Omission To Prey


Further to our post on the Magdalene report.

The many defenders of the report maintain that Martin McAleese did the best job he could, given the very narrow remit he was handed by the government.

Namely to investigate the extent of state involvement in the running of the laundries

But Mr McAleese frequently went outside his remit.

And not to the benefit of the women who worked in the laundries.

His remit-breaching culminated in Chapter 19, entitled Living and Working Conditions, which has three strands –  testimonies from the women who lived there, the religious orders who ran the laundries and others who would have witnessed the workings of the laundries, such as visiting doctors, priests, etc.

While Mr McAleese was under no obligation to carry out any of this work, what’s intriguing is what material ended up in Chapter 19.

The Justice for Magdalenes group carried out exhaustive research and gathered testimonies from the women, which ran to 800 pages (above).

But these lengthy first-hand accounts [see section at end of post], which included allegations of cruel mistreatment were not included in the report. Instead, there are quotations from survivors claiming no physical abuse took place at the laundries.

Chapter 19’s testimonies from those who witnessed the workings of the laundries also spoke relatively well of the laundries, while the less-favourable testimonies gathered by the JFM group were not included.

So why haven’t these women’s stories been published?

And of the testimonies it took It seems the Committee felt there was information circulating about the laundries which was factually unverified and took it upon itself to correct this based on the information which had come before it in the course of its work.

This was despite the fact that the information in question had not been compiled as part of a proper investigation into living and working conditions but rather in the context of giving women who wanted to share their stories a voice as outlined above.

It appears that the women who wished to tell their stories were those who voluntarily approached the Committee or were put forward by interest groups.

There is no reference to there having been any attempt on the part of the Committee to request stories from women in the laundries generally.

In the absence of this, presumably many women in the laundries would not have known of the facility to contact the Committee and tell their story about life within the laundry (particularly as the Committee’s official remit was confined to State involvement).

The Committee acknowledges that its investigation into conditions within the laundry is a story-telling exercise and incomplete and it says that, because of this, it is not going to make formal findings of fact.

However, in Chp 19, it does make formal findings of fact in particular that stated above, namely that life in the laundry was not as bad as life in reformatory schools and that the factual evidence before it contradicted other accounts of life in the laundry.

If these are not findings of fact, what are?

In addition, although Chp 2 and Chp 19 justify inclusion of living and working conditions on the basis of the entitlement of women to have their stories told and recorded by far the greater weight in Chp 19 is given to the stories of others, some of whom had very limited involvement with the laundry e.g. a novice who spent a week there and GPs and charity workers who visited very occasionally and were not there on a day-to-day basis.

Some of these people are named and some are not named and there is no indication in either Chp 2 or Chp 19 as to why some are named and some are not named.

But that’s for another day.

What The Magdalene Report Left Out (And In)

Excerpts from the Justice For Magdalene submissions.

In stark contrast, these are some of the survivors’ testimonies which McAleese included in Chapter 19, par 35. which states:

“The following examples and quotations relate to the majority of women who shared their stories with the Committee and who indicated that they had never experienced or seen physical punishment in a Magdalen Laundry:


– One woman summarised her treatment in a Magdale Laundry by saying “I might have been given out to, but I was never beaten”.


– Another woman said about the same Magdalen Laundry “I was never beaten and I never seen anyone beaten”.


– Another woman said “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched  and there was never a finger put on them….Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will…we worked very hard there…But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after”.


– Another woman, in response to a question about whether she had suffered corporal punishment at the Magdalen Laundry, said “no, mind you, thank god” and that neither had she seen others hit.


– A different woman who spent time in the same Magdalen Laundry said “I don’t ever remember anyone being beaten but we did have to work very hard”. She described the manner in which women would protest – “If we were down and out, we’d go on the wren”. She described this as sitting on the stairs and refusing to work.


– Another woman at a different Magdalen Laundry said she was “not beaten, no-one would”. There are other punishments for misbehaviour – “you were punished – put to bed without your supper, things like that”.


– A woman at that same Magdalen Laundry when asked if there had been any physical punishments or beatings said “No, they never hit you in the laundry. They never hit me, but the nun looked down on me ’cause I had no father”.


– A woman at another Magdalen Laundry said that “they might rap your knuckles with theirs, that’d be it”.


– Another woman, who was at a Magdalen Laundry for periods in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s told the Committee “I have lovely scars from the orphanage…I was never hit in (name of laundry). The nuns never hit me in (name of laundry), I’ll give that to them. But they gave it to you in your mind”. She added “I hit one of the nuns once with a stick from the laundry”.


– A woman who was at a different Magdalen Laundry said “they’d poke you with pointer but they didn’t lash out”.


– A woman at the same Magdalen Laundry said “I wasn’t beaten but they’d shake you. And we were hungry – bread and dripping”.


– Another woman said “I don’t ever remember anyone being beaten but we did have to work very hard. We were robbed of our childhood, but then, I had a mother that beat the crap out of me”.


– Another woman described the difference between her experience of industrial school and the Magdalen Laundry “In the industrial school it was weapons, it was desperate. It wasn’t the same in the laundry and I never remember being hit with a weapon”.


– A woman who spent time in 3 different Magdalen Laundries summarised the treatment she had received as follows: “No beatings, only working. Hardest work ever.”


– Another woman, who had been in two Magdalen Laundries described the physical punishment she suffered in industrial school as “desperate”. She categorised her treatment in the Magdalen Laundries as “mental cruelty”. Regarding that time, she said that the nuns were “very cruel but they couldn’t hit us…physical cruelty didn’t happen, but mental cruelty did”.


– A woman who had been in a different Magdalen Laundry in the 1950s, when asked about any physical punishment said “no, we were just mass, breakfast, silence, mass again, then work in the laundry”.


– A different woman who was in a Magdalen Laundry in the 1940s and 1950s said “I never saw any of the women and girls living with me being ill treated or severely punished in any way, no beatings, no head shaving, no denial of food, my only complaint was that of being kept there for no reason…Many many more would say the same”.


– Another woman described the difference between Magdalen Laundries and industrial schools as “…a big difference. A very big difference”. She said that at the Magdalen Laundries “there was no physical punishment, it was all mental really. We were never hit. I think they were afraid to hit us. I would hit back”. She also reported that women would in protest “go to sit on the stairs, we went to Coventrey, went and sat on the stairs and not do any work”. The punishment for this would be that the women would “not be let in for evening meal”. This “could go on a whole week, we were able to endure it because our friends brought us the food…we were too crafty for them, they were praying the whole time…some girls would stay there in the evening too in the dark, with no recreation”.


– Another woman at a different Magdalen Laudnry when asked if she had ever suffered physical or corporal punishment, said “no, no, not that. But it was just this big building and laundry and I had a terrible childhood and then I was grieving over (specified bereavement)”.


Chapter 19, section C deals with the recollections of others who had direct involvement with the laundries, including doctors.

In Galway, Dr Michael Colgan recalled:

“On my way to the consulting room I had to pass through a dining room where I was welcomed by the ladies, seated around tables in groups of four, happily chatting as they finished breakfast. I was also greeted by [name] a local lady who was employed as Cook and she appeared to have a unique relationship with the ladies. After I sat down at my desk [name] a jovial Resident would proudly arrive with a linen-covered tray laden with tea and buns. I was always accompanied by a qualified Nurse, or if she could not attend, by one of the Nuns who assisted me in her absence”.


“Overall, my experience with the Magdalen was a happy and gratifying one. The Residents were a delightful and happy group of ladies, each with their own unique personality and they appeared to me to have a good and friendly relationship with the Mercy Sisters. Equally, my impression was that the Sisters were very caring towards the Residents and I never found any evidence to the contrary”.

On Sean McDermott Street, Dr John Ryan recalled:

“There were a number of incidents of fractures but they were all from falls and usually out in the city, but none were suspicious in any way and I did not come across any evidence of unexplained bruising or scalding etc. … There was nothing stated by any of the residents … in
relation to any possible ill treatment in the convent”.

On Donnybrook, Dr Donal Kelly recalled:

“Never did I witness any evidence of physical or mental abuse. My surgery could also be visited by the ladies if they were fit enough to travel there. They were well fed and dressed in ordinary clothes provided often by [name of Sister]. A small stipend was given to them for cigarettes, chocolate and the cinema”.

On Sunday’s Well, Dr Harry Comber said:

“They told me that one particular sister … had frequently beaten them, sometimes with a heavy crucifix which she wore on her belt. They also told of being locked in solitary confinement in a padded room, of having letters to and from their families withheld and of wearing only a cape over their underclothes (“in case they would run away”) when they left the grounds. I found these accounts quite convincing. … They asked me not to take any action on the basis of these complaints. No other women ever complained to me of mistreatment and by the 1980s this
illtreatment seemed to have ceased a long time in the past”.


“The women seemed reasonably happy, although some regretted the loss of opportunity to have a life, families and children of their own. They were treated well, although patronisingly, by the sisters. They were expected to be rather passive within the community. They had the
usual opportunities for recreation – reading, walking, TV. They were to a large extent institutionalised and rarely seemed to go out except for walks in the locality. … I would be surprised if there was, in the time I was there, any mistreatment of them, either verbal or physical”.

The JFM group also took testimonies from eye witnesses.

Their information – which also did not make the McAleese Report – includes the following:

“There are outside eyewitnesses to the physical abuse. Mary C was a paid hand at Galway Magdalene Laundry in the 1950s. She remembers a nun using a strap to beat a woman, who was depressed and couldn’t work, until she was hysterical – “she was marked, she was marked, she was hysterical that she almost collapsed into my arms” [2/31/753]. She remembers one particular nun, Sr. S_____, who she calls “an evil nun”. She says “It’s the beatings they got, that was uncalled for” [2/31/770]. There was one woman called K____ G_____ – “That’s the one that got all the beatings” [2/31/780].


“(r) Mary C also recalls the following incident:
“if the nun … found two women in bed, I guarantee you
wouldn’t see hair. I remember one girl came down and now, I don’t know where her eye was, I don’t know where her eye was, her face was all disfigured from the beating she got and the hair was shaved and the blood was still on the top of her head. And I was told that’s what happened, she found two of them in bed together” [2/31/771]”


“She is not the only outside witness to physical abuse. Des D was a maintenance man at the Limerick Good Shepherd Laundry in the mid 1970s. He says that at least some of the nuns would hit the women if they thought none of the outside workers was about: “But I saw a few instances of the true colours coming out, like the one in the small ironing room – the one with the leather belt and she would have whacked them if a corner wasn’t square or something” [2/21/559].”


“He also says “There was one nun that used to be outside the workshop at the laundry, where my workshop was, and when she got angry she thought nothing of pulling the strap out. She pulled the strap out and hit them to get them to speed up – physically hitting. Now she was old school. Another nun was coming past one day and told her to stop. She said you can’t do that anymore. So that tells me there was more going on than what we were actually seeing” [2/21/557].”

On RTÉ Radio One’s Late Debate last Tuesday night, Dr Katherine O’Donnell, from the JFM group spoke to presenter Audrey Carville about these missing testimonies. Part of the interview went as follows:

Audrey Carville: Dr Katherine O’Donnell, from Justice For Magdalenes, I’ll begin with you because you’re telling this programme tonight that almost 800 pages of written testimonies, from women who were in the laundries never made it into the McAleese Report?

Dr Katherine O’Donnell: “Unfortunately, this is the case. We’ve gone through it with a fine tooth-comb. Especially as the women, whose testimonies we brought to Dr McAleese, have been phoning and texting; they’ve got local representatives to download the report for them, they’ve got people to help them go through the report and they can’t see their stories or their testimonies there. They’re not included. But included are 14 quotes to some of these women from meetings that Dr McAleese had with them, and notes were obviously taken at that. But really so much of their testimony is disregarded and left out. And particularly in the discussion that Dr McAleese has made about the working conditions and the living conditions of the laundries, which weren’t actually his remit. But he felt that he would investigate it. It really, severely diminished by not including these testimonies.”

Carville: “Do you have any explanation as to why it’s not included? Do you know at this point?”

O’Donnell: “No and it’s a pity Dr McAleese isn’t around so we could ask him. He did take written evidence and commentary from the religious sisters. And he asked them for their contribution on foot of issues that arose from his conversations with the women and they were allowed submit written material. Their contributions in Chapter 19 aren’t qualified or discussed or I would say minimised in the way that his conversations with the surviving women are. They’re taken at complete face value. And so, even at that level, that methodology, I would call into question and it gives a kind of skewed picture. And again, you know, this is the only report we have on the Magdalene institutions that actually, you know, questions that these might have been very abusive places. Dr McAleese sets himself a kind of an odd task of showing that the Magdalene institutions weren’t as physically abusive as the industrial schools. And he argues that point, which I think is a curious one to even set out to make really, but. He argues that point by saying that the non-physical abuse is, I suppose initially the incarceration of these girls and women, the forced labour, he just kind of leaves that to one side. And non-physical abuse also includes the regular punishment that was used in these institutions, of keeping women in the hole or solitary confinement in these cells, without food. And the religious sisters suggest this was used as non-physical punishment. And it could be used for refusing to work, trying to escape or you know any of the breaches of the rules of penance and silence. Other non-physical punishments, according to Dr McAleese, are when the girls and women are made to prostate themselves on the floor for hours on end and the cutting of the hair as punishment, the denial of food for meals for various infractions. This is all ‘non-physical’. So, I guess, if all of that is ‘non-physical’ punishment, then perhaps they were less abusive, physically abusive, than the industrial schools. But again, I just think that’s a really curious question to try and set out to answer. And it minimises the suffering of these women. This ranking of torture, systems of torture, I don’t think is a very good party game anyway. And it’s just unfortunate that this particular chapter sets out to do that. And I suppose maybe that’s one of the reasons why he didn’t include the testimony. Because if he had included the testimony, that particular ranking wouldn’t have held I think.”


Carville: “And nowhere in the report, Katherine…”

O’Donnell: “Nowhere..”

Carville: “Nowhere in the report does Dr McAleese say what these women said was true? Would you have expected that to be in there?”

O’Donnell: “Yes. I would have expected that he would have honoured their stories. I don’t know why.”

Why indeed.

Previously: The Magdalene Report: A Conclusion

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