Seeking Redress for a Mother’s Life in a Workhouse

Paulo Nunes dos Santos for the International Herald Tribune

Samantha Long and her sister, Etta, found their birth mother in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, where she had toiled, unpaid, for decades.

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,” Ms. 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, here in the 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,” Ms. Long said. “She was 42, but we were looking at a pensioner’s face. It was hard work, poor nutrition and forced labor.”

Ms. 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 Ms. Bullen and adopted.

She never received any pay for decades 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. Ms. Long and Ms. Thornton-Verma have been campaigning for an apology for their biological mother for 10 years.

Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 Mr. 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 United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2011.

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