News Analysis

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Bitter truth is that 50 years ago most Irish people approved of the laundries

Published 11/02/2013 | 04:00

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A memorial plaque to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin
A memorial plaque to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

If you were to take a poll among Irish people today about the treatment – and mistreatment – of the women in the Magdalene Laundries, it is likely that you would find an overwhelming sense of compassion, pity, sorrow, and regret for the way these women suffered.

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However, if you were to take a poll among our parents and grandparents, 50 or 60 years ago, say, you would probably find that most Irish people approved of the Magdalene Laundries, and imagined that they were doing a fine job.

A schoolfriend of mine whose parents had a hotel recalled that the main reaction to the Magdalene laundry service was that the linen came back so immaculately clean, efficiently washed and ironed, and on time. A wonderful service!

Nuns were often praised for their efficiency and reliability in running anything: hospitals run by nuns had the reputation of being free from infection, and spotlessly clean.

I have come across allusions to the Magdalene Laundries in the Irish media of the 1940s and 50s, and the tone was one of approval and admiration. The devotional media thought it a blessing that young girls who had been "in trouble" could redeem their lives through work and discipline.

It is said now that the women subjected to the harsh regime of the Magdalene Laundries – even though the median stay was just seven months – had their human rights breached. Indeed they did, except that the legal concepts of "human rights" simply hadn't entered the lexicon 60 years ago. It was in the UN declaration of 1948, but it did not have a legal application in most jurisdictions until much later.

If Enda Kenny should apologise for the wrongs inflicted on the Magdalene women, so should 90pc of Irish people apologise. The Taoiseach is no more guilty, personally, of these injustices than any of the rest of us, whose mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandparents, aunts, cousins and wider kinfolk endorsed the values that made the laundries possible.

There is anger out there about the mistreatment of the Magdalenes, but there is also a great deal of what psychologists call "projection".

The "projection" looks for a "them" to blame. It was the State; it was the church; it was the religious orders; it was even certain gardai, psychiatric hospitals, the NSPCC and family members who consigned these young women to the laundries. Apologise!

But it was just as much "us", as it was "them". Childish and adolescent anger is all about lashing out at a "them" to blame. Mature judgment involves accepting that we each bear a responsibility for a collective situation that prevailed.

Values certainly were different in the past, and Ireland was not the only society in which cruel punishments were meted out to those who were deemed to have offended against the moral order.

In Sweden, as in several of the Nordic countries, those who were described as "moral imbeciles" were forcibly sterilised under eugenic laws. This continued in Sweden until the 1970s, and it was practised, too, in some American states.

The Swedes have had to come to terms with this past policy, and to accept that until 40 years ago, most Swedes approved of this eugenic approach, designed to stop "criminal classes" from reproducing. They faced the fact squarely, rather than merely calling for apologies from younger politicians who had nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps the Taoiseach will issue his apology this coming week, since there is such a strong demand for the gesture. But it is no substitute for a real sense of responsibility on the part of the general populace.

The honest truth is that the values that sustained the Magdalene Laundries were upheld by the majority of the Irish population.

There was indeed a strong cult of "respectability" among middle Ireland, which begat a fear of crime and "lawlessness" of any kind.

I can remember my own Galwegian uncles, born in the 1900s, saying that the greatest Irish vice was "lawlessness" and that every effort should be made, by the authorities such as the gardai, and the church, to keep it in check.

Some of the women in the laundries were sent into these institutions for offences such as stealing a train ticket. I can imagine a social attitude that any tendency to "lawlessness" should be nipped in the bud.

Apologise, by all means. Pay the Magdalenes compensation. But be honest: the "harsh, uncompromising, authoritarian Ireland" that Mr Kenny referred to last week was the Ireland of our own families, our own forebears, and the values that they wholly approved of.

Irish Independent

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