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78-year-old woman pleads with Irish Government over Magdalen Laundry compensation scheme

A 78-year-old survivor of the notorious Magdalen Laundries, is pleading with the Irish Government to accept the findings of a recent report into how compensation claims from women incarcerated in the laundries were handled.

Mother of five, Mary Cavner, who now lives in Hampshire, was born in 1939 in Cork City, Ireland and after being made a ward of court following her father’s death entered the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well, County Cork, where she was to spend the next five years and 10 months.

Just over a year after being placed at the convent, aged 11 years old, Mary’s mother died but she was not allowed to attend the funeral, and this was a sign of things to come. Over the next five years Mary rose early every morning to look after the babies of ‘fallen women’, she would clean the refectory and other areas as well as working in the laundries mending sheets, washing and folding linen. In the evenings, she would serve the nuns their dinner, before her day ended at 10pm.

Mary suffered from hunger and malnourishment and received no education from the time she arrived at the convent until she left at aged 18.

Mary had three siblings, two brothers and a sister. Both of her brothers were placed at Green Mount Industrial School which was listed on the redress scheme. Her older sister, who had lived with their grandmother, avoided being sent to a convent. When Mary was 16 her sister, who by this time was married and had a family and home of her own, tried desperately to get her out of the laundry, but was prevented from doing so by the nuns, and she remained there for another eighteen months.

Yet when the Magdalen Restorative Justice scheme was launched by the Irish Government in 2013, Mary was denied compensation as they had no record that she was at the Good Shepherd Convent and instead placed her at St Finbarr’s Industrial School which was not listed as part of this scheme (although was listed for the Redress Scheme).

With the help of her daughters and London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, Mrs. Cavner took her case to the Office of the Ombudsman in Ireland, who after receiving a number of other complaints, launched an investigation into how the Magdalen Restorative Justice Scheme was administered by the Department of Justice and Equality. The investigation focused on how eligibility was determined for the 12 listed institutions, and the process undertaken for assessing applications.

In December 2017, the Ombudsman published its report ‘Opportunity Lost’ criticising the exclusion of some women who were forced to work in institutions not included in the scheme, and confirmed that Mary was eligible for compensation.

The investigation found that the administration of the scheme had been too narrow, and that due to the complex way in which the laundries had operated, many differently named institutions were actually part of one of the 12 named institutions, including the Good Shepherd Convent. Meaning that a large number of women who had applied for the scheme and been turned away, were in fact eligible.

The report is now with the Irish Government who have so far failed to meet any of the deadlines imposed in the report.

Chun Wong, dispute resolution partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, who is representing Mrs. Cavner on a pro-bono basis said: “The women who were incarcerated in these institutions have suffered far beyond the years they spent in them. To add insult to injury, Mary has suffered not only the harsh realities of life inside a laundry, but also the indignity of being told her memories were wrong.

“The Irish Government accepted long ago that the treatment of these women was abhorrent and that they were due fair compensation. There is no need for the Irish Government to further prolong the agony of innocent victims by sitting on this report. These are elderly women who want to be able to have their suffering recognised.”

Mrs. Cavner said: “I spent nearly six years being subjected to mental and psychological abuse from the nuns, the effects of which have reached far into my adult life. We were ordered to spend our whole time in silence, which was oppressive and isolating. Consequently, I have found it a lifelong struggle to develop communication skills, particularly with close family, which has sadly included my husband.

“I have now spent more than seven years seeking justice and have been held back at every stage of the process through bureaucratic red tape and the silence of the Irish Government. I would like for this matter to be laid to rest once and for all. I feel that this is a matter of urgency due to the ages of those involved and for the Irish Government to delay their response, when women have died without due compensation and justice, is a modern-day travesty.”

Beginning of March, the Irish press reported that seven vulnerable Magdalene laundry survivors had died without receiving a penny of the redress they were granted in 2013.

The laundries were Catholic-run workhouses that operated in Ireland between 1922 and 1996. It is estimated that around 10,000 women passed through these institutions. Set up as workhouses for ‘fallen women’ once admitted, women were unable to leave of their own volition and were subjected to horrific conditions including physical and psychological abuse. They were paid no wages for the work they undertook while incarcerated. In February 2013, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised for the stigma and conditions suffered by women who were inmates of the Magdalene laundries.


For further information, please contact:
Lizzie Hannaway at Black Letter Communications on 020 3567 1208 or at