Two cathartic days for 200 dignified Magdalene survivors

The wish of Magdalene Laundries victims to meet has finally been granted. It will be a public acknowledgement by the President of the State’s neglect, says James M Smith.

THE Dublin Honours Magdalenes event matters because it’s about the women. It has always been about the women. And will be for the next two days.

Two hundred women, all of whom spent time in one of the Magdalene institutions, will gather together for the first time.

They will meet each other, chat with each other, share and compare experiences, reminisce, and remember those who are no longer with us.

Bringing the women together fulfills a key element in the State’s Restorative Justice Scheme, which was devised by Mr Justice John Quirke and accepted in full by the government in June, 2013.

The women communicated to Justice Quirke their desire to meet each other and now they are doing so. The next two days are a measure of how far our society has come in dealing with its dark past.

No such gathering has happened before. Some attendees will be returning to Ireland for the first time since they left the laundries.

These women were denied their given identities while in these institutions; they were prohibited, under pain of punishment, from talking about their personal lives, where they came from, or who they knew on the outside.

Shame enforced these rules of secrecy and silence. So, the next two days matter because they afford each of these women the precious affirmation of knowing that they are not alone. There are other survivors, just like them.

The women will be feted at Áras an Uachtaráin by President Michael D. Higgins — who, in December, 2009, first encouraged this writer to apply to the Irish Human Rights Commission, seeking an inquiry into human rights violations in the laundries.

Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, deserves praise for facilitating the two-day event and for securing the necessary funding. Norah Casey, too, and her incredible team, have done herculean work in coordinating the many pieces of a massive logistical puzzle.

And, lots of artists and performers are giving generously of their time to entertain the ladies and guests. All of this matters because the event is about acknowledging the women and ensuring they are comfortable and that they enjoy themselves.

The Restorative Justice Scheme also specified consultation with the women to ascertain their wishes with regard to memorialisation.

On the night of his memorable apology, then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, signaled the need to “engage directly with … as many of the women as possible to agree on the creation of an appropriate memorial.”

This consultation will happen over the next two days, by way of a formal listening exercise, organised in conjunction with the Irish Research Council and University College Dublin’s Magdalene Laundries Oral History Project.

The women will speak and we will listen. We will ask them what they think is important to remember about the laundries and how best to put in place a remembrance project.

Their wishes will be recorded, transcribed, and, in time, made publicly accessible in a sensitive and appropriately redacted format.

Doing so puts the women and their concerns at the centre of this restorative justice initiative. This, too, matters, because the next two days are, first and foremost, about respect, compassion, and trust.

The Dublin Honours celebration happens less than two weeks after Ireland overwhelmingly said ‘Yes’ to repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

And, like the referendum, this event also says ‘yes’ to Irish women: ‘yes’ to reintegrating survivors of the laundries as full citizens and integral members of our national family; ‘yes’ to affirming that we believe their testimony about what happened in the laundries; ‘yes’ to privileging their wishes with respect to commemoration and memorialisation.

But, the State must continue to say ‘yes’ in resolving long-outstanding concerns about the Restorative Justice Scheme. Just last week, the Cabinet said ‘yes’ to compensating 106 additional survivors who worked in the laundries as children, as called for by the Ombudsman’s recent report, ‘Opportunity Lost’.

The Government also said ‘yes’ to re-advertising the scheme to reach women originally excluded — this commitment must extend to advertising the scheme throughout the diaspora, including North America and Australia.

And, this past weekend, Minister Flanagan said ‘yes’ to extending the Restorative Justice Scheme to include, for the first time, women and young girls who spent time in institutions adjoining the Magdalene Laundries. Justice For Magdalene Research welcomes these timely developments.

But, the Government has yet to say ‘yes’ to a “prompt, thorough, and independent” investigation of the Magdalene Laundries, as called for by a long list of United Nations human rights bodies.

It has yet to say ‘yes’ to ensuring access to all relevant information, concerning the Magdalene Laundries, held in private and public archives, as recommended in August, 2017, by the UN Committee Against Torture.

It has yet to say ‘yes’ to investigating the connections between the laundries and other residential institutions, including industrial and reformatory schools, mother-and-baby homes, and psychiatric hospitals.

And, finally, it must say ‘yes’ to fulfilling our nation’s obligation to ensure that every Magdalene grave is accurately and appropriately marked, thereby restoring dignity to all who died behind convent walls.

The next two days, therefore, represent an important beginning, but it matters that there is much work yet to do. Following the official announcement of the abortion referendum result, Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, stated: “This is Ireland’s second chance to treat everyone equally, and with compassion and respect.”

The women gathering in Dublin today and tomorrow deserve such compassion and respect. Continuing to confer both upon these amazing women helps us, as a nation, to “step out from under the last of our shadows and into the light.”

James M Smith is associate professor in the English department at Boston College. He is author of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, and a member of JFM Research.


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