ANALYSIS: The people should say sorry too

The Irish public speak of being shocked by the report on the Magdalene Laundries, but everybody knew what was going on, writes Frances Finnegan

THE revelations in the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries have once again “shocked” an Irish public, appeased only by the Taoiseach’s detailed apology and promise of full redress. Hopefully, there will be no more denials, no more indifference, and no more attempts to suppress what has been known for years. But are we still engaged in a whitewash?

Is the State really to be held responsible for the conduct of one-time enclosed religious orders, who, for many years were accountable to nobody and practically a law unto themselves? Is their reputation in this matter to emerge untarnished? Are we satisfied that from the 1920s on, proper government inspection of Magdalene Laundries was carried out (on behalf of state referrals only — other inmates being denied even this meagre protection) when at the very same time, inspections of closely linked industrial schools proved so woefully inadequate? And are we really to believe that despite the testimony of many stricken women over recent years, the committee in its investigations found no evidence of abuse?

The records, of course, support the findings. But the Magdalene system, in operation for well over a century, was itself an abuse — and a dangerous one. Stripped of their identities (and in all the penitents’ registers I made use of they were given new names) inmates became anonymous. Forbidden to speak of their past and often deposited in secret by families who disowned them, from a worldly viewpoint they ceased to exist. Comments such as “escaped”, or “scaled the wall” account, in the records, for the departure of various women.

I suspect that this report — relating only to state involvement and dating only from 1922 — is merely a beginning. The Irish public should prepare itself for more “shocks”.

The institutions at the heart of the report are still being misrepresented in an attempt to depict them, or the society in which they flourished, more favourably. These convent Magdalene asylums set up in the Victorian period were established for one purpose — confining “fallen” women (prostitutes, unmarried mothers, victims of incest or rape, “wayward” girls, or even those suspected of sexual misconduct) until they were reformed.

We must have become more prudish than our predecessors — or more dishonest — as these certainties are now indignantly denied. Admittedly in latter years state referrals (always a minority of admissions) became more common and included other categories, highlighted in the report. As well as these, women were judged to be in moral danger or of the “feeble minded” class. But throughout their existence the ethos of the homes remained consistent. Much more damaging than the “stigma” attaching to these places was what occurred inside.

“Residents” — a ludicrous term in the circumstances but one seized on by the system’s apologists — were confined for an indeterminate period, and subjected to harsh discipline, surveillance, penance, and prayer.

Laundry work, silence, and religion were imposed not only as punishment but means of reform; and penitents were detained, if possible for life, to prevent their re-exposure to “sin”. They were neither educated nor trained for restoration to society.

This incarceration of women but never men reflects the double standard in these matters — attributed to the Victorians but extended to the late 20th century. It demonstrates, too, a morbid fear of women’s sexuality. But equally repellent was the class nature of the operation. In common with the related industrial schools system, it was the poor, not the well-to-do, who were destined for these institutions. The only middle-class inmates were the nuns.

Whatever the extent of the State’s involvement (and certainly in the earlier period it was minimal) it was never as great as that of society itself. Nor does the State’s use of these homes account for the brutal treatment meted out to many of the women or excuse the cruel regime that was universally applied. Of course, without orders of female custodians, preoccupied with the sexuality of others and determined to wipe out female “sin”, these harsh penitentiaries could not have existed, But society must also share responsibility, having benefited from the system for over a century by ridding itself of unwanted women, availing of the laundries, or employing former inmates as cheap domestic drudges.

The eventual closure of the Magdalene Laundries took place, not for humane or liberal reasons or our changing attitudes to sex, but because, with the advent of the domestic washing machine, these institutions became no longer financially viable. But doubtless, if we still needed vulnerable women to wash our dirty linen they would still be incarcerated, still be subjected to that warped existence, and still be stripped of their sexuality and deprived of a normal, healthy life.

Society should gladly pay to put things right since the religious orders, given free reign by an uncaring nation to inflict their rule on others, now plead poverty.

But financial reparation, whatever its source, and however unstinting, is not enough. Let society, by no means blameless in this matter, stop being “shocked” at each successive revelation, and admit its own hypocrisy. The truth is that throughout these institutions’ history, most people had a fair idea of what was going on. All those who failed to actively oppose the system — and I know of few who did — are partially to blame.

Perhaps another apology is called for — this time from those people of Ireland who knew the situation, but looked the other way. And in particular, the trade unions, the various women’s movements, and non-Catholic religious bodies might stir themselves, having lacked the courage or the interest to support these women in the past.

- Frances Finnegan has lived in Ireland since 1979 and is the author of Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. The result of 21 years’ research, the book was first published by Congrave Press in 2001, and Oxford University Press in 2004. She was historical consultant for a Channel 4 documentary on the subject, Sex in a Cold Climate (1998) and Les Blanchisseuses de Magdalen, a France3/Sunset Presse film of the same year. She has met many former inmates of Magdalene and industrial institutions, has lectured extensively on the subject, and gave evidence to the McAleese committee in 2011.

Picture: A plaque dedicated to Magdalene Laundry survivors in St Stephens Green in Dublin.

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