Senator McAleese: Will You Play Forfeits? Reconciliation with the Women of Magdalene Laundries

Does anyone doubt that the Magdalene Laundries existed? Does anyone really believe the Irish Government in its uneasily shifting stance that ‘officially’ the Irish State knew nothing of these ‘private’ institutions?

At the very least there is a false note here and this was pointed out by the UNCAT Committee on Torture where official Ireland found itself over a year ago arguing that Ireland knew nothing of the Magdalene Laundries ‘officially’.

The UNCAT Committee rather embarrassingly for the Irish Government pointed out that it was not enough for a member nation to simply plead ignorance – that under UN Membership Ireland officially was obliged to ensure that such institutions were inspected and under a governance system.

If the Irish State’s position is that it didn’t understand the rules of its UN membership on the subject of ill-treatment, abuse and internment of citizens then it merely means Ireland admits a studied negligence of its own tortured citizens in these institutions.

The Irish State has an overt habit of this practice and while the UNCAT Committee did not accept the State’s point it is very unlikely also that the State can convince us either given how close we are to the State’s record in such matters.

Ireland, socially, is a recidivist. If there were an institution possible for entire states where such societies could be described as ‘fallen’ or at serious risk of being ‘fallen’ with regard to humanity and ethics then the lady in green would be institution bound.

Something of an irony that a lady inclined in all respects and in constant practice towards the refusal to examine her dirty laundry at the same time might be chained philosophically to an institutional washing board and scrubbing, overseen, at a stain on its character that simply won’t come out.

Sometimes the child is wiser than the parent. And what parent could be displeased with a child that announces it is better to tell the truth than persist in lying? And that, on this subject, is where we are as we await the Government’s response to the dental detective Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalene Laundry issue.

There is apprehension that official Ireland will persist, rather excruciatingly, with its notion that ‘officially’ Ireland knew nothing.

Justice delayed. In fact if McAleese’s report which undoubtedly will be obsequious in its ‘sensitivity’ to the Magdalenes serves only to cling to an evasive manoeuver by the State then it is not just a failure to attend to acknowledging serious wrong but the conclusion will be that the State wishes to persist in another known evil in Ireland – the ‘delay till they die’ process –  which has in the past served the same cult behind the profitability of these washday gulags. The State wishes to portray the Magdalene Laundries as ‘different’ to issues of up to sixty residential “Reformatory and Industrial Schools” operated by Catholic Church orders, funded and supervised by the Irish Department of Education.

To allege that the Irish State which paid capitation (head money) to the orders behind those institutions was unable to ‘see’ a similar system with the Magdalene Laundries attached to them, while elements of the state were ‘remanding’ women to the Laundries is simply insufferable dishonesty of the worst sort.

We will know shortly whether the Irish State wishes to persist in its adopted ignorance – a profitable stance in fear of redress payments and perhaps a wish to avoid a situation where the government will be buried in outrage should it attempt to pay ‘redress’ on behalf of orders which have already welched to the sum of   euros where other institutions are concerned. I may be wrong in my suspicions around McAleese’s report- understandable when the words ‘construct a narrative’ were used in discussions around the remit of his Committee on this issue.

We do a lot of ‘narrative constructing’ in Ireland. One of these days we may decide to restrict ourselves to reporting on what actually happened and who was involved. But that requires a maturity that may not yet be available to our childish state and immature official institutions.

Quite apart from the debt Irish society owes those of the Magdalene Laundries and other religious gulags we could at least show these people that we do care about what happened to them.

They could be forgiven for thinking that any signal now is irrelevant but we have an opportunity while many are still living to at least acknowledge properly the social disgrace of the state and Irish society for allowing this to happen.

It must be said. It may not do much practical good but that part of the national conversation must happen for the dignity of those who had their dignity taken from them in such a horrible manner and for a reconciliation process to begin.

I used the word ‘reconciliation’ because otherwise how can the victims feel vindicated as citizens of this somewhat shabby Republic and how can citizens who weren’t victims look each other in the eye?

Captain Con O’Sullivan    21.01.13

*From the poem ‘Geasa’ (The Bond) by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill

A report by an interdepartmental committee chaired by Senator Martin McAleese is with the Government: a Government statement is expected within the next two weeks.

Join our discussion on the Magdalene Laundry workers on

3 Responses

  1. Nicely said, and you indeed echo the apprehension felt by all of us at Justice for Magdalenes. Despite UNCAT’s admonishment and the nearly 1400 pages of evidence of State complicity and actual survivors’ testimonies, there is the very real fear that more dissembling will occur once Minister Shatter makes public the report (expected in the next 2-3 weeks). We will rely on the watchful persistent eye of well-thought blogs like this, as well as the wider media, international community and, indeed, UNCAT, when that publication is made. For our part, we do not plan to let up and hope that the Irish community will stand with us. Thank you for an excellent piece.

  2. There are so many elements to the awfulness of Institutional Incarceration by religious orders in Ireland. There’s the element of criminalisation where women & children were criminalised by the Church and the Irish courts; there is the element of ostracisation of single mothers in the community by parish priests and nuns leading to the snatching of the child and the subsequent trafficking of the child and in most cases the incarceration for life of the single mother in a Magdalene “Asylum”.

    There is no doubt that if you gave birth to a child in one of these “Asylums” the child was sold on to America for profit.

    There is the element of exploitative labour where in the institutions the internees were forced to work for no reward. This work included the making of rosaries, and religious artifacts, manufacturing of shoes and clothes, the knitting of scarves, jumpers, socks, gloves etc., the baking of bread and cakes, the farm work, the dairy work, carpentry, net mending, etc., etc., along with the back-breaking laundry work.

    And remember this work was NOT for the benefit of the internees – it was for the profits of the religious orders who were in turn enriched so much that by 1960 the sisters of mercy, the sisters of charity had assets worth over $30 million pounds and that is only 2 religious orders!!!!

    All of this ENRICHMENT was at the expense of the incarcerated in these institutions.

    There is the element of abuse, physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and on-going aftermath of these abuses. No matter how much these orders deny this element, it remains, and the stories of these abuses have only being SLIGHTLY exposed.

    As internees in these places we remember these ABUSES being perpetrated EVERY SINGLE DAY OF INCARCERATION … it wasn’t something that was turned on and off like a tap …. these abuses were the ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS of the institutions – This is how they made their huge profits – on the blood, sweat, tears and bodies of innocent women & children.

  3. Thanks culchiewoman and I am glad that I am able to weigh in with some ethical support. Persistence is the key here and I suspect that the ‘delay until they die’ policy we have seen from previous administrations is in play here. Which means pressure must be applied and the issue must be kept front and centre in order to counter that. Keep going!

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