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Lisa McInerney: Magdalene atrocities happened because society allowed them to

The hand of the State and religious bodies in what happened to the women of the Laundries is clear – but the hard facts of the McAleese report also shows that the Irish public was complicit too.

Lisa McInerney

“YOU’RE NOT COMING into this house. You disgraced us. You’re not right in the head…”* The words Christina Mulcahy recalls her father spitting when she attempted to return to the family home after giving birth outside marriage.

“The biggest sin in Ireland was to talk.”* Martha Cooney, who was admitted to a Magdalene Laundry at 14 years old after telling a relative that she’d been sexually assaulted.

Oral testimony from survivors of the Magdalene system informed us of the appalling conditions under which penitents slaved, of the State bodies who availed of their labour, of the gardaí who returned runaways to the prisons they were so desperate to escape. Last week’s report has officially confirmed that testimony. In its clear facts and figures, it proves that the Magdalene laundries didn’t operate with abnormal autonomy. That society, community, even family played a part in writing this chapter of our history.

The Magdalene atrocities happened because Ireland allowed them to happen.

A quarter of the recorded Magdalene penitents were referred to the laundries by the State, often as a alternative to prison sentences. More came though the industrial schools system, which substituted any concept of welfare for the unpaid labour and intentional mistreatment of
the country’s most vulnerable children. An economic godsend, as it were.

In 45 per cent of cases, there was no surviving documentation to indicate how inmates were referred to the laundry system. How many of those came to the system because they were abandoned to it by their own families?

“Their own flesh and blood delivered them willingly into penal servitude”

Their own families. Their own flesh and blood delivered them willingly into penal servitude because they were ‘fallen’ women. They had lost their worth in a society that valued women by how preciously their sexuality was guarded. Their sexuality, their femininity, their very selves were but gifts to be bestowed upon marriage; female sexuality was a commodity so important that there was genuine terror in leaving it in the care of flighty young women with nothing but sin between their ears. As if the wealth of the country had been placed in the hands of people too stupid to close their fists.

And so a ‘fallen’ woman could be anything from a prostitute to a girl too pretty for her own good. The shame in having one of these broken creatures in your own family was too much for Ireland’s pious to bear, and so they arranged for them to be taken out of the sight of decent folk and put to the grindstone for crimes that weren’t crimes at all.

You’d ask yourself how on earth this could happen. How anyone could be so far removed from the most basic facets of human emotion that they could dispose of a daughter, a sister, a wife for some invented transgression denounced from a cold pulpit. If our governmental bodies discarded these women for economic reasons, their own families did it simply to save face.

They were told that God demanded strict moral standards, and they sacrificed their own to appease him.

The committee’s report has suggested one particularly unlikely detail: that the Magdalene Laundries were not particularly profitable. At the same time, they were doubtlessly productive, as the women and girls confined there worked horrifically long hours, symbolic labour that happily managed to facilitate their custodians’ business plans. We are led to believe by the financial accounts offered to the committee that the laundries made just enough money to pay for themselves, to keep the slave labourers in rags and scraps, working for six and seven days on industrial machines.

“Religious zealotry was common in Irish society at large”

Perhaps the nuns were just bad businesswomen. But if we are to accept that these laundries weren’t run for profit, that they were run for the sole purpose of breaking sinners, humiliating and abusing them, that’s an evil on par with growing rich from the proceeds of forced labour.

The religious zealotry of the abusers allowed them to perpetrate these evils because they were convinced of their superiority over the unclean wretches in their power. It was that same religious zealotry that kicked in at the birth of our nation, when the Catholic Church provided the rigid moral dos and don’ts upon which our first laws were built. And that religious zealotry was common in Irish society at large, where the women who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the battle for our independence had their status eroded by backwards sanctimony, where the poorest children were looked on as pests to be contained, where families offered up their own flesh and blood to pacify the curtain-twitching mob.

Christina Mulcahy had fallen in love and had a baby outside marriage. She was sent to the Laundry from the mother-and-baby home, without being given a chance to say goodbye, when she was still breastfeeding her son. Martha Cooney had been sent to work for her cousin, and was committed to the laundry when she reported that he had sexually assaulted her. Maureen Sullivan (of Magdalene Survivors Together) was sent to the laundry, aged twelve, when her stepfather abused her. There, her school books were taken away, along with her name and her freedom, and she was put to work to symbolically repent for her stepfather’s misdeeds.

The religious orders involved got away with this because Ireland allowed it, but Ireland allowed it because Ireland was poisoned by religion. This is our past. It is one we should be deeply ashamed of. It is one we must mind when we see religious thinking attempt to manipulate the secular laws our nation is entitled to. And it is one we must acknowledge if we are ever to be forgiven for it.

* From interviews contained in the documentary, Sex In A Cold Climate.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

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Lisa McInerney

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