Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Magdalene Laundries – The Irish Republic comes to terms with some shameful legacies of its not-very-distant theocratic past

The BBC report below, from earlier this year, dealt with some recent developments in the ongoing process of recognizing and making amends for a historic scandal.

The story of the Magdalene Laundries helps to highlight some of the darker aspects of the record of the Irish Republic.  For more than a half-century after Ireland (minus Ulster) gained its independence in 1922 (first as a Free State still quasi-affiliated with Britain, then as a full-fledged Republic), the Catholic Church had a privileged role and exercised massive influence on Irish society and politics.  Among other things, the state and the Church collaborated in enforcing conservative social norms, including a fairly repressive and punitive treatment of female sexuality.  The incarceration, abuse, and economic exploitation of young women in the Church-run system of Magdalene Laundries were among the results.  The increasing public recognition that this was, indeed, a shamefully abusive system is one sign of the way that Irish society has been breaking free from the most egregiously theocratic elements in its past.

 (Another sign is the increasing willingness of Irish public opinion to criticize the Church harshly over its cover-ups of clerical sex abuse, and the willingness of government officials to pursue legal actions against perpetrators—even in the face of strong institutional resistance from the Church.)

=> A parting thought:   In a western European context, perhaps, one might be tempted to take the less-theocratic direction of this evolution for granted.  For various deeply rooted historical reasons, 20th-century Ireland was more priest-ridden than most other western European countries, but one could argue that it's now joining the more general anti-clerical and secularizing trends in western Europe.  However, leaving it at that would be sociologically superficial (and, dare I say it?, excessively Eurocentric).

It's worth reminding ourselves that during the past three or four decades, the trends in some other parts of the world have been moving strongly in the direction of more theocratic politics.  In fact, Christian Caryl's recent book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century correctly identifies the increasing significance of politicized religion as one of the most important developments of world history during this period. (And if anyone hadn't noticed this phenomenon already, that would suggest that they have been living in a cave, without newspapers or TV or an internet connection, for the past 40 years.) In this respect, Ireland is getting more integrated into European exceptionalism.

—Jeff Weintraub

BBC News
February 5, 2013
Irish PM: Magdalene laundries product of harsh Ireland
By Shane Harrison

          [JW:  To see the video, click here.]

Mr Kenny said the laundries had operated in a "harsh and uncompromising Ireland," but he stopped short of a formal apology from the government.

About 10,000 women passed through the laundries in the Irish Republic between 1922 and 1996, a report has has revealed.

The laundries were Catholic-run workhouses that operated in Ireland.

Mr Kenny expressed his sympathies with survivors and the families of those who died.

He added that the report found no evidence of sexual abuse in the laundries and that 10% of inmates were sent by their families and 19% entered of their own volition.

The inquiry chaired by Senator Martin McAleese found 2,124 of those detained in the institutions were sent by the authorities.

There will be a debate in the Irish parliament in two weeks time giving members time to read the 1,000-page document.

State involvement

Girls considered "troubled" or what were then called "fallen women" were sent there and did unpaid manual work.

In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture called on the Irish government to set up an inquiry into the treatment of thousands of women and girls.

In response, the Irish government set up an inter-departmental committee, chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, to establish the facts of the Irish state's involvement with the Magdalene laundries.

Survivors and representative groups, and the religious congregations, co-operated with the departmental committee.

Senator McAleese's inquiry found that half of the girls and women put to work in the laundries were under the age of 23 and 40%, more than 4,000, spent more than a year incarcerated.

Fifteen percent spent more than five years in the laundries while the average stay was calculated at seven months.

The youngest death on record was 15, and the oldest 95, the report found.

Some of the women were sent to laundries more than once, as records show a total of 14,607 admissions, and a total of 8,025 known reasons for being sent to a laundry.

Statistics in the report are based on records of eight of the 10 laundries. The other two, both operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Dun Laoghaire and Galway, were missing substantial records.


Women were forced into Magdalene laundries for a crime as minor as not paying for a train ticket, the report found.

The majority of those incarcerated were there for minor offences such as theft and vagrancy.

A small number of the women were there for prostitution.

The report also confirmed that a police officer could arrest a girl or a woman without warrant if she was being recalled to the laundry or if she had run away.

Amnesty International has called for former residents of Magdalene laundry-type institutions in Northern Ireland to come forward to report their experiences to the Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry.

Amnesty spokesman Patrick Corrigan said: "Those who suffered abuse as children are now eligible to come forward to the inquiry, recently established by the Northern Ireland Executive, and we would encourage them to consider doing so."

Some former inmates rejected Enda Kenny's apology and demanded a fuller and more frank admission from government and the religious orders involved.

Picture from BBC drama sinners about life in a Magdalene laundry
(Picture from a BBC drama about life in a Magdalene laundry)

• Originally termed Magdalene Asylums the first in Ireland was opened in Dublin in 1765, for Protestant girls

• First Catholic home was founded in Cork in 1809

• Envisaged as short-term refuges for 'fallen women' they became long-term institutions and penitents were required to work, mostly in laundries on the premises

• They extended to take in unmarried mothers, women with learning difficulties and girls who had been abused

• The facilities were self-supporting and the money generated by the laundries paid for them

• Between 1922 and 1996 there were 10 such laundries in the Republic of Ireland

• Many Irish institutions, such as the army, government departments, hotels and even Guinness had contracts with Magdalene laundries

• The women toiled behind locked doors unable to leave after being admitted and while the laundries were paid, they received no wages

• The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland, in Waterford, closed in 1996

• The congregations which ran them were the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd