David Quinn: Magdalene inquiry must lift veil and uncloak anti-Catholic myths
Published 17/06/2011 | 05:00
If you were to ask a member of the public about the Magdalene Laundries they would probably tell you one or other of these three things.
First, the Magdalene homes were a Catholic invention. Secondly, they were an invention specifically of Catholic Ireland. Third, they were established to punish unmarried mothers for having had sex outside marriage.
None of these three 'facts' are true. Instead they belong to something called 'Myth-History', that is, a version of history that has been concocted out of parts of the truth and that suits a particular ideological point of view, in this case that Catholic Ireland was a uniquely cruel and awful place.
This Myth-History must be placed before us at all times in order to eliminate any danger of us ever repeating the mistakes of that benighted time.
Momentum towards this inquiry has been building for some time. It really began to gather steam late last year when the Irish Human Rights Commission -- in truth, a left-wing quango -- published a document calling for an inquiry.
It sent this document to the UN Committee on Torture and last month this committee called on the Government to accede to this call. It has now done so.
Now, before proceeding any further, let's be clear about one thing: abuses without doubt happened in these institutions and the women who were abused deserve justice. Many women were placed in institutions without any real justification and that they were placed in them is testament to the often harsh climate of the times.
In the 19th and for much of the 20th Century, institutionalisation was the response to all sorts of social issues and problems.
But let's also be clear about a number of other things. First, Magdalene homes in Ireland were not established in the first instance by the Catholic Church.
Second, they existed in other countries, too, and not just in Ireland.
Third, they were not established primarily with unmarried mothers in mind and to this day it is not clear what percentage of their residents unmarried mothers comprised.
The first Magdalene asylum in Ireland was established in 1767 by a Protestant benefactor named Lady Arabella Denny as a home for 'penitent prostitutes'.
The first Catholic Magdalene asylums in Ireland did not appear for several more decades.
As mentioned, Magdalene asylums were founded in other countries also. The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, for example, was founded in 1800 by, among others, Quakers, with the intention of "restoring to the paths of virtue those unhappy females who in unguarded hours have been robbed of their innocence".
In Northern Ireland, both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians also ran Magdalene asylums. So far as they were concerned, they were responding to a real need.
The asylums didn't exist only for prostitutes. Many of the women in them suffered from intellectual disabilities and were placed in them by their families. Others were indeed unmarried mothers. A small minority were guilty of crimes such as infanticide and were in them as an alternative to prison.
We don't know the breakdown between the various categories of women because, in Ireland's case at least, the archives of the institutions haven't been properly investigated. Maybe by a certain point in time they did mainly house unmarried mothers. We need to find this out.
But according to the Government's own report to the UN committee, the overwhelming majority of women in the Magdalene Laundries were there voluntarily.
The Government's decision to establish this new inquiry is at once both understandable and indicative of a double standard.
It is understandable because there is a need to know what took place in the Magdalene asylums.
But it shows up a double standard because the Government could, if it wished, establish inquiries into all sorts of other matters.
For example, we still await a thorough inquiry into the banks and how they were run during the boom years.
It could, if it wanted, set up all kinds of inquiries into the years of the Troubles. But as Enda Kenny told David Cameron in April, we can't have endless inquiries into that time.
Ireland's Catholic past, on the other hand, can never be the subject of enough inquiries it would seem.
We can also legitimately ask why that UN committee hasn't asked other countries to establish inquiries into their Magdalene Laundries. Why just us? Is it simply because it was prompted to do so by the Human Rights Commission? Why can't the committee ascertain for itself which countries also ran such institutions and make similar demands of them?
If this new inquiry does its work properly it will provide a fully rounded picture of the Magdalene asylums. If not, it will only add to the Myth-History that the Magdalene homes were a uniquely Irish and Catholic phenomenon designed to punish unmarried mothers.