Table of Contents
- A Brief Introduction of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
- What was the Level of Public Knowledge of Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland?
- A Contested Past through the Memories of the Survivors: How do the Women together with their Allies confront and alleviate the Abuses provoked by the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes?
- What Are the Main Goals and Degree of Success of the Social Movement based on the Relationship between the Survivors and their Allies?
- The Reaction of the Catholic Church and the Apologies of the State: Is the Apology by the Irish State sufficient to repair the Damage inflicted on Thousands of Lives?
- How Local Stories reflect the Reality of a Global Scenario?
The religious asylums are a significant pillar in the history of Ireland. Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes were both controlled by the Catholic Church during the 20th century, and they were ‘workhouses where women were sent for a variety of reasons, including for having a child outside of marriage’ (Page Chris. Mother-and-baby homes: ‘Secrets have been shattered’. October, 2021). Women that were confined inside the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, through their memories denoted by a cruel reality and injustices, contested a past dominated by the Catholic Church and the Irish State. In this paper I will briefly introduce the history of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes in Ireland, and then explore the reality within both institutions through some primary sources.
In the communities I am focusing on (Kerry, Cork, Galway and Dublin), there were, and there still are nowadays, strong links between the survivors, and their allies: the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes were all interconnected with each other and controlled by the same bodies in Ireland. Mary Donovan, who is the daughter of a survivor of both asylums, during the interview pointed out that many women were ‘raped, dropped and trafficked […] My mother was trafficked from one institution. She went from the Good Shepherd Laundry when she just turned 17, down to the Baby Home […] Where were the security and safety of these women?’ (Mary Donovan, interview, 2022).
My project’s social mission is to highlight the importance of awareness for the crimes committed by some members of the Catholic church and the Irish State. My goal is to talk about events that for decades were hidden, by analyzing an under-investigated topic in Irish history, in order to sensibilize not only the Irish people, but also an international audience.
A Brief Introduction of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
Originally the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were created with the aim of re-educate former prostitutes to work. These houses were intended, at first, to serve temporary protection for the women who lived on the streets. The Dublin Magdalen Asylum was the first founded in Ireland in 1765 by Lady Arabella Denny. From 1829 they were institution controlled by the Roman Catholic order, destined to “fallen women’’, where 30,000 women were abused by the nuns (Ryan, 2011). Also known as Magdalene asylums, these places were a forced-labour “homes” where every woman considered a sinner, was forced to operate manual labour (McCarthy, 2010, p. 2). The last Magdalene Laundries finished to operate in 1996. An important testimony is given by Mary Smith, a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial school, who was born in 1952 in county Cork:
(Mary Smith, Interview, 2022).
The first Mother and Baby Home in Ireland was operated from 1925 to 1962 in county Galway, and governed by a religion order of Roman Catholic nuns. It was a maternity home for unmarried women and their children. In 2012, the Health Service Executive discovered that up to 1,000 children had been sent to illegal adoptions in the United States (Conall, 2015), and the final relation by the Commission after the investigation affirmed that “9,000 children had died in the 18 institutions covered by the Commission’s terms of reference, between 1922 and 1998.” (Moore Aoife, Q&A: What happens when the Mother and Baby Homes report is published, January 2021). On the other hand, the Confidential Committee (with no juridical power), and the Investigation Committee (with juridical power), seem to perpetuate a system of unclearness and lies. As the historian and archivist Catriona Crowe pointed out on Mother and Baby Homes report, thanks to the survivors is now possible to know that there are ‘serious problem with the Confidential Committee report: clear misquotations and misrepresentations […]’ (Brendan Barrington, The Dublin Review 83. 2021. p., 74). She then stated that “The problem is not that the commission wasn’t aware of the importance of being sensitive to survivors or properly representing their testimony. The problem is that it seems to have been unable, in practice, to live up to its own understanding.’ (Brendan Barrington, the Dublin Review 83. 2021. p. 76). It is important to highlight that this an ongoing process of investigation, and we are just at the beginning of uncovering the truth and full extent of the injustices, and we will luckily never know the full extent of the emotional and psychological trauma caused to the women and children.
(A)Dressing Our Hidden Reality, Lowry, Alison, 2019, Annual Global Fine Arts Awards 2019, National Museum of Ireland.
What was the Level of Public Knowledge of Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland?
In Ireland it is difficult to discern between instances of glaring gender oppression, and subtler instances of such oppression. What is certain is that Irish people had different levels of knowledge about what was really happening in both asylums: some people were aware of the Laundries as places of redemption, but not as asylums where violence predominated. On the other hand, there were many families that were aware of the abuses in the Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, and that confined their daughters there as ‘punishment’: for instance, many women were directly taken there by their parents who were ashamed of their daughters. In other occasions, spending part of one’s life inside one of the two asylums was an intergenerational phenomenon, in which members of the same family from different generations were forced to be confined in both asylums by the same parents.
The writer Una Mullally in her article published an important testimony of the past: a page of the newspaper wrote by Renagh Holohan on October 1st 1968, that shows how the public was informed about the Laundries (Mullaly., 2019). The article, entitled High Park: Laundry with a Difference, highlights High Park as a unique laundry compared to the others: “a laundry that gives off emotional rather than any other kind of steam” (Ibid., 2019). The article ends with the future purposes of the nuns: “The nuns at High Park would like to build a new hostel and a new training centre. They are hoping to divide St. Mary’s into smaller apartments so that the girls, who may never know any other home, can have a more comfortable environment” (Ibid., 2019).
Another important testimony gave by Caroline, one of the survivors who gave birth in a Mother and Baby Home in 1981, in Holles Street Hospital in Dublin, stated:
(Caroline O’Connor, interview, Dingle, 2022).
Women and children of different ages and from different parts of Ireland, starting from a very young age, were confined to the Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, without having a say in the matter nor being informed of the abuses that were inflicted inside these places.
A Contested Past through the Memories of the Survivors: How do the Women together with their Allies confront and alleviate the Abuses provoked by the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes?
The atrocities that took place inside the two religious asylums were never exposed in public, because the women were not allowed to or did not want to share their stories. During the last decades, thanks also to their allies, many survivors are now ready to talk without fear. According to the association Justice for Magdalenes, the survivors of the Laundries are divided in 5 groups: the women who have spoken out; those who decided not to give a testimony; those who are still under the control of the religious orders; the women who died both inside and outside the laundry, and finally the members of the family of the victims (JFMR, 2021).
1993, was the foundational year of the Magdalen Memorial Committee, which was the ‘JFM predecessor organisation’ (JFM Research, 2003). The non-profit group Justice for Magdalene (JFM), was designed with two main objects: to receive official apology from the Irish State, and to create ‘forms of compensation for all the Magdalene survivors’ (Ibid., 2003). As stated in the JFM website page, ‘Justice for Magdalene was founded in 2003 by three adoption rights activists, Mari Steed, Angela Murphy and Claire McGettrick. Mari Steed and Angela Murphy are the daughters of women incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries for a combined total of approximately 60 years’ (Ibid., 2003).
Over the past years there have been many associations and people who, in different ways, helped the survivors to become visible, and to share their stories. For instance, the Irish singer from Dublin John Buckley McQuaid, who dedicated some of his songs to the women of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, stated that:
‘the purpose of these songs is to create an alternative narrative and to send a message to the victims and survivors: We see you. We acknowledge what happened to you. Let us make amends. Without this acknowledgment of wounds and universal redress, there can be no healing.’
(John Buckley McQuaid. Interview. 2022).
Writers, such as Katherine O’Donnell and Catriona Crowe, through their books, make visible the testimonies of many survivors, giving them a new narrative. During the interview I conducted, the Irish professor Katherine O’Donnel, who is one of the 5 authors of Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A campaign for Justice, stated that one of the goals of the book is to highlight the importance, for democracy, of keeping the voices of people like the women of the Magdalene Laundries central (O’Donnel, interview, 2022). She also pointed out that the reasons that led her and the other authors to write the book is the desire to ‘tell people how to organise a successful academic advertising campaign. In terms of the analysis of what the State does in the situation, and in order to continue to highlight what it means to listen to people like the women of the Magdalene Laundries, and how important that is for democracy going forward to keep those voices central’ (Ibid., 2022).
Over the years, some associations and communities, aimed at helping and protecting the rights of women and children who spent part of their life in the two Catholic asylums, and have succeeded in achieving their goals. An example is the JFMR Political Campaign, that in only one year (between 2009 and 2010), managed to have a meeting with the Departments of Justice, Education and Health, and other significant meetings (Ibid, 2003). They also secured formal support from Labour Women and the National Women’s Council of Ireland for a separate redress scheme for Magdalene women (Ibid, 2003). JFM achieved many others goals, among them publishing in 2010 a ‘27-page assessment of the human rights Issues arising in relation to the ‘Magdalen Laundries’ (Ibid, 2003). The writer Katherine O’Donnel, who was involved in the Justice for Magdalene Campaign since 2009, stated that the outcome they achieved was ‘a state apology, a redress scheme and a heightened awareness of the kind of things that the Irish State does in partnership with orders of the Catholic Church’ (Interview, Katherine O’Donnel, 2022).
Barnardos is another organization where women opened up and started to share their voices and personal experiences (Barnardos, 2022). In the interview I conducted with one of the survivors, Caroline O’Connor, she stated that in 2003-2004 she came across an ‘amazing organization’ called Barnardos:
(Interview, Caroline, Dingle, 2022).
There are many reasons that led the allies to help these victims, depending on the help, and on the ally. As the Irish singer John Buckley Mc Quaid pointed out during the interview, it is fundamental to highlight the importance of the responsibility that the Irish state have to take, stating that “the standard reaction of the Irish Government to scandals has been to establish a Commission to investigate the scandals. These Commissions are designed to whitewash, deny and conceal, consigning the victims and survivors to oblivion” (John Buckley McQuaid, Interview, 2022).
It is important to stress that while victims and allies have penetrated the social-cultural border holding them back, they have only partially done so. The general effort made by the victims and allies to break this border was, at least in part, achieved: many women are no longer publicly afraid to talk as they were before, penetrating the social barrier of silence. Thanks to their voices, they also influence Irish culture and view of the past, penetrating the cultural barrier of oppression.
The Reaction of the Catholic Church and the Apologies of the State: Is the Apology by the Irish State sufficient to repair the Damage inflicted on Thousands of Lives?
In 2013, two religious sisters gave an anonymous interview for RTÉ Radio 1, refusing to apologize and accusing the media of spreading lies: ‘Apologize for providing a service? We provided a free service to the country… All the orders involved saw a need in society and they tried to respond to it in the best way they could and there was a terrible need for many of those women because they were on the street, with no social welfare and starving. We provided shelters for them.’ (Cornmack, 2013). From another article of 2013 it emerged that the religious institutes involved in the laundries have refused demands from the Irish government to pay compensations to the victims (O Sullivan, 2013). Regarding another article of the same year, four of the orders of nuns under investigation offered apologies for the abuses committed in the Magdalene Laundries: in particular The Sister of Our Lady of Charity order expressed its regret (Reilly, 2013).
Testimonies by women victims of abuse and violence within the Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes challenged a past where injustices were covered up for years by the Irish authorities. In a report of 2013 wrote by Senator Martin McAleese’s, he affirmed that more than 2,500 women were sent in directly in the asylum of Magdalene Laundries by the State (O’Carrol, 2013). In another article the Chief Executive of the charity Fergus Finlay affirmed that the politics of Ireland didn’t react to the misogynistic behaviour of the Church: “Sure, some families might have been callous. But in the main, families didn’t turn their backs on their daughters because they wanted to. […] The injustice and cruelty with which women and babies were treated — and it was manifest — may not have been enshrined in statute, but it was the unwritten, and sacrosanct, law of the land. A land where politics did a misogynistic Church’s bid” (Finlay, 2021). After 18 months of investigations Justice for Magdalene has found link between the laundries and the State: a report of 2013 excludes some statistics of the Mercy-run Galway and Dun Laoghaire Magdalene Laundries, because of incomplete information from the two institutions. It needs a revision in the number of all the women confined in the system, and the report also failed to give information on how 1,987 out of all these women were referred to the institutions. (O’Carrol, 2013).
In 2013 Enda Kenny, the Irish premier that served until 2017, gave a full State apology to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries (Kenny, 2013). The scandal of the Mother and Baby Homes led the actual Irish premier Michael Martin to say: “It is the duty of a republic to be willing to hold itself to account. To be willing to confront hard truths – and accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable” (Martin, 2021).
In the interview I conducted with Mary Donovan, one of the survivors, she stated:
(Mary Donovan, interview, 2022).
Mary Smith, survivor of the Magdalene Laundries, and activist who started the Campaign for the Magdalene Laundries in 2010, stated: ‘I fought for the apology […] The pain does not go away. You live with it. People say it is past, you carry the past with you’ (Mary Donovan, interview, 2022).
How Local Stories reflect the Reality of a Global Scenario?
The scandals occurred in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes are part of a global pattern of Church structures abusing women and children. Ireland was not the only site in which similar asylums structures were active and committing crimes: for instance, Canada was another country where dozens of babies were confined in some laundries (Mclaughlin, 2017); Australia was another place where laundries were active in the 1920s, like the one called Nidgee Orphane, in Brisbane, and the one in Cannington in Western Australia (Ibid., 2017). Another such regional area was New South Wales, where laundries committed abuses (Ibid., 2017). To conclude, it is important to highlight the unjust gender hierarchies I am focusing on for Ireland are part of a larger, global pattern of female discrimination enforced by sectors of the Catholic Church.
The individual histories of the people that were confined inside the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland represent important instances of contesting a past where the Catholic church had the power to manipulate collective beliefs. Throughout the century, there have been many cases of scandals related to religious institutions, showing horrible facts that happened in the past that were covered up, not only in Ireland but around the world. As the historian Sebastian Conrad suggests to us in the book What is Global History, an exclusive focus on macro-perspectives is not sufficient: “a focus on individuals or small groups can lead us to fascinating process of global and how they frame the space for individual agency” (Conrad, 2016, p.131). Focusing on the memories of the individual testimonies is important to understand a system of injustice present around the world. Through this paper, I tried to highlight the importance of storytelling, which reflects the way the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, together with their allies, crossed and are crossing an imaginary boundary of silence, by sharing their stories and testimonies.
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