalene Laundries, saying that a full parliamentary debate would take place in two weeks after politicians had time to review the document.

James M. Smith, an associate professor at Boston College and a member of the campaign group Justice for Magdalenes, described Mr. Kenny's statement as "egregious and insensitive," adding that the government had received the report two weeks ago and had plenty of time to consider it.

"Mr. Kenny has failed the test of moral courage," he said. "Yet again an Irish government has let down the very people it purports to serve."

Professor Smith said the prime minister's failure to apologize was not only a setback for the dwindling number of survivors but would also ultimately reflect badly on the Irish state.

"The women really did expect something more from this government," he said. "This fairly cynical response has lost it an awful lot of good will today as a result."

Steven O'Riordan, a member of another lobby group, Magdalenes Survivors Together, said that while the report recognized that the Irish state was directly complicit in allowing the laundries to exist, Mr. Kenny's statement was "halfhearted at best."

"I am annoyed because it sounded like a throwaway gesture," he said.

The report found that 10,012 women and girls were detained in the laundries from 1922 to 1996, but this figure excludes two large laundries operated by one Catholic order. It stated that 2,124 of those detained in the institutions had been sent by the authorities.

The survivors of the laundries are seeking a state apology for their treatment as well as redress for years of unpaid labor and pension payments. The "Maggies," as they were known, were excluded from a previous compensation scheme for those who suffered in state-run institutions because officials said that the laundries were never under the aegis of the state.

The institutions were named after Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who was redeemed by the teachings of Christ. While many women sent to work in the 10 laundries around the country were unwed mothers, the report found that the vast majority were referred for a wide range of other reasons, ranging from petty offenses to mental illness.

In his introduction to the report, Martin McAleese, the committee chairman, said the women had for too long felt the social stigma of the "wholly inaccurate characterization" of them as "fallen women," something "not borne out by the facts."

The report characterized the conditions in the laundries as "harsh" but found no evidence of systematic sexual abuse. Mr. McAleese said that did not mean the women had not suffered in other ways.

"None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children," he said. "Not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again."

When women were admitted to the laundries, they were uniformly given different names, which survivors say was done to erase their identities. The report says that the religious orders that operated the laundries and cooperated with the committee explained that the new names helped to protect the women's privacy.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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