The McAleeser inquiry in Ireland has reported on the Magdalene Laundries. These workhouses for “fallen” women - unmarried mothers, prostitutes, or just flirts, bad girls and the socially deviant - saw up to 30,000 women detained for months, years or life and forced to work unpaid - as recently as 1996.
This is an Irish national scandal, and the process of recognition and reconciliation is only early underway. Accounts from the woemn involved have been published elsewhere; after an evening’s reading, I wan to recommend these three (four) articles for helping do the difficult work of placing these horrific institutions in social and cultural context:
1. "It is regrettable that the Magdalene homes had to exist at all"
Hardcore For Nerds (@HC4N)
Tumblr, 7 February 2013
HC4N takes a deep, measured, and serious look at the complexities the Magdalene system raise for Ireland - both prison and refuge, workhouse and social service. He asks Ireland to look at how "the state and the wider society relied on the ‘charitable institutions’ to sweep their perceived failures under the carpet - and to literally scrub some of their dirty linen at the same time.".
A powerful conclusion:
There’s a sense in which it is not entirely an exaggeration to call the institutionalisation of women and children along with people with mental illnesses, by both Church and State, the Irish Holocaust - in what it asks of us in terms of memory and atonement and self-examination.
2. Coercive conﬁnement in the Republic of Ireland: The waning of a culture of control [PDF]
Eoin O’Sullivan & Ian O’Donnell
Punishment and Society, 1462-4745; Vol 9(1): 27–48
Essential academic article which puts the laundries in the full “penal-welfare” context - that is, as one of a range of institutions from prisons, to mental hospitals, to industrial schools and religious organisations “that conﬁned men, women and children in the name of treatment, care, rehabilitation and repentance.” Foucault’s “carceral archipelago”. Ireland was an extraordinary place in the 1950s, with over 1% of the population in “coercive confinement” - a higher rate even than the prison capital of the world today, the United States. But this was mostly through non-prison institutions, and the article details the dramatic shift over the course of the twentieth century.
2a. A few months ago, the Differential Association (a Dublin criminology reading group) reviewed O’Sullivan & O’Donnell’s 2012 book on this subject, Coercive Confinement in Ireland: Patients, Prisoners and Penitents.
What they have to say about the social context of the laundries is the most incisive social analysis I’ve seen:
The authors noted that upon the publications of the Ryan and Fern Reports there has been a collective denial of institutions of coercive confinement; ‘if only we’d known…’ has become something of a collective anthem. As the authors told us, with a staggering 1% of the population being held against their will at one time, it affected so many families that widespread denial of their existence is utterly implausible. Both said they were moved by a John Banville article in the New York Times in which he speaks frankly about the tacit and widespread awareness of the institutionalisation which faced the poorer boys in his class when it came to post-primary. He is also honest about the silence that pervaded Irish society on this issue, ‘Everyone knew, but no one said’.
[…] What factors underpinned and drove the use of coercive confinement in Ireland? Their sophisticated analysis illuminates the fundamental role of the rural economy in sustaining high levels of coercive confinement in Ireland. This is a tricky and sensitive topic, and the authors handle it in a fair and considerate manner.
Life had an economic calculation, for those in poverty institutions of confinement were a valuable resource, a sort of safety valve. The small farmer class also used the network of institutions as a repository for surplus family members. Further, these surplus family members, excluded from inheritance or unlucky in the marriage market, themselves often joined religious orders, thereby completing a closed system which sustained the network of institutions. While Ireland was certainly a conservative and puritanical society it was the cold calculus of economics that often drove the high numbers of those coercively confined rather than simply oppressive morality. It was only as rural Ireland began to abate that the use of coercive confinement declined; the shift away from rural fundamentalism meant the need for institutions of confinement were no longer a necessity.
This family culpability is explained further by:
3. It’s not just the State that needs to say sorry to Magdalene survivors
Irish Examiner, 7 February 2013
Now we know the State’s share of the blame for the slavery of our women in the Magdalene laundries. We know more than a quarter of the women were sent there by agents of the State. We know agents of the State, including the President, ate their dinners off tablecloths had washed by Magdalenes and dried their mouths with napkins they had starched.
Of course the Taoiseach should admit as much and say “sorry”. But when eventually that full apology and compensation come we will still be left with a huge feeling of disquiet. Because the truth is — as Martin McAleese’s report makes clear — it was our society which confined those women in those laundries.
And it is clear that some of the women could have been better off in those appalling conditions than they would have been outside them. There were no women’s refuges then, few social services, no lone parents’ benefit. Some of the homes the women came from were cruel and dangerous. “We were robbed of our childhood, but then I had a mother who beat the crap out of me,” one woman told Mc Aleese’s committee. Another told them she had ended up in the laundry as a safety measure because her father “interfered with the bigger girls”. You wouldn’t want to get “big” in the family, would you?
After this report, we may finally move away now from our habit of blaming the Catholic Church for everything we have done wrong as a society. […] Our society produced the religious organisations. There’s a very telling moment in McAleese’s report when a nun says, “We were institutionalised too, of course.”
[…]In Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, James Smith argues that we did it because we had just been through a period of Civil War and wanted to present an image of Irishness which was both “pure” and uncomplicated: comely maidens and athletic youths.
I think that’s a man’s reading of it. As a woman who has gone through pregnancy and childbirth in Ireland, I think it all goes much deeper. We incarcerated women because we were terrified of female sexuality. We incarcerated pretty girls, girls who had babies out of wedlock, girls who had been abused by their relations.
What’s more, McAleese’s report gives the lie to the idea that women did not send women to the laundries. There are terrible stories here of mothers. One responded to her daughter’s plea for freedom with the request that she be kept in for another 20 years.
These were women who, on some level, hated women. They must have hated themselves. Perhaps their daughter’s dawning sexuality reminded them of what their sexuality had cost them: unwanted sex, unwanted pregnancy or even rape or abuse.
Perhaps they saw in their daughter’s bright eyes the hope which had been dimmed in theirs. So they put it out of sight. Most of all, surely, they feared their daughters’ wombs which could so easily bring shame on the family. And surely that fear went back to a chronic fear of having another mouth to feed which went back to the Famine.
Ireland in the last five years has been an extraordinary country. More than anywhere else in Europe, there seems to be a national sense of implication in, even culpability for the collective madness of the property boom. Not all the risks of the financial crisis, to be sure - but the notion that money could be borrowed and houses could be built, and the Irish Tiger would keep roaring on and it was upward all the way. Now, guilt at not having asked the questions sooner that might have revealed it was all a house of cards.
And now, as HC4N and Victoria White put it both, the need for an intense social and personal reckoning about women, human dignity, the Church, the state - but perhaps most of all, a coming to account with “the priest inside the head”.
Somehow a satire blog’s dead baby joke manages to cut to the quick and say everything.
The joke is that that the Father Ted joke in the headline really isn’t a joke at all.
Seriously, read it - in terms of how humour can deal with cultural trauma, it feels important.
And read some of the other links above too. Ireland as a carceral state as a release valve for an impoverished rural economy - this is European social history we need to know.
(I don’t know if it’s my family history. My grandfather was Irish , from Tipperary, but emigrated after the war (or before?) as did almost all of his siblings. All long dead now. I’ve no family left in Ireland.)