Ireland Prime Minister Enda Kenny is being applauded throughout the country for finally making amends with the women who were enslaved in the Magdalene Laundries. Their story first gained worldwide attention in 1999 after part of a convent in Dublin was sold off and the unmarked graves of 133 women were found on-site.
Girls were sent to the Magdalene laundries by local priests, state officials, or through industrial and reform schools. The reasoning was that these women and girls (the youngest was reported to be just 11 years old) were a danger to society because of their petty crime, sexual activity, disabilities, or poverty. There was no form of due process or appeals.
Some were tricked into going to the Laundries. In a video for the Irish Times, Patricia McDonnell told reporters that a parish priest promised her sister-in-law that he would help her find paid work in Dublin, but instead “drove her into 20 years slavery.” McDonnell spent years writing to members of the state for answers, to no avail. “I didn’t think we’d ever see this day,” she said, referring to the Kenny’s apology.
“As I sat with these women,” the prime minister recalled, “iit was clear that while every woman’s story was different ... each of them shared a particular experience ... of a particular Ireland ... judgmental ... intolerant ... petty ... and prim.”
Josephine McCarthy, a survivor of the Laundries, told CBS News that their lives consisted solely of prayer and hard labor. "That was it. That was our life. And we dare not ask questions," she said. "And (the work is) very hard. You'd have to hand-wash — scrub. You'd have no knuckles left. Ironing — you would be burnt. It was just hard work."
Members of the state, local businesses, and individuals would pay to have various garments and cloth cleaned or tailored at the Magdalene laundries, but the reportedly 10,000 prisoners didn’t see a penny of profits; instead all the money went back to the church.
Even as the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries were exposed, survivors still faced prejudice due to the church’s continued influence. “As a society, for many years we failed you.” Kenny admitted “We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”