It’s 1967. You are fourteen and you sneak out to the cinema which has just opened. You are so excited to see the moving picture that your leg bounces up and down as you wait in line. It is a wonderful experience, and you sneak back into your house, prepared to reflect on it for days to come.
Then, you are caught and physically examined to ensure your enduring virginal state. No matter what the doctor finds, it is too late. You have disgraced your family you are sent to a Catholic laundry to work from dawn to dusk. You wash filthy clothes, make lace handkerchiefs and linen tablecloths for export for profit but you see none of the money. You cannot leave or escape. You are paid nothing. This is the story of thousands of Irish women and girls in the Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church until 1994.
Originally the laundries were set up in the United Kingdom and Ireland as part of the rescue movement to rehabilitate sex workers. However, in Ireland the mandate was extended to include unmarried mothers, girls who had been raped, survivors of incest, girls deemed at risk of falling into sin (becoming sexually active) and girls who were considered to pretty to be pious – the jezebels of the country. Girls were denounced from the altar, in front of the congregation, for unnamed mortal sins because sex and sexuality were utterly taboo.The Catholic Church, which enjoyed a special relationship to the government and within the Constitution, scapegoated female sexuality over and over again, with devastating results.
To understand how Irish parents could withdraw all contact and send their daughters to slave in the laundries, the issue of keeping face must be understood. In a rural Irish village, any action that could bring shame to the family or even cause the neighbours to gossip was ruthlessly crushed. Of course, this dictate was enforced more stringently on women and girls. No proof was required or defence allowed.
Girls in institutional care, run by the Church and funded by the State, were often committed to laundries from which there was no escape. The laundries acted as a sword of Damocles to keep the girls in line. However, with puberty, few could hide their bodies. The nuns seemed to view this development as a personal affront. Many of the estimated 30 000 inmates were already in institutional care.
The conspiracy of silence between the church and the state resulted in a system of slavery. The girls and women would be committed by a priest, nun or family member. They were forced into hard labour, without pay or rest, without the capacity to leave or refuse to work. Physical punishment was routine and harsh. On arrival, each penitent, as they were referred to, received a new name to symbolise her rebirth from sin. If a penitent died in the laundry, she was buried in a communal grave.
The extent of the abuse was revealed in 1993 when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold land in Glasnevin to a property developer. Upon exhumation of a communal grave it was discovered that only 75 of the 133 bodies were named. Since that time, the survivors of the Magdalene laundries and their supporters have been trying to get an apology and compensation from the government. Neither has been forthcoming.
The issue came to a head when last week, the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, issued a statement to make the point that
“In terms of establishing a distinct scheme for former employees of the Magdalen laundries, the situation in relation to children who were taken into the laundries privately or who entered the laundries as adults is quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions.” [source – The Irish Times]
Naturally, women who slaved in the laundries took exception to being referred to as employees. As a result, people from all over Ireland have been ringing the national broadcaster with their stories and the stories of their parents.
One such account comes from a woman who, following assurances of an education, left her daughter in a Magdalene laundry. The mother was not gone fifteen minutes before the child was at hard labour. The religious order running the laundry, sent term reports to the mother on the faked educational progress of her daughter. Her daughter never received a day’s education.
In a further ham-fisted attempt to cover up his gaffe, Minister O’Keeffe released a non-apology apology. This has added to the ire of the public. There are calls for his resignation.
The Irish people have a long way to go in terms of admitting what happened behind those closed doors. The conspiracy of silence included many public servants. Nobody blew the whistle on the crimes inflicted on the soul of the country and on the bodies of our children, girls and women. The physical, emotional and sexual abuse that was systemic in institutional care, coupled with the slavery of the Magdalenes, is a trauma that cannot be swept conveniently under the carpet.
An apology from the government and compensation for their suffering is the bare minimum of action. However, I have written to the government to urge the expelling the religious orders involved, the seizing their properties and their records, providing for the needs of the survivors, and constructing a full picture of what happened. The religious orders are immune to prosecution at the moment, but all is takes is a new piece of legislation. I believe the Minister for Education needs to resign as well. Those forced to labour without payment are not “employees.” If the Minister cannot understand this point then perhaps he is not suited to his position.
Perhaps these actions might go some way to showing the survivors take their suffering is recognised and that they are entitled to the same protection as any other citizen, no matter how badly we failed them in the past.