Fr Kevin Hegarty
In recent years in Ireland we have had to unlock several bleak chambers of our history. There have been state investigations of abuse in industrial schools, clerical paedophilia and extensive corporate and political corruption.
In 1999 the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to those who had been abused in state residential institutions run by religious congregations. Former residents of the Magdalene asylums or laundries were excluded from the apology because it was argued that these places were privately managed.
Earlier this month, however, the ‘United Nations Committee against Torture’ (UNCAT) criticised this exclusion. It stated: “The Committee is gravely concerned at the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene laundries, by failing to regulate their operations and inspect them, where it was alleged that physical emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed amounting to breaches of the Convention.” It advocated a thorough investigation and an appropriate compensation scheme.
The UN intervention has generated a positive response. The four religious congregations who operated the laundries have indicated their willingness to ‘bring clarity, understanding, healing and justice in the interests of all the women involved’.
The government statement last week did not include an apology but it did commit, as a first step, to establish an inter-departmental committee, chaired by an independent chairperson, to ascertain all the available facts in order to plot a way forward. The committee is to report within three months of its establishment.
The Magdalene asylums have a history going back to the 18th century. At first they were places of refuge for ‘penitents’ (usually prostitutes) where they were encouraged to remain ‘until their characters were reformed’.
By the 20th century in Ireland they had largely become homes for unmarried mothers. Other residents included orphans who were transferred there on reaching adulthood and teenage women, considered sexually precocious, by the narrow standards of the time, who were incarcerated, ostensibly for their safety. By 1922 there were ten such laundries in the Irish state. The last one, on Seán McDermott Street in Dublin, closed only in 1996.
In 1922 James F Cassidy wrote: “Whenever a child is born outside wedlock, so shocked is the public sense by the very unusual occurrence, that it brands with an irreparable stigma, and to a large extent, excommunicates the woman guilty of the crime.”
Up to the 1980’s Ireland was a cold house of Siberian asperity for unmarried mothers. They were often deserted by the fathers of their children, rejected by their families, spurned by their neighbours and often condemned from church pulpits. For most of them the only alternatives were incarceration in Magdalene laundry type institutions or forced emigration.
In his poem ‘Unmarried Mothers’, Austin Clarke captures their traumatic dilemmas well:
“In the Convent of the Sacred Heart
The Long Room has been decorated
Where a Bishop can dine off golden plate
As Oriental Potentate.
Girls who will never wheel a go-cart
Cook, sew, wash, dig, milk cows, clean stables
And twice a day, giving their babes the teat,
Herdlike, yield milk that cost them dearly,
When their skirts were tossed up above their haunches
Hook or zip has warded them at Castlepollard
Luckier girls on board a ship
Watch new hope spraying from the bollard.”
James Smith, Professor of English at Boston College, has written a powerful book, ‘Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment’, wherein he documents some of the stories of those who endured the experience. Christina Mulcahy’s story is particularly poignant. Born in 1918 in a Galway village she became pregnant outside marriage. She gave birth to a boy in a mother and baby home. Somewhat unusually for the time she was still in contact with the father and they hoped to marry. The nuns in the home censored their letters and discouraged him from visiting his son. The relationship petered out. When the baby was ten months old she was told to leave the home without him. She did not even get the chance to say goodbye. On arriving home her father refused to let her into the house, saying “You’ve disgraced us. You’re not right in the head. You deserve punishment!” He then signed her into the Galway Magdalene Laundry where she remained for several years.
Some stayed in the laundries all their lives. Most of them now are old, many of them poor. As the ‘Irish Times’ concluded in an editorial last week: “Elderly, poor and poorly educated, small in number and for so long invisible, the speedy and satisfactory amelioration of their difficult lives is a moral imperative in Ireland today.”