It’s not just the State that needs to say sorry to Magdalene survivors

NOW we know the State’s share of the blame for the slavery of our women in the Magdalene laundries.

We know more than a quarter of the women were sent there by agents of the State. We know agents of the State, including the President, ate their dinners off tablecloths had washed by Magdalenes and dried their mouths with napkins they had starched.

Of course the Taoiseach should admit as much and say “sorry”. But when eventually that full apology and compensation come we will still be left with a huge feeling of disquiet. Because the truth is — as Martin McAleese’s report makes clear — it was our society which confined those women in those laundries.

And it is clear that some of the women could have been better off in those appalling conditions than they would have been outside them. There were no women’s refuges then, few social services, no lone parents’ benefit. Some of the homes the women came from were cruel and dangerous. “We were robbed of our childhood, but then I had a mother who beat the crap out of me,” one woman told Mc Aleese’s committee. Another told them she had ended up in the laundry as a safety measure because her father “interfered with the bigger girls”. You wouldn’t want to get “big” in the family, would you?

After this report, we may finally move away now from our habit of blaming the Catholic Church for everything we have done wrong as a society. The first Catholic Magdalene Asylum opened in Peacock Lane, Cork, in 1809, a full half-century after the first Protestant one, which opened in Leeson Street, Dublin, in 1765.

The Leeson Street home’s successor was the Bethany Home which was established in Rathgar in 1922. Boston-based academic James Smith has found four cases of Protestant women being sent there by the courts. Bethany didn’t run a laundry – there were no nuns to manage one — but it farmed out to work in slave-like conditions and some of these women are still with us, looking in vain for recognition and redress.

The reason it is important to recognise the mirror image of the Protestant response to the issue of “troubling” women is because it makes clear that this was the response of the whole society, not of one religion.

Our society produced the religious organisations. There’s a very telling moment in McAleese’s report when a nun says, “We were institutionalised too, of course.” The nuns were Irishwomen from Irish homes. Most of them probably better off than the women they called “penitents”. But some may have been escaping their own horrors and their opportunities outside their orders were limited.

And the “auxiliaries” who opted to stay in the laundries for life to “help” run the laundries? They are the scariest figures in the whole report. One woman was beaten up by two of them on her first day, and she noticed the other girls who entered that day had the same bruises.

Who were these women, whose opportunities for love and family and career were so limited that they opted to stay in the laundry? What kind of society created that vacuum?

In Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, James Smith argues that we did it because we had just been through a period of Civil War and wanted to present an image of Irishness which was both “pure” and uncomplicated: comely maidens and athletic youths.

I think that’s a man’s reading of it. As a woman who has gone through pregnancy and childbirth in Ireland, I think it all goes much deeper. We incarcerated women because we were terrified of female sexuality. We incarcerated pretty girls, girls who had babies out of wedlock, girls who had been abused by their relations.

What’s more, McAleese’s report gives the lie to the idea that women did not send women to the laundries. There are terrible stories here of mothers. One responded to her daughter’s plea for freedom with the request that she be kept in for another 20 years.

These were women who, on some level, hated women. They must have hated themselves. Perhaps their daughter’s dawning sexuality reminded them of what their sexuality had cost them: unwanted sex, unwanted pregnancy or even rape or abuse.

Perhaps they saw in their daughter’s bright eyes the hope which had been dimmed in theirs. So they put it out of sight. Most of all, surely, they feared their daughters’ wombs which could so easily bring shame on the family. And surely that fear went back to a chronic fear of having another mouth to feed which went back to the Famine.

While descriptions of the Irish before the Famine give the impression of a free and easy people noted for their fertility, in the middle years of the last century the Irish came as close as they could to stopping having babies. They were described as “The Vanishing Irish” by John O’Brien in a famous pamphlet in 1952.

Well, we’ve certainly moved on from there. Yet again last year we had the highest fertility in Europe, a trend which began when our economy started to take off.

BUT someone like me, born in the 1960s, who always had contraception and equal pay, experienced the fear of female sexuality like a vice-grip. I received the message that having a baby would end my life. That what mattered was to do brilliantly in the Leaving Certificate and then thunder through my career.

If I had to have a baby I was to breastfeed for as little time as possible. I was to beat down that overwhelming need to be with my baby and get the hell back to work where I was to act as if my baby had never been born. When I came back after my second pregnancy, one dear colleague said: “You’re doing a brilliant job. It’s just as if you never had the twins.”

No one could pretend that my situation bore any comparison to that of a girl packed off to a laundry after her baby was put up for adoption. But I do believe there is a relic of the fear which made us incarcerate troubling women in the way we deal, even today, with mothers.

Thankfully we now pay single mothers benefit. But how often do you hear anyone saying how hard it is to raise a child on your own and how important that work is? No, all we hear about is how to cut the benefit of “freeloaders”.

And those 4,000-plus Irish women who go to the UK every year for abortions. How many of them would make that choice if they lived in a society which genuinely welcomed and supported new mothers, whatever their circumstances?

Apologising to the Magdalene survivors on the part of the State will require an embarrassing U-turn. But saying sorry as a society will be much harder. We will have to show we feel it. And that will mean learning to love women’s sexuality, including the motherhood that for most women is part of it.

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