BELFAST, Northern Ireland (RNS) When the Republic of Ireland apologized to the wayward girls who were sent to the Magdalene laundries for hard work and no pay, Teresa Bell felt encouraged. Surely, she thought, the government of Northern Ireland would do the same.

TeresaBell

When the Republic of Ireland apologized to the wayward girls who were sent to the Magdalene laundries for hard work and no pay, Teresa Bell felt encouraged. Surely, she thought, the government of Northern Ireland would do the same. Photo by Paige Brettingen


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Nearly three months later, she’s still waiting.

Bell was one of thousands of young girls who were sent to the Magdalene workhouses run by Roman Catholic nuns when she got pregnant at age 16. She worked long hours washing clothes with no pay and little rest; after giving birth, her daughter was put in an orphanage.

Bell never recovered from the shame.

“I felt I was beneath everybody for 40 years,” she said. “It was only when I got a little older that it eased off a little bit.”

Bell kept quiet until Magdalene victims in the Republic of Ireland sparked international attention in February, demanding the government apologize for the laundries’ practices of forced unpaid labor and psychological abuse.

Though Bell shares many of the same painful memories as those in the Irish Republic, she and victims in Northern Ireland — which is part of the United Kingdom — haven’t received the same apology, and it remains uncertain if they ever will.

In the Irish Republic, an estimated 10,000 girls were locked up in laundries run by the Catholic Church between 1922 and 1996, according to an inquiry report published in February. The report acknowledged that in addition to Ireland, laundries existed in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. While the majority were Catholic-operated, Protestant institutions also existed.

“The Magdalene Sisters,” a film released in 2002, was one of the first to draw attention to the laundries. The majority of victims said they did not experience the same sexual or physical abuse as depicted in the movie. But the report did acknowledge that the “overwhelming majority” of victims described verbal abuse and “being the victim of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments.”

Reasons for the forced labor ranged from minor offenses, such as skipping a train fare, to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Some women entered voluntarily, seeing the laundries as a better option than homelessness. About 900 women, including one as young as 15, died in Ireland’s laundries.

The Republic of Ireland launched an investigation of the laundries in 2011 after pressure from victims intensified and the United Nations Committee Against Torture took notice, says Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International in Belfast. The outrage in the Irish Republic has since found its way to the North.

Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International in Belfast. Photo by Megan O'Neil

Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International in Belfast. Photo by Megan O’Neil


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“It spilled across the border with people saying, ‘My experience was just like that. Why is my government not responding? Where is my inquiry?’” Corrigan said.

The government’s tense relationship with the Catholic Church in the North is one reason for the delayed response. Northern Ireland is mostly Protestant, while the government in the Irish Republic had stronger ties to the Catholic Church. According to the inquiry, the Republic of Ireland was directly involved in sending one in four women to the workhouses.

Another reason for the delayed response in the North is the cost.

“It’s shameful we haven’t done more investigation in Northern Ireland and it comes down to funding,” said William Crawley, a BBC journalist who covers religion in Belfast.

The Historical Institutional Abuse Act, an inquiry into residential institutional abuse between 1945 and 1995, is underway in Northern Ireland and will be completed in January 2016. Since it is only considering victims who suffered abuse under the age of 18 during that 50-year span, it excludes many of the Magdalene victims.

Financial restitution and criminal charges will be sought, says Corrigan, but what’s most needed is an apology.

“The victims carried this stigma for so many years,” he said. “But the stigma should be on everyone’s shoulders that we let this happen.”

Victims of similar abuse have also mobilized to increase pressure on the government in the North to include the Magdalenes.

Margaret McGuckin is a victim of institutional abuse. She talks about living in fear of the next beating and being forced to scrub the floors, windows and walls of a Belfast orphanage that was also run by Catholic nuns.

When she heard the outrage expressed by Magdalene victims in the Irish Republic, she saw an opportunity for those in the North to join her group, Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse.

Margaret McGuckin is a victim of institutional abuse. She talks about living in fear of the next beating and being forced to scrub the floors, windows and walls of a Belfast orphanage that was also run by Catholic nuns. Photo by Megan O'Neil

Margaret McGuckin is a victim of institutional abuse. She talks about living in fear of the next beating and being forced to scrub the floors, windows and walls of a Belfast orphanage that was also run by Catholic nuns. Photo by Megan O’Neil


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Finding Magdalene victims in the North has been a challenge. Bell was one of the first to join McGuckin’s group; the extra support has been integral to maintaining their momentum.

Corrigan estimates that there are likely hundreds more Magdalene survivors in the North who are still alive, but he also recognizes it will take time for them to come forward.

“For four years we’ve been trying and they’re only coming out now,” he said. “A whole lot of them don’t want to talk because their families don’t know.”

Bell, who lives in a small village in County Down, 17 miles south of Belfast, shared her story with her four children, including her firstborn, Teri.

As soon as Bell turned 18 and could marry, she and her husband retrieved 10-month-old Teri from an orphanage. Bell says that wasn’t the case for most pregnant girls in the laundries whose babies were sent to families in Australia or the U.S.

Bell is also thankful that her husband — who died eight years ago — is no longer the only one who knows this dark part of her past.

“The fact that it’s made me tell my children has been good,” she said, “because if the victims never spoke out in the Republic, I wouldn’t have.”

KRE/AMB END BRETTINGEN

24 Comments

  1. People need to look at things in historical perspective. I am not saying that abuse is right, but there are degrees. Sexual abuse is ALWAYS wrong. The notion of “spare the rod and spoil the child” predominated society, and in many instances it might be good today. Was is too much for those incarcerated to have to do some work? Who demanded the incarceration bute people in Irish society who held certain views at the time. People are now looking at the situation from the perspective of the 21st century, and it’s not entirely fair.

    • They were only following orders? Who set the views at the time? The Churches; the Catholic Church in particular. For those who were free to leave, I understand your defense. But there were many who were imprisoned and enslaved. By your defense, what went on in the Southern United States was just following the mores of the times. That this continued into the 20th century is unfathomable.

    • “spare the rod and spoil the child”? I can’t believe you seriously said that. These were women – mostly single mothers, not children. And we aren’t talking about 19th century Dickensian England here – these places were in operation during the majority of the 20th century. And in case you didn’t notice, even convicts with prison jobs get paid. These women, in addition to being incarcerated and abused, were SLAVE LABOR. Even if they’d committed actual crimes and were treated well, that would be unconscionable.

    • Leo!! Are you a Historian? Abuse is never right in any shape or form (or degree). When people are wrongly incarcerated “yes it is too much to have them do work??). I would love to know if you have ever ironed sheets for 10 hours? and your right “It’s not entirely fair” because your looking at the situation with the eyes of a “Chauvinist” with no personal experience of being in that moment or the aftermath? “AND NO IT WASN’T FAIR!!!!”

    • Miryam Clough

      Because these institutions operated with the support of the government and wider society. They were a way of men evading responsibility for their poor moral/sexual behaviour, families avoiding shame, and a convenient (and very poor) solution to social care needs. It really is time to stop evading responsibility for persistent abuses against women and children.

  2. Those who were not in such Institutions will never understand what we went through and how much an Inquiry & Justice means to us.
    Abuse be it sexual, physical or mental abuse affects us for the rest of out lives.
    The abused suffer, the majority of abusers get away with it.

  3. Enquiring if there is a connection between St Therese Home in Waukegan,IL and the Magdalenes? I was incarcerated there for unwed motherhood , sent by my family to serve my sentence from March of 1979 until November of 1979. I have records from the agency and found my dtr in 2006, via Search Angel. What we are missing is her OBZc and my hospital records . I think the name if the hospital has changed to Provena Health.? Going to need to do so research on that and the name of the order of nuns who were there at the time.

  4. This article is so misleading…I’m willing to bet the first woman interviewed/quoted was in the Marian Vale mother-baby home in Newry. There seems to be a lot of confusion in NI on which were Magdalene Laundries and which were mother-baby homes. Mother-baby homes, while similarly incarcerative and harsh, were different in many other regards to Magdalene Laundries. For starters, the laundry or other work done by women who spent time in m-b homes was not expressly commercial in nature like the Magdalene Laundries. They were also more regulated and better-inspected than the Laundries, because they generally also functioned as adoption societies, hence had to be registered and inspected by the State (post-1952 in Ireland). Yes, there certainly was crossover between Irish mother-baby homes and Laundries — women were sent to Laundries after there children were born, especially if their families wouldn’t take them back or they were ‘repeat offenders’. And this is definitely borne out in the McAleese report, although we suspect the 3-4% figure that report provides is very low. Some, like my mum, came out of Magdalene Laundries, and then got pregnant, because they were so woefully naive given their industrial school/Magdalene backgrounds, that they had no understanding of sex or men, so were easy prey. But conflating mother-baby homes with Magdalene Laundries will not do either cause any good. Because they operated so differently, they have to be looked at from different angles and presented as different sets of abuses (with some crossover) in terms of a campaign.

    I won’t even go into the author’s inept starting point, referring to the women as “wayward”. That’s just “slut-shaming” and demeaning, and that type of language needs to be removed from any fair discussion on either the Laundries or mother-baby homes. Many young women and girls entered Magdalene Laundries in the Republic after being raped by family members, or whose parents naively believed the ‘Magdalene Asylums’ were special schools run by the nuns and that their daughters would receive a grand education. I don’t think they would be considered “wayward” at all. Poor choice of wording regardless of the route by which they found themselves in either mother-baby homes or Magdalene Laundries. Let’s remove that language from the narrative, please.

  5. Judith Barnes

    What about the “wayward men”??? & I’m only using the term “wayward” because that’s how the church & society saw the girls, it takes two to conceive a baby!!! It makes me sick that these boys/men repeatedly got away with this!

  6. Txdesertflower

    I find the comment that ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ and forcing women into lifelong hell with one judge, jury and executioner being the Catholic and Protestant churches and stripping women of their dignity and motherhood absolutely ludicrous. Please check yourself into the nearest psych ward if you actually think that is ok.

  7. Ladies and Gentlemen,
    I would like to draw your attention to the fact that what went on in Irish laundries went on all over the world in one form or other then and still goes on today in the sexual and many other trades, big time and is well and alive ALL over in what we are supposed to call a Civilized world with little or no comment from big governments, so may I ask what or why the big stigma on Ireland or the Irish people??? It’s happening under are very nose and the majority couldn’t give a dam.
    Logically we can’t be responsable for our ancester’s wrong doings but as normal human beings we should at least be able to learn from their errors and make sure this tragedy is never repeted. However what have we learned or achived today?, nothing aparently as the cruelty and wickedness in todays world is just as bad or in my opinion much worse in today’s society than ever before, the only difference it’s much more sofisticated and hidden under the carpet from the public view! How many thousands of woman and children have dissapeared the world over let’s say in the last 10 or 20 years?? How many millions are working under slave wages and conditions just to satisfy the western world’s greed? Is there any need to go on…. ???

    If we want to do something positive about fixing the world it would be a great idea to start protecting little children from child pornography which as everyone knows is a billionair business, don’t you think so? Why is it today that millions of babies are murdered legaly in the abortion mills and nobody blinks an eye? It would be very interesting to see how many people out there who are highly critical of Ireland and the Irish people in the past, are out on the streets of the world protesting against the dreadful atrocities to women and babies in these abortion mills as the latest scandal of Dr. Kermit Gosnell In Pennsylvania has reveled?

    Constantly licking old soars will not help healing and much less amend for what these poor women had to suffer and are still suffering the world over today. It is the Irish State’s moral obligation (as it is of all States around the world) to ensure that these poor victims have adequate housing and a good pension to live comfortable and all the social services they require for their mental well being. Once these need have been met , these ladies should be allowed to live in peace to enable them to come to terms with their traumatic past, without closure no healing is possible!

    For those of you interested in historical facts it was the Anglican church in Victorian England in the middle 18th century who founded and established laundries in both UK and Ireland for the so called fallen women and girls of society of the day, where children as young a 9 years of age where locked up for simple petty crimes like stealing fruit at the public market etc. The Catholic Church didn’t follow suit until many years later when it got religious liberty in Britain!

    Obviously it’s a total lack of ethics and right reason and historically misleading to accuse any one country or church for these abuses. By the way, I’m not Irish so no personal interest involved, I just detest one sided and untruthful journalism!

    Statistics tell us that 90% of sexual and physical abuse is connected with the home or connections to the home and why is it not constantly highly publicised, to stigmatise it, obviously some hidden agenda is been played out here!

    I’s time we all got our thinking caps back on and start thinking for ourselves instead of been zombies led along like sheep to the slaughter by the mass media! It’s about time we all started been just in our own sphere and not let greed over rule our lives to the victimization of other defensless human beings especially women and children!

  8. Sadly, my first knowledge of this event was thru the movie, The Magdalene Sisters. Doing the research, nausea was my first response, but it was nothing compared to the disgust I felt and continue to feel. These remaining women need more than an apology, monetary compensation should be in the millions, and even that would not be sufficient….how do you put a price on someone’s life??? They were denied the commonest care, denied human kindness, many suffered the heartbreak of having their children stolen, then treated like mad dogsand made to feel they were less than scum…..This is an absolute disgusting episode in the history of the Church….my church. Yes, I know man corrupts, God is always just. Well, it is very hard for me to forgive this event, I can only pray these self-righteous Priests and Nuns will get their just reward in the next life. The Church needs to step up to the plate and make right an egrigeous wrong. If any of the nuns and priests are still alive, they should be brought to trial and treated no differently than Nazi war criminals. My heart breaks for thiese women, I pray they find solace and comfort for the remainder of life and realize God will reward them and also know they are loved and kept in prayer.

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