Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Magdalene nuns 'did their best'

The exterior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry
The exterior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry

Nuns who ran the Magdalene laundries were given a sympathetic hearing as the inquiry team noted their profound hurt over the years of public debate.

The investigation committee reported that the four religious orders in charge of workhouses regret any pain caused to women routinely stripped of their identities when locked up.

In their defence the report repeated claims from nuns involved that they did the best they could to care for the residents.

"Their position is that they responded in practical ways as best they could, in keeping with the charism of their congregations, to the fraught situations of the sometimes marginalised girls and women sent to them, by providing them with shelter, board and work," the report said.

It went on to find that a play, Eclipsed by Patricia Burke-Brogan, about life in a laundry, and the dramatic film, The Magdalene Sisters, were fictionalised accounts and not a narrative.

"What we thought of the Magdalene laundries, it may be that was not true," said a source close to the inquiry.

Overall the report found that people's perception of living conditions in the laundries tended to be worse than the reality.

It conceded that, while conditions were harsh at times, and cold and monastic, routine shaving of women's heads did not take place. Only one of the 100-plus former residents interviewed said her head was shaved but she later clarified it was done because she had lice. Some others said they had their hair cut but only on arrival at the laundry, while others claimed their hair was not cut at all.

Elsewhere, the inquiry accepted the religious orders' explanation for not opening records to researchers - they claimed a strong moral responsibility to protect women's privacy. It defended the nuns for working hard to protect the anonymity of women who spent time at the laundries, saying there was no secrecy or self-interest involved. The orders claimed the "commitment to anonymity" was the reason women were given a "hose" or "class" name on arrival at the laundry instead of their birth name.

"Many of the women who met the committee, however, found this practice deeply upsetting and, at the time, felt as though their identity was being erased," the report said. The orders said they regretted any hurt caused by this. They said they consistently made available all the personal records they hold directly to the women concerned and, in the case of deceased women, to their next of kin.