Magdalene Laundries: We continue to value some lives more than others

Two recent incidents are instructive into how the memory of some lives are valued more than others in this country.

The closed-off mass grave at the Good Shepherd Convent, Sunday's Well, Cork.

In October, the grave of the first leader of the Free State WT Cosgrave was vandalised in Goldenbridge Cemetery in Dublin.

It caused a level of outrage that warranted Garda crime scene officials to attend and photograph the scene and launch an investigation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan took to Twitter to label the desecration of the grave an act “beneath contempt”.

Then, at the end of November, a 2m-high cross marking the summit of Carrauntoohil was felled. It marks no final resting place but gardaí were reported to be treating the incident with the “utmost seriousness”.

In fact, Kerry’s most experienced detectives were expected to visit the summit of the mountain to photograph and forensically examine the scene.

Independent Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae labelled the person or people that carried out such “an outrageous act” as “some sort of antichrist”.

In February 2013, this newspaper reported on the mass grave of Magdalene women at the site of the former Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry in Cork.

The large headstone contained the name of 30 women who died in the care of the order between 1882 and 1983. The large cross above the headstones which marks the final resting place of the women had been smashed into pieces.

It lay inaccessible in an overgrown part of the complex, outside the convent walls but behind a 3m-high wall covered in razor wire. The gate had been welded shut.

The headstone and names were only placed on the grave by the Order following a campaign by a former resident of the laundry, Mary Norris, in the late 1990s. The nuns are buried in a separate and well-kept area of the property.

Some of the women listed on the headstone are also listed on another Magdalene grave in another part of Cork City. The Order could offer no explanation as to why these names were duplicated and as to where the exact resting place of these women was.

Three of the duplicated names now have asterisks attached with a footnote stating: “Interred in Residents Plot Sunday’s Well”. However, no explanation has been offered for a woman listed twice on the headstone with two different dates of death.

By contrast, the nuns were buried inside the convent walls with individual crosses marking their graves.

Esther Harrington died in the care of the Order in July 1987. She had spent 70 years in Sunday’s Well Magdalene laundry in Cork, entering at age 14 and remaining there until her death at 84.

Her grave was not even marked until her great-niece, Rose Brien Harrington from Cobh, began asking questions of the Order last year. Esther’s name was eventually added to the Magdalene grave headstone in St Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork in March last year — more than a quarter of a century after her death. The Order apologised for what it termed an “oversight”. The death certificate supplied to her great niece by the order cites her as being 81 when she died when, in fact, she was 84.

Nearly two years later, the grave at Sunday’s Well still lies vandalised. The weeds have grown higher. The razor wire remains. The gate is still welded shut. Questions over how many women and where exactly the women are buried remain unanswered.

No investigation was carried out. No team of gardaí has sealed off the site. No photographs were taken. No forensic examination was carried out. The vandalising of the final resting place of women who received no dignity in life, let alone death, has never been a matter of the “utmost seriousness” for authorities.

No government minister took to Twitter to decry this desecration as being “beneath contempt” or an “outrageous act”. The people responsible for the graves have never been labelled “antichrist”.

The women buried in Sunday’s Well are deemed lucky enough to have a headstone. Many more who never left the laundries lie in unmarked graves. Forgotten. Ignored.

In mother and baby homes dotted around the country, the children of women just like these lie in more mass graves. We have to wait and see whether any meaningful investigation will ever occur into this scandal.

The memory of these mothers and children matters less than that of a 2m iron cross on the top of a remote mountain.

Dead male heroes have always been glorified in this country as almost a national fetish.

Maybe it’s time we started honouring some more heroes.

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