If you have been viewing the recent events concerning the Magdalene Laundries as a distinctly Irish phenomenon, you may need to readjust your focus to accommodate a more encompassing global view.
In the Irish Republic, over 10,000 girls were warehoused in laundries operated primarily by sectarian agencies between 1922 and 1996, according to the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries published last February. The report acknowledged that in addition to Ireland, laundries existed in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. While many were Catholic-operated, Protestant institutions that were similar in nature also existed.
As many as 2,200 children were illegally exported from the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland to adoptive parents in the United States, according to Mike Milotte, author of Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business. Each of those children went to white, Catholic adoptive parents in the Unites States at the insistence of the Catholic Church.
There are several media accounts explaining how this happened in practice. An article in The Age tells the story of Mary Norris, whose father passed away in 1945. Some time thereafter, Mary’s mother formed a relationship with a farmer, of which the local priest disapproved. Mary described what happened when her mother refused to break up her relationship:
About two months later, as my mother was breast-feeding the baby, a car drew up and a police officer and a child protection officer got out and told my mother they’d come to take us away as she was a bad example. We were all crying but it was no use; we were taken in front of a judge and made wards of court. We went to the orphanage that same night. It was called an industrial school, though all they ever taught us was Christian doctrine. My two brothers, crying and crying, were sent to a different place run by the Christian Brothers.
That was all that it took to become an inmate. To be accused of being promiscuous, or of being “at risk” of so becoming. Or, as in Mary’s case, being under the care of a parent deemed to be unfit by virtue of a relationship with a farmer. At least 28 percent of the young girls who passed through the Magdalene Laundries in the Irish Republic were there as a result of direct state involvement. In many cases, either the police, some form of court-ordered sentencing, or the direct involvement of social services provided the point of entry into the laundries. A common point of entry for some older children was that of turning 15, and of being “returned” when the payments to the foster parents stopped.
During the latter years of the laundries operation, the report notes “social workers from the health authorities began a very close working relationship with them.” In Mary’s case, the social workers worked hand-in-glove with the police in removing the children into the “care” of the sectarian agencies.
In February of 2013, singer Sinead O’Connor revealed the she had herself been relegated to the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity laundry in High Park, Dublin, at the age of 14. She spent a total of 18 months in the laundry.
During her international interview, she said: “We were girls in there, not women, just children really and the girls in there cried every day. It was a prison. We didn’t see our families, we were locked in, cut off from life, deprived of a normal childhood.
“We were told we were there because we were bad people. Some of the girls had been raped at home and not believed. One girl was in because she had a bad hip and her family didn’t know what to do with her. It was a great grief to us.”
The singer said that she had witnessed a newborn baby boy being torn from a friend’s arms during her time in the convent. As she recounted the incident, “One morning I woke to hear my friend screaming. I ran out of my cubicle, I saw her surrounded by two or three nuns. They tore my friend’s baby from her arms.”
During the 1950s, the Protestant-run Bethany Home joined others in sending children to the United States for adoption, a scheme that was facilitated by the Irish government. In “Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business,” Mike Milotte mentions what he describes as “a racist sub-text” underlying Irish children’s popularity: they were guaranteed to be “white.” In his review of Milotte’s book, Padraig O’Morain, Social Affairs Correspondent with The Irish Times candidly explains:
After the end of the second World War, Ireland gained a reputation as a place where American servicemen and their spouses could obtain babies easily. It was not that babies could not be had for adoption in the United States – but what Americans wanted were white babies with no danger of any “coloured” genes lurking in their DNA. These, Ireland could supply.
“Admittance to the Bethany home was generally through referral by a network of Church of Ireland clergy, who received by return a request for a financial contribution,” writes Niall Meehan in his supplement to History Ireland. In other words, there was something akin to a “finder’s fee.”
Bethany Home’s claim to fame is largely that it held itself out as being non-denominational. Indeed, Bethany’s Managing Committee turned down an offer from a Catholic agency, the St Patrick’s Guild, to swap their Protestants for Bethany’s Catholic unmarried mothers. Thus, would-be adoptive parents abroad who happened to be Protestant managed to secure a child that was “best suited” to their needs.
So, where did the children born in these facilities wind up? Inasmuch as Bethany Home goes, Niall Meehan explains in his submission to the Irish Inquiry that: “Children were transferred to like-minded institutions in England: the Salvation Army, Fegan’s Homes for Boys and Barnardo’s… Each in turn sent children ‘overseas’ to provide ‘the benefits of servitude’ to the colonies under the 1922 Empire Settlement Act. Fegan’s ‘Protestant, Evangelical, undenominational’ home advertised openly that it ‘receive[d] destitute and orphan boys to educate and train in farm work for migration to Canada.’”
By that time, England had a 300-year-long history of exporting children to other nation in the name of empire building. That it also took on the role of a redistribution hub for children should perhaps not be too surprising. Just what the actual point of origin may have been for the many children exported to Canada, Australia, and elsewhere by England may never be known. To put it another way, some portion of that highly-touted “British stock” that had been exported overseas may not have been, strictly speaking, British stock at all.
As Meehan explains: “Broadly, the state used religiously run institutions to effectively achieve a cheaply run, privately run, and discretionary welfare, education and health system, whose effects are still with us.”
In the United States, the sectarian nature of the foster care system is more a reflection of the capacity of the religious institutions to hold large quantities of children. It would be no exaggeration to say that a list of New York City foster care service providers that I obtained during the late 1990s reads like a veritable “Who’s who” of the Archdiocese of New York. Not to be unduly harsh against Catholics, I hasten to note that Lutheran Social Services has managed to carve out a nice market niche for itself in the mid-western United States, as has the Church of Latter Day Saints in Utah.
For some time, anguished former residents of the Magdalene Laundries outside of the Irish Republic have bee calling for inquiries into the laundries.
Finally, Northern Ireland has started up an Inquiry of its own — one that may include an examination of its own Magdalene Laundries. The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry is currently asking for victims of institutional abuse to step forward.
“The Inquiry is independent from government and has two main components. One is the Acknowledgment Forum, which has four panel members whose task it will be to listen to the experiences of those who were children in residential institutions (other than schools) in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995. It is now ready to start its work,” the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry’s web site explains.
More information continues to emerge with each passing day with regard to the international brokering of children. Locations of Magdalene-styled facilities in North America, Northern Ireland, England, Australia, and elsewhere are currently being sought out. But where are their records to be found?
The records of The Protestant Adoption Society, Church of Ireland Social Services, Bethany Home, Magdalene Home, The Nursery Rescue Society and Fairfield are held by a private adoption agency located in Dublin. PACT Services — a registered charity — offers the services of “Crisis pregnancy,” “adoption,” “post adoption,” and family tracing services. For the latter services, it is advised that “those seeking information about their origins to work through a registered agency which will act as an intermediary on their behalf.”
These documents hold valuable keys for thousands of individuals who are trying to reconstruct family histories that were disrupted by forced adoptions and international child migration. So much of vital human history is similarly scattered about in various archives donated by one or another child saving institution. For example, the records of the Child Welfare League of America are housed at the Social Welfare History Archives in Minnesota. A number of their records remain under seal until 2020.
Efforts should be made to protect, preserve, and properly catalog all of these documents globally. Advocates should consider applying legal challenges to the time constrictions on the release of such records.
This may seem an insurmountable task, but consider that after Oliver Stone’s interpretation of the events surrounding the assassination of J.F.K. was screened in theaters, public pressure was brought to bear calling for the release of many of the records relating to that historical event.
Fresh call for statutory Magdalene inquiry
Irish Times, June 18, 2013
Reconciliation forum would be ‘pointless’, says Magdalene laundries survivor group
Irish Times, Jun 10, 2013
The dirty linen from the Magdalene Laundries must be aired
The Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry must be widened to include the women of Northern Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, says Patrick Corrigan
A Magdalene Laundry survivor speaks out
Washington Times, Communities, June 6, 2013
Compensation plea over laundries
Belfast Telegraph, June 18, 2013
‘Give the laundry girls their compo’
The Irish Sun, June 19, 2013
Rights watchdog: State acted wrongfully
Irish Human Rights Commission calls for comprehensive Magdalene redress scheme
IrishCentral, June 19, 2013