Emer O'Kelly: Religious must pay for warping our society
The system that produced the Magdalene Laundries is part of our psyche
Published 24/02/2013 | 04:00
'Sacred heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone an' give us hearts o' flesh." In 1924, Sean O'Casey put that passionate prayer into the mouth of Mrs Tancred, standing on the stairs of a Dublin tenement. Nobody listened then to his cry for the voiceless; we remained deaf for generations.
But last Tuesday a group of women sat in the visitors' gallery of our national parliament, moved to tears and cheers as a Taoiseach who had listened broke down on the floor of the house. The women had spoken often of a "stigma". The only stigma is that they had to wait until most of them were old before the moment came.
The women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries were there against their will. According to several of the women's representatives, the report delivered by former Senator Martin McAleese fell short in many ways; one of the most glaring was to write of "self-referral".
Was a destitute woman thrown on the street by her parents "willing" when her choice was between selling herself or a hell-hole of slave labour?
Was a motherless child "willing" when a Catholic priest took her from the care of her widowed father because to have her free in society left her open to "moral hazard"?
More importantly, if every woman still alive who was ever locked in one of those dark, fearful places was a prostitute; if every woman there had given birth to children "out of wedlock", there should still be no "stigma". They were human, that's all: human like the rest of us. And they were ignorant of the world and its ways, the ignorance as enforced as was their incarceration.
The stigma is ours, and ours alone, to be shared by all of us except the women victimised and brutalised by Irish society as a whole. That the women could have perceived themselves as bearing a stigma for their incarceration reflects on us, not on them.
We have heard from people who remember what it was like in our closed Irish society of generations past: an engineered regimentation of the population that described ignorance as innocence, and equated deprivation with purity and nobility of soul: the essence of fascism.
Many of the people who lived in those times have been protesting that their lives too were hard: that conditions within the laundries were not much inferior to those on the outside.
Yes, in our authoritarian, right-wing society, parents felt free to beat their children unmercifully: they were encouraged to do so by the all-powerful Catholic Church if the children displayed a less than conformist spirit.
Times were hard: hunger was endemic. Times were joyless: a Jansenist mind-set frowned on beauty, in people or their surroundings. Ugliness and bitterness were the marks of rectitude.
It was the way of the Irish world. But only the women in the laundries had their identities denied: given new names, or merely numbers, never to be addressed as they had been in the world.
Only the women were forbidden to speak while at work; and work lasted from the early morning Mass ending of "Ite, missa est" (Go, the Mass is ended) until they retired, exhausted, malnourished and blue with cold.
Only the Magdalene women's parents were promised by the forked tongues of priests and nuns that their children would be educated, however inadequately, only to have even that hope for the future denied them. The sodden heaps of laundry became their text-books, the damp dark halls of the laundry- room their classroom.
Like their sisters and brothers in the industrial schools, the women lived under lock and key, convicted of no crime, not even charged with one other than the "danger" of moral turpitude if they remained outside.
They paid for their "refuge" with their freedom. In turn, their slave labour contributed to the coffers of Church and State. And they suffered incessant humiliation and punishment for their very existence.
Until recently, official Ireland denied that they were punished inhumanely for infringement of the dreadful rules under which they lived: no corporal punishment was used, it was claimed.
But women had their hair hacked off in a hideous symbolic piece of sadism that denied their womanhood; women who dared speak in whispers during the night to prove their humanity in their hellish world were placed in "holes", punishment cells without light or heat where they were denied food and became disoriented.
When that is done to prisoners in wartime the perpetrators are called torturers and
are put on trial for crimes against humanity.
The catalogue of miseries Ireland has inflicted on the helpless and hopeless over the generations since independence is as long as it is sickening. With each new revelation, each parading of repressed grief and hurt, each dreadful witness to our inhumanity, we have squirmed and exempted ourselves from blame.
We have done it with cowardice, meanmindedness and defensiveness. Because as each terrible fact and case comes to light, we allocate blame everywhere except to ourselves: it was the fault of the State; it was the fault of the Church, it was the fault of dysfunctional families. It was "nobody's fault".
We fail to get down on our collective knees and say to those we have hurt and betrayed that every element of Irish society is almost equally guilty: none of us has a right to wash our hands of our history.
We were proud of the system that produced the Magdalene Laundries. It is part of our psyche: a cruelty of vision, of unbridled power, of a terrible coldness in our hearts towards those whose weakness threatens our smug security as the children of "god".
Unfortunately the "god" that we claim to serve is indeed a lesser one when we see what we, all of us, did in his name. That is why the religious orders are, in my opinion, far more blameworthy than the State itself, or even the families who committed their sisters and daughters, or allowed the church to do so on their behalf.
The religious orders claimed (and claim to this day) to represent and speak for a merciful god: they claim the moral high ground, answerable to a greater power than State or human brotherhood. They were all-powerful in Irish society, because they controlled (and still control) the formation of the Irish character. They may have been "doing their best" as is being claimed by their apologists; if that was "best" there is no just god.
The religious formed the minds of those who drafted the Constitution, of those who made (and make) the laws. They gave them the "moral formation" that made them cruelly complacent in the face of misery. Further, they profited financially from the bleak hopelessness they imposed in the name of their "merciful" god.
Theirs is the moral turpitude. And as in the case of restitution for the thousands who suffered in the industrial schools, they must, in decency, be made to pay for the manner in which they warped our society.
They cannot be allowed to plead poverty, or be allowed an indemnity against payment. Nor must they be allowed to put their vast property beyond the reach of the State.
We, the people, who are the State, must ensure reparation is made by those responsible for what our society became: the weapon of malignant oppression of the women for whom the Taoiseach wept last Tuesday.