Irish Women Emerge From Shadows Of 'National Shame' Thousands of women were taken into Magdalene Laundries, run by the Catholic Church, and forced to work without pay. The practice went on for decades after Ireland's independence, with the last one closing in 1996. For the first time, the state has acknowledged and apologized for its role in facilitating the practice.

Irish Women Emerge From Shadows Of 'National Shame'

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, the fading language of Aramaic. But first, we continue our Catholic theme today with a look at a shameful period for the Irish branch of the church.

From the early 19th century to as recently as 1996, thousands of women and girls were incarcerated in church-run laundries in harsh abusive conditions without pay. The Magdalene Laundries were a virtual prison for unwed mothers, industrial school dropouts and orphans. Survivors had campaigned for decades for an official state apology. Finally, this past Tuesday in a televised speech before the Irish parliament, Prime Minister Enda Kenny did just that.

PRIME MINISTER ENDA KENNY: For many years, we failed you. We forgot you, or if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame, for which I say again, I'm deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.

LYDEN: Joining us now to discuss the apology is Mari Steed. She's the committee director of the advocacy group Justice for the Magdalenes. And her mother was one of the women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s in Ireland.

Mari Steed, thank you very much. You're joining us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.

MARI STEED: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: So please tell us your mother's story in Ireland.

STEED: Well, my mother, like many other children in Ireland, was born at a time of Catholic Church repression in the early 1930s, and she was born out of wedlock. She was placed in an industrial school. But at the age of 14, I believe, from what we understand, her mother tried to take her out and there was some sort of a row with the nuns. And their answer to keep her away from her mother was to simply send her to the Magdalene Laundry at Sunday's Well in Cork.

And this was in 1947. She spent the next 10 years there doing sewing for them, anything from embroidery to smock dresses, items for the clergy, altering surplices, that sort of thing. And obviously, there was profit being made on these items, but she was never paid for that.

LYDEN: So she's there from about the time she's 14 to her mid-20s and she can't leave?

STEED: Correct. They actually did let her out in 1957 with a work referral. But having been raised completely by the nuns, she exited with absolutely no world skills. So within a year and a half, she found herself pregnant with me and then was sent to one of the mother and baby homes run by another religious order and remained there with me until my adoption to the United States was organized. She left and eventually ended up in Wales.

LYDEN: So your group has worked for years to get the Irish state to recognize the injustice, the harshness, the abuse that went on in these institutions. What was your reaction to Prime Minister Enda Kenny's speech?

STEED: Obviously, it was very emotional for me. I kind of got teary just listening to your clip of it again. To get an apology was exceedingly meaningful for me, for my mother, for many of the women that suffered with this notion that they were fallen or somehow damaged.

LYDEN: And is your mother still alive?

STEED: She is, yes. She lives in the U.K.

LYDEN: What was her reaction?

STEED: It was very meaningful to her. I know, you know, it's been a very difficult period of her life to talk about, and she still has great difficulty with it even with me. But I think she recognizes the importance of that weight coming off her shoulders. I think it's freed her up considerably to talk about her past. That's going to be the case for a lot of women.

LYDEN: There's been a lot of stigma over the years against the girls who were in the Magdalene Laundries. And now, along with his apology, the Irish prime minister has said that there will be a compensation package given to these women. Is this enough, do you think?

STEED: No. At the moment, we're kind of frightened because it's not looking like what we had envisioned. But, you know, it remains to be seen.

LYDEN: Well, what do you envision? What would be better?

STEED: Well, we looked at a multiprong approach and tried to base it on things like length of time there, what abuse they might have suffered, what were the lifelong repercussions of that, and using a scale to determine what each woman was entitled to, so sort of an individual approach rather than a one-size-fits-all scheme.

LYDEN: And how many women are alive today, do you think, who've passed through the Magdalene Laundries?

STEED: We're looking at anywhere from 800 to 1,200 women. Now, we may end up with a few more that come out of the woodwork or that might not have been correctly recorded, but at most, perhaps 2,000 women.

LYDEN: So I would just like to ask you, Mari Steed, how old your mom is today and what her life is like now?

STEED: Well, she's approaching 80 years old. And, you know, I guess in comparison to other women that I've met who really, really suffered, she came out of it fairly decently. She married, but she was too frightened to have more children. And this is a theme that we found very common with mothers of loss, this notion of secondary infertility that they're just too afraid that that child might be snatched either by the religious or by God, you know, through death.

And then her inability to come to terms with the family that she had lost. She has a brother who wanted very much to reunite with her and I found him. But at first, she denied him. She sort of felt like, I was the one that got sent off to the industrial school while he was raised in family. So those were painful aspects of her life and things that she still has grave difficulty coming to terms with.

LYDEN: Mari Steed is the daughter of a survivor of the Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, and she's the committee director of Justice for the Magdalenes, an advocacy group. Mari, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

STEED: Thank you, Jacki.

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