For this reason, lawyers tend to be good a extracting meaning from a mass of paper at speed.
The McAleese Report into the Magdalen Laundries is over 1000 pages long. The important thing for the would-be reader to realise is that not all words are of equal importance. Here, then is a guided tour of how to read the McAleese Report.
1) Read the Executive Summary.
This will be where the most work went in. It is always important, not usually because it will tell you what is in the report (because that is not what you are expected to read) but rather to tell you what the author wishes you to believe is in the report.
The McAleese Report comes, effectively, with two Executive Summaries. One is called an Introduction, is described as being written by Martin McAleese and runs for eleven pages of disingenuous waffle. The other, called an Executive Summary, follows directly on, was probably written by Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh and is sixteen pages of collated statistics, descriptions of methodology and is a display intended to reassure the reader that the report comes laden with all the authority of scholarship.
In fact the Executive Summary is a shameful farrago of guesses, elisions and wilful ignorance. It proposes the most unlikely of explanations for the most serious of issues. On the lack of death certificates for women and the total failure to ever report any women’s death to a Coroner it says
“It is not possible to state definitively whether the deaths for which certificates were not found were unregistered; or whether registration occurred under a variation of the woman’s name or at her former home-place rather than the district in which the Laundry was located.”
In contrast with the Committee’s willingness to build castles of excuses out of thin air, the Executive Summary ends with the following assessment of the first hand evidence of the women who witnessed and experienced these institutions
“Although identifying common patterns in these stories, the Committee did not make specific findings on this issue, in light of the small sample of women available.”
2) Who Wrote it?
The Committee are named (Martin McAleese, Eight Civil Servants and Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh, a civil servant who acted as the report’s “analyst and drafter”) and then the report has five pages of acknowledgements. Bishops, Archbishops, Accountants, Doctors, Historians and Academics, Agencies of the State and named Civil Servants are namechecked. Advocacy and Representative Groups administrators are thanked by name. Finally, just before the bottom of page 5 we get the last line of the acknowledgements.
“And finally a special thanks to all the women who shared the story of their time in the Magdalen Laundries with the Committee.”
There you are. The specific women who shared the story of their time with the Committee get an ‘And finally’ as well as a ‘Special Thanks’. You might almost have forgotten their experiences were the whole point of the report after the preceding five page parade of Office Holders, Clerics and Professionals.
3) Chapter 1: Terminology
You can scan this whole chapter in a few seconds. It has no bearing on the meaning of the report. It ought to be an Appendix. It is a justification of the author’s choice of terms.
4) Chapter 2: Establishment, Membership and Mandate of the Committee
This should be Chapter 1.
The relevant nuggets buried in the guff here:
A) The Committee concedes it went outside its brief to present the argument made by the Religious Orders as to the profit the laundries did (or, it is claimed, did not) make. It says it did so because it was in the public interest.
B) The Committee decided its brief did not allow it to decide who was liable for anything. It decided this also meant treating the first hand evidence of the women who had been in the Magdalene institutions as merely “input to the process.”
The only member of the Committee to meet with any women who worked in the Magdalene institutions was Martin McAleese. Paragraph 31 assures the reader he ‘engaged broadly’ with them.
However, as we saw in the Executive Summary, the Committee – that is to say Martin McAleese, who was the only member who met the women whose experiences were the subject of the entire report- declines to state that what they said was true.
Chapter 3: History of the Magdalen Laundries
Skip, unless you are writing a history essay. This is a temptation which afflicts anyone who does research – to just publish all your notes.
Chapter 4: Working Methods, procedures and data protection
Another chapter which ought to have been an Appendix. Relevant nugget: The Committee decided that no woman, living or dead, who had ever entered a Magdalen institution would be given a name in their report. This is explained as being due to ‘broader principles of privacy and confidentiality’.
Apparently, the fact that many women had spoken of having their identity taken from them as being one of the forms of abuse they suffered did not trouble the Committee in its decision.
Chapter 5: Relevant Legislation
Another Appendix-worthy Chapter.
Exculpatory nugget :
“It is possible that a lack of modern awareness of these Acts may have contributed to confusion or a mistaken sense that the Magdalen Laundries were unregulated or that State referrals of girls and women to the Laundries occurred in all cases without any legal basis.”
The rest of the report, of course, provides ample evidence that both these modern ‘confusions’ are in fact accurate.
Chapter 6: Archive of the Committee’s Work
If this were Lord of the Rings, this Appendix would be the one that listed all the ancestors of all the minor characters. Here, the Committee were so taken with their own affairs that we are treated to it as a full chapter.
Chapter 7: Sources and Methodology for Statistical Analysis
Core quotes: “The Committee was wholly satisfied as to the authenticity and reliability of the Registers and accompanying electronic records of the Religious Congregations.’
But, at the same time
“The Committee was conscious that there are some gaps in available information, which means that the merged list does not represent all admissions to the Magdalen Laundries.”
Chapter 8: Findings of Statistical Analysis
This should have been Chapter 2.
The statistical analysis is acknowledged to be based on incomplete data. The statistics relating to deaths in the Magdalen Laundries are kept apart, in Chapter 16. Finds that “the total available field of information consisted of 11,198 cases” but acknowledges that
“the merged database does not include details of entries to the Magdalen Laundries prior to 1922, or entries to the Magdalen Laundries in Dun Laoghaire (for which no Register survives) or Galway (where only partial records survive).”
So the nicely citable hard figure of 11,198 is, in fact, not a complete figure at all.
Nevertheless, this is the first meaningful chapter in the Report. It is worth reading it in full.
Also worth noting: “the Legion of Mary and NSPCC are presented separately (as neither State nor non-State)” The report couldn’t decide whether the Legion of Mary and the NSPCC were part of the state or not, they were both bound so tightly into the state system.
It goes unremarked upon, but there was a very significant surge in the State sending women to the Magdalen Laundries in the 1960s.
This coincided with the Courts remanding more women to Magdalen Laundries in the 1960s than in any other decade.
Chapter 9: Routes of Entry to the Magdalen Laundries (A) Criminal Justice System
A revolting litany of oppression, abuse of power and arbitrary behaviour. The McAleese Report consistently seeks to explain away or excuse this behaviour. When no other excuse can be found, or imagined, the authors fall back upon the excuse that the past is very different to now.
Of course, some of the report’s work has been done for it. Institutions have been contacted and invited to explain away their behaviour. These explanations are presented, unchallenged, no matter how flimsy they are.
An example of the approach can be seen with the section dealing with the Gardaí. Gardaí would arrest women who had escaped from the Magdalen institutions and return them to their clutches. There was even a standing order in the Garda handbook
“persons in institution uniform – if persons are noticed to be wandering about in the uniform of institutions, e.g. workhouse inmates they should be questioned and if they cannot give a satisfactory account of themselves they should be arrested”.
Asked now to justify this instruction- and their members’ implementation of it over the decades- by citing the legal basis for this action the Garda Report to the McAleese Committee came up with this:
[It]“may refer to the power of arrest at common law for the larceny of the uniform. This was a regular incident that Gardaí had to deal with and indeed some Garda records show that people have received convictions for ‘larceny of apparel’.
That is to say, the modern Irish police force are arguing that the women were being arrested for stealing the clothes on their back. This is presented as fact without comment or criticism in the Report.
Later in the same chapter, the well-known photograph of the women from Sean McDermott Street Laundry being marched under police guard is explained away after the priest pictured and a Garda shown both say that the police just happened to be marching in the same May parade “in veneration of Our Lady and for no other reason”.
There is no reference to any attempt by the Report’s authors to find any of the women pictured and ask them their view.
Chapter 10: Routes of Entry to the Magdalen Laundries (B) Industrial and Reformatory Schools
It takes a strong stomach to plough through this ugliness. Even presented through the McAleese Report’s insistently bueracratic glass, we cannot help but see the Irish state’s gulag archipelago, built to incarcerate children.
The report has unearthed a mountain of raw material. It is presented here in a mostly undigested form. Lists of case studies, a tour of legislation and a presentation of statistics based on what, in paragraph 297 of the chapter, the Report acknowledges are incomplete records.
Chapter 11: Routes of Entry to the Magdalen Laundries ( C) Health Authorities and Social Services
The story of how enthusiastically all the organs of the state created to care for the weakest people in society embraced the opportunity to vanish their charges into the nun’s laundries.
If you’re reading the report, you have to read this chapter. Of course, as we’re blandly told,
“Difficulties in securing access to specific case-files on the State side in the health and social services sector mean that it was not always possible to determine what State follow-up, if any, occurred in relation to girls and women referred from these categories.”
Chapter 12: The Factories Acts and Regulation of the Workplace
This chapter aims to demonstrate that the Laundries were under the watchful and careful eye of the State’s designated inspectorate of workplaces.
It contains 150 paragraphs of evidence from the Department of Industry, the religious Orders, retired Inspectors and, in one case, the Manager of one of the Laundries.
The totality of the account of the first-hand evidence from the women Martin McAleese met is contained in paragraph 152.
“152. A number of these women recalled the inspections of the Factories Inspectors. Two women (both represented by Magdalene Survivors Together) referred to these Inspectors as “the suits” and both gave accounts of the process for inspections. They said that in some cases, this included all work in the laundry ceasing, with the women lining up outside the factory area while the Inspectors carried out their duties.
It is unfortunate that Martin McAleese chose not to include anything more of the women’s accounts in this report. According to the Justice for the Magdalen’s group, over 800 pages of first hand evidence was provided from those women.
As to the tone of the rest of the conclave of officialdom, perhaps the best example comes from the Manager of a Limerick Laundry. He is pleased to recall (and the Report is happy to publish) of his establishment
“walking into the laundry with its expensive non slip vinyl floor covering, standards of cleanliness like those found in a hospital and all the other changes, made it for me, a state of the art industrial place of work.”
And that, though he knew of three bad industrial accidents in the Laundry;
“The one in which the lady lost her forearm in the callender (large roller iron), I am reliably told by a Resident, was completely her own fault”
Which, as we know, makes it all right.
Chapter 13: Financial (A) State Funding and Financial Assistance
A long chapter setting out evidence that the state, through both local agencies and councils and the central government, paid the Religious Orders money for some (at least) of the women incarcerated in the Laundries.
It should be noted that incarcerated is my word. The Report uses the term referred. As in
“Funding included Capitation under the Public Assistance Acts for certain individual women
referred to Magdalen Laundries by public authorities;”
Also, the state’s records and the records from the religious orders didn’t exactly tally up. The report deals with any discrepancy by simply presenting the figures separately.
“In respect of individual instances of funding identified in the records of the Religious Congregations (and particularly early funding), it was not always possible to determine on what basis funding was provided and for that reason, the findings of those searches are presented separately in this Chapter.”
Also, buried in amongst the figures there is a chilling exchange in 1954 between Mr. C. Cannon, the Monaghan County Manager and the Department of Health.
The County Manager wants approval to pay the nuns for the women it intends to send to the Laundy in Drumcondra. The Department wants to know what kind of women the County Manager has in mind.
“the type of patient that this Health Authority has in mind as being suitable for admission to High Park Convent, Drumcondra, is an unmarried lady who has given birth to two or more children and whose moral rehabilitation would prevent her becoming a health and social problem”
So, not actually a patient at all. Just a woman the County Manager didn’t want in his county. And the reply?
“We can have no objection to the admission of an unmarried mother to the High Park Convent. The payment rate by Monaghan Co. Council is actually only a ‘token’ payment”.
Again, I would think incarceration a more accurate description than admission.
Also included is a strange exchange where the Department of Health offers to pay the Sean McDermott Street Laundry for the deficit they said existed between the cost of housing the women and the profit of their laundry. All that had to be done was to have the size of the deficit confirmed.
Strangely, this offer seems not to have been taken up. The Department records that
“it appears from your minute it is difficult to isolate an appropriate figure.”
Part 2 to follow.