The Woman Who Exposed Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries

Mari Steed was two years old when she was adopted from Ireland by a Flourtown family. Years later, her search for her birth mother turned up the Magdalene Laundries’ horrifying legacy, and Steed wants justice—along with an apology from the Catholic church.

In 1993, a mass grave in Dublin holding the bodies of 155 Magdalenes was discovered. There was not a single headstone to detail who they were or when they had died. Ireland was horrified to learn how little regard the nuns seemed to have had for the pitiable women in their care.

A group of advocates calling themselves the Magdalene Memorial Committee sought to commemorate the dead women, installing a memorial park bench on St. Stephen’s Green and gravestones at Glasnevin cemetary in Dublin for the 133 bodies they were able to identify through records. Mari, along with several other adoption advocates, didn’t think it was enough. All of the Magdalenes, not just the deceased ones, deserved closure.

So in 2003, they formed Justice for Magdalenes, or JFM, a nonprofit with a two-fold goal: to obtain an official apology from the Irish government for its part in violating the rights of the women who lived in the laundries, and to get compensation for those women for their unpaid labor.

For years, the Irish government met JFM’s demands with a yawn. Mari worried that the public believed the wrongs heaped on the Magdalenes were confined to a single laundry, and had been righted by a single memorial bench. So JFM took its allegations to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

In a stunning proclamation, the committee found probable cause and ordered the Irish government to get to the bottom of what had happened in the laundries. “That was the turning point,” says Conall O’Fatharta, a senior reporter for the Irish Examiner. “For 10 years, no one in the government would listen to JFM. But when the UN said, ‘You have to look into this,’ the state was finally backed into a corner.”

On February 5, 2013, the Irish government released its report. Its conclusion was unequivocal: The state did, indeed, have direct involvement in the laundries; it owed the Magdalenes an apology, and the women were entitled to redress.

“What JFM accomplished was extraordinary,” says O’Fatharta. “I think I speak for many people when I say that I can only stand back and watch them with awe.”

Boston College professor Smith—who was so moved by JFM’s work that he eventually joined the group’s advisory co­mmittee—calls their work “staggering.” He’s admiring of Steed in particular. “What’s interesting to me is that Mari was one of Ireland’s 2,000 ‘banished babies,’ who were relinquished to the United States and whom no one expected ever to see again,” he says. “The state thought it could literally export its problem children and never be held accountable for it. No one ever expected those babies to grow up, find the Internet, do their research, and return to fight for themselves and their birth mothers. But Mari did. She and JFM have corrected the narrative of Irish history because of it.”

As for Mari, she feels as though her life has come full circle.  She’s in constant contact with Josie; she’s also reunited with her own birth daughter. “There is so much love,” she says gratefully. “And for Josie, who thought she’d lost the only child she ever had, well, she has me back—plus grandchildren. She is so happy.”

Mari and JFM are monitoring Ireland’s proposed plans to offer compensation to the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 surviving Magdalenes. She worries, though, that the government isn’t doing enough to publicize the redress plan, and that survivors will learn of it only after it’s too late.

“We still have a lot to do,” she says. “This isn’t over yet.”

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  • Anonymous (still)

    I was so happy to read such a comprehensive article about Mari. .Athough I know her personally,,, anyone who doesn’t will certainly gain a wonderful perspective about her, and the important work she has done, and continues to do. She is a shining example of resillience, intelligence and compassionate activism. The author lets us know Mari and invites the reader to consider the many issues that affect so many to this day. Bravo,, well done.