DUBLIN — Ireland’s last surviving “Magdalene laundry,” where thousands of unmarried mothers and other unwanted women were forced to work without pay in abject conditions, often until they died, is to be preserved as a state-funded memorial to all victims of incarceration and abuse in church and state-run institutions, the Irish government has announced.
The government’s move on Tuesday overturned a previous decision by Dublin City Council, the owner of the former convent and laundry, which closed down in 1996, to sell the site for redevelopment as a budget hotel.
Operated most recently by the Sisters of Charity and Refuge, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the high-walled compound in Dublin’s deprived north inner city was the last “Magdalene laundry” to close down, and is the only one that has not been demolished.
The decision to preserve it as a public memorial and education center followed a lengthy campaign by organizations representing survivors of the laundries and other former institutions of incarceration, such as “industrial schools” for unwanted or unruly children, county workhouses, and so-called mother-and-baby homes, where women pregnant out of wedlock were confined in often abysmal conditions, until they gave birth. In the mother-and-baby homes, many women were separated from their children, who were secretly put up for adoption by doctors, or the church.
Roderic O’Gorman, Ireland’s minister for children, equality, disability, integration and youth, said the establishment of what will be known as the National Centre for Research and Remembrance would be an important step in addressing a traumatic legacy.
“Over the past three decades, Ireland has had a difficult reckoning with its history of institutional abuse,” Mr. O’Gorman said. “This center will provide a place of reflection and remembrance, while also ensuring that future generations can fully understand the appalling impact of those institutions.”
Prof. Katherine O’Donnell, co-director of Open Heart City, an activist group which campaigned to preserve the site in public ownership, said the government’s announcement was “an enormous step forward” for a campaign that has always been based on the voices of surviving women and children.
“This will be a place where we can reflect on all the other parts of what we call our dark heritage, the places where our country failed its citizens,” she said. “And we will be brought to think about how we can do things better in future. Many survivors of institutions of abuse have said for decades now that they want to be part of educating and informing young people about what went on.”
According to the government announcement, the new center will preserve the laundry’s buildings and be fully funded by the state. The National Museum of Ireland will take charge of the memorial, while the National Archives will collect, preserve and unseal hundreds of thousands of government-held documents relating to the laundries, schools and homes that have remained closed to scholars, and even to the survivors themselves.
Gary Gannon, a local member of Parliament who campaigned against the sale of the site, said it was “incredible” to see such a full vindication of years of grass-roots pressure.
“It’s the first time in the history of Ireland that we’ve fully opened ourselves to being truthful about this part of our past,” he said.
Elizabeth Coppin, who was born to an unmarried mother in a “county home” in Kerry, raised in an abusive “industrial school” and later transferred to a series of church-run laundries, said she welcomed the announcement, but that the government needed to do more for survivors.
She said she and her fellow survivors were still waiting to receive a health benefits package promised by a previous government several years ago, and that they still did not have access to their own birth and medical records.
“They’ve made promises before, but all we’ve received are little crumbs,” she said.
The Gloucester Street Laundry, which took its name from a road now known as Sean McDermott Street, usually had around a hundred inmates, who worked long hours, in appalling conditions, for no pay and inferior food.
Named after Mary Magdalene, a biblical figure often portrayed as a repentant prostitute, the laundries were seen as places of lifelong penance for “fallen” women and girls, even though many inmates were transferred there from orphanages and state-appointed homes. Inmates were often returned by the police when they tried to escape. At least a dozen such laundries are known to have operated in Ireland since the 19th century.
Although supported by state funding and contracts, most of these institutions of incarceration were run for profit by Catholic religious orders, and poor living conditions, physical abuse, hard work and lack of medical facilities led to high mortality rates.
Many dead inmates were buried in secret.
Catherine Corless, a historian in County Galway, used Freedom of Information requests to show that almost 800 infants had died in a mother and baby home at Tuam between 1925 and 1961, with only two registered burials. A recent exploratory investigation of the site found a large amount of human remains in what appeared to be a sewage tank.