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Seeking redress for a mother’s life in a Dublin workhouse


DUBLIN » Samantha Long and her twin sister, Etta Thornton-Verma, were born in 1972 and adopted at 9 months. They never knew their birth mother and decided to try to track her down in the mid-1990s. "Nothing prepared us for what we found," Thornton-Verma, who lives in New York, recalled in a telephone interview last week.

"We were prepared for the ordinary possibilities, like a teenage girl who got pregnant and wasn’t in a circumstance to keep us," she said. "But we were not thinking that she might be incarcerated by nuns."

In 1995 they found their mother, Margaret Bullen, in Dublin’s Sean MacDermott Street Laundry — one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, or workhouses for girls — where she had toiled since 1967, six days a week, without pay. They were shocked by her appearance. "She was very disheveled and looked more than 20 years older than she was," Long said. "She was 42, but we were looking at a pensioner’s face. It was hard work, poor nutrition and forced labor."

Long was among those present in the Irish Parliament on Tuesday as the government made public a 1,000-page report that concluded that there was "significant state involvement" in the incarceration of thousands of women and girls in a system of slave labor that continued until 1996. And she and her sister were among those disappointed when the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, failed to issue an official and unambiguous apology for the state’s role.

The twins found that their mother had spent her childhood in state care and was transferred to a laundry in her midteens. She became pregnant twice while under the care of the religious order that ran the laundry. Conversations with their mother led her daughters to believe that they were conceived of sexual abuse. Both her twin babies and another girl born four years later were taken from Bullen and adopted.

She never received any pay for a lifetime of labor, nor did the religious order running the laundry pay contributions toward a pension. She stopped working in 1996, when the last of the laundries closed, and lived in a convent attached to the laundry for the rest of her life. She died in 2003 of Goodpasture syndrome, a disease associated with exposure to toxic chemicals used in the laundry. She is buried in a communal grave for Magdalene women in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

Most of the Magdalene women are now either dead or very old; it is estimated that just 1,000 of the 10,012 young women the report said had passed through the laundries are alive. In the weeks leading up to the publication of the report, some came forward to recount their experiences, which remained raw decades later. There is widespread public support for their demands for an official apology from the church and the state, and for compensation for their years of unpaid work.

In the cases of the Magdalene women who have died, it is their children, taken from them shortly after birth, who are speaking out on their behalf. Long and Thornton-Verma have been campaigning for an apology for their biological mother for 10 years.

Kenny’s statement made it clear that they would have to wait at least two more weeks for Parliament to debate the report, and even then they may be disappointed.

"When I heard that the report confirmed state involvement I was pleased, but I was really hoping for an apology," Long said. "I just hope that in two weeks’ time the state is going to rally around the women and say, ‘You do belong to us, and we are sorry for leaving you alone and treating you that way.’ That is very important."

The Magdalene Laundries were a network of 10 institutions run by four religious orders — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. They were used in certain cases to detain women considered deviant in what was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic country. Women who had children outside marriage, girls deemed flirtatious (so-called preventive cases), those with mental disabilities and even victims of sexual abuse were sent to the laundries, often turned in by family, where they simply disappeared from society.

While Kenny’s statement did not satisfy the Magdalene survivors and their descendants, the report did represent some progress.

It demonstrated that the Irish government can no longer rely on the defense that it "did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries." That argument was used in part to resist repeated requests for a statutory inquiry until an advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes, brought the issue to the attention of the U.N. Committee Against Torture in 2011.

At that time, a government delegation told the committee that "the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily or, if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians." The report issued Tuesday shows that statement to be untrue.

The report found that a quarter of the women who passed through the institutions were sent by the state. The laundries operated as a parallel prison system to which the Irish courts routinely sent women who were handed down suspended sentences for petty crimes. Women were referred from government-run mother and baby homes, and girls from industrial schools were sometimes transferred to Magdalene Laundries when they reached puberty.

State employees, like the police, regularly returned those who escaped. Several government departments, and even the official home of the Irish president, showed up in the laundries’ meticulously kept ledgers as customers who sent linen to be cleaned.

Martin McAleese, the chairman of the committee that produced the report, said he hoped the findings would bring "healing and peace of mind to all concerned, most especially the women whose experience of the Magdalene Laundries had a profound and enduring negative effect on their lives."

He was largely praised as producing a nuanced report that filled in patchy knowledge about the laundries. Records available on the length of stay for the women — just 45 percent of the cases — showed that the median stay was seven months and that 8 percent stayed for longer than 10 years. The average age of those in the laundries was 23.

It also emerged that the laundries were not profitable, contrary to what was commonly thought (though survivor groups are challenging that point). The report also found no evidence of sexual abuse.

Mari Steed, the director of Justice for Magdalenes, which has lobbied for an official apology and compensation for the women, called the government’s response to the report "very disappointing." Her mother spent 10 years in a laundry.

"It is going to be difficult to go back to the women and say that they have to wait again," she said.

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