Professor Reflects on Recognition of Irish Magdalene Laundries Crimes

By Jennifer Heine
The Heights
March 18, 2013

Smith Contributed To McAleese Report, Which Prompted Irish Government To Apologize Formally

Although last month’s McAleese Report detailing the abuses of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundry workhouse system and the government’s subsequent apology stunned and dismayed many at Boston College, especially given the school’s Irish Catholic heritage, it proved particularly meaningful to professor James Smith, who, through extensive research and advocacy on the subject, played a vital role in bringing the scandal to light.

Although the Magdalene Laundries, in operation from the 18th until the 20th century, have today come to be associated with the most infamous Irish examples, they were not specific to Ireland, according to Smith. “There was one here in Boston,” he said. “The laundries were not a specifically Irish institution, or even specifically Catholic.”

“Originally, the mission of these institutions was rehabilitative,” he said. “That mission, certainly in the Irish context, seems to have become skewed. They became incarcerative institutions, in which women were incarcerated and worked for no pay.”

That new mission reflects the perception the entrants into the Magdalene Laundries began to take on. “In the Irish context, these were women who, for a variety of reasons, were deemed problem women,” Smith said. “Historically, they were considered, in quotations, ‘fallen women.’” This term, used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a euphemism for prostitution, lent a sense of shame and sexual degradation to the women who were committed.

In reality, though, few of the Magdalene Laundry workers could be so categorized. “Only a small percentage of those in the Magdalene laundries were single mothers,” Smith said. “The vast majority, by the 20th century, were women who had come from an industrial school.” The industrial school system, a program of institutions to house abandoned and orphaned children, ended at the age of 16, and, by the latter part of the Magdalene Laundry era, many schools found it easiest to transfer its charges directly into laundries.

Beginning with his 2007 work Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, winner of the American Conference for Irish Studies Donald Murphy Prize, Smith has sought to address the Irish government’s lack of recognition of these crimes. He also serves as a member of the Justice for Magdalenes advisory committee (JFM), an advocacy group dedicated to promoting the rights of those who emerged from the Magdalene Laundry system.

Following 2009’s Ryan Report on the industrial schools and in particular the state’s involvement with the system, which made no mention of the laundries, Smith drafted a report highlighting the Irish state’s support of the Magdalene laundries and calling for an apology and redress. When the Irish government largely ignored the report, he submitted his work to the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which in 2010 recommended a state inquiry into the allegations. The parliamentary dismissal and governmental turnover of 2011, though, left the inquiry in limbo.

Undeterred, Smith and his colleagues appealed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), alleging that the laundries had been in breach of the committee’s conventions. In June 2011, UNCAT published recommendations for an independent inquiry to prosecute and punish perpetrators of human rights violations and to ensure that women obtain full redress and right to compensation.

With the cooperation of the religious orders involved, the state established an interdepartmental committee, chaired by Martin McAleese, to address the allegations. Smith and his colleagues at JFM contributed substantially to the work of what came to be called the Magdalene Committee, with Smith presenting to McAleese in September of 2011 and taking a sabbatical in Ireland in the spring of 2012 to conduct more research, ultimately contributing approximately 800 pages of transcribed survivor testimony and 3,400 pages of archival material.

Primarily, he sought to address the state’s involvement in the Magdalene Laundry system.

“Our argument asserts that the state was involved in three ways: sending women to the laundries and ensuring that they stayed there, helping to fund the laundries, both directly and indirectly, and by failing to regulate and inspect in accordance with domestic labor laws,” Smith said. In spite of the evidence, he recalls, “Even in front of the U.N., the head of the Irish delegation argued, and I quote, that ‘the vast majority of women entered the institutions voluntarily, and if they were minors, with a parent’s consent.’ It was a farcical argument, but that’s what we were up against.”

On Feb. 5, the committee finally released its findings, known as the McAleese Report. Smith acknowledges the drawbacks to the document: “The report asserts that the institutions broke even, but popular perception is that they were profit-making. Our only figures, though, are based on the institutions’ own reporting. But the most problematic part of the account is that there is very much a sense that the report minimizes the abuse of the women.” Still, he emphasizes its importance: “We have for the first time a clear assertion that the state was involved, and access to the statistics.”

The apology, issued Feb. 19 by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Smith considers even more important. “His apology was unqualified,” he said. “It was unequivocal in addressing the pain, the suffering, the stigma, the shame of those working in these institutions.”

Furthermore, the apology has empowered the women of the Magdalene Laundries to overcome the stigma attached to those years. “The apology was instrumental in allowing the women to own that part of their past, to enable them to come forward and speak about it,” Smith said. “It was deeply meaningful to the women, not only that they were being believed, but that the stigma was being lifted from them, and the state was taking it back.”

Despite what some might call a conflict of interest with regard to Smith’s work for the University, given BC’s Catholic identity, Smith emphasizes that the school has played a vital role. “My work has never been questioned,” Smith said. “Boston College has been nothing but supportive of me. This is a story about abuse within the Catholic Church, but it’s also about human rights, and justice, and I’ve always seen it as being consistent with the school’s values.

“This story is not about me, this story is about these women."


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