Our primitive Catholic, pseudo-Gaelic State laid foundations for Magdalenes
THERE has, very properly, been a great deal of national soul-searching and agonising over the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries. But if you want the best explanation for the very existence of the laundries, it is in a book that doesn't mention them at all, Bill McCormack's stunningly brilliant 'Dublin 1916: The French Connection'. This work, through quite outstandingly original scholarship, proposes that the revolutionaries of 1916 were most powerfully influenced by a virulent and nationalistic form of Catholicism which had emerged in France in the late 19th Century.
So, what the men and women of 1916 set out to do was precisely what was then achieved in independent Ireland. Unquestioned authority over both education and health was freely handed over to the Catholic religious orders, and nobody, but nobody, was in any doubt about how those orders behaved.
The Magdalene Laundries were not some departure from the underlying spirit of 1916, they were its very embodiment. This placed authority above mercy; power above charity; submission above freedom; consensus above individuality.
The Irish State and the Irish people were thus in thrall to a militant, ultramontane Catholicism – a thraldom that was both voluntary and mandatory, a prison cell made with the willing labour of the prisoners. Perhaps no other democratic society in the world has so totally surrendered its key functions to religious orders, as well as allowing the Catholic Church to inform its entire legal ethos.
When the film censor Frank Hall – now perversely celebrated as a secular hero of RTE television – banned 'Monty Python's Life of Brian', he scribbled the explanatory note: "Contradicts teaching of the church." That was not 1929, that was 1979.
The politicians that made this State were, without exception, all veterans of 1916. The vision they implemented was the one that had taken them to the GPO in the first place. What kind of charity could you expect from the gunmen who turned the South Dublin Union, full of nurses minding the sick and the impoverished, into a fortress? Or from their colleagues who shot down the unarmed across the streets of Dublin? They had belief: the lives of those who did not agree with them, the non-believers, really didn't count.
And so it was in the state they created, a harshness and an intolerance that exactly echoed the vicious Catholicism of the French extreme-right, which of course had given the world the Dreyfus Affair. Indeed, the religious glorification of France and its martyrs is strangely familiar to students of the Irish history. As Bill McCormack notes: "The rhetoric of blood sacrifice that Pearse employed in verse and prose is far closer in every respect to (the French right-wing Catholics) Barres, Peguy and Sorel than it is to Tone, Davis, Mitchell of Parnell."
Socialist revisionists (including virtually all his biographers) have chosen to see James Connolly as the secular exception to the overwhelmingly Catholic and Consecratory nature of 1916. This is wishful thinking. Connolly had all the devout intolerance of a Catholic bigot. In 1911, he lived in South Lotts Road in Dublin, along with about 120 other families – around 40pc Protestant, 60pc Catholic. It is one of the many triumphs of the "republican" cause that within a generation, most of the Protestants would have vanished.
Similarly, converting the institutions of the new state to Catholicism was clearly the goal of the veterans of 1916. The lower middle-class clerks and the landless younger sons of small farmers had a vision, and they followed it. The post-independence institutions of Ireland did not just happen, but resulted from the implementation of a generally agreed political will.
The outcome was a primitive Catholic, pseudo-Gaelic state, in which both dissent or "immorality" were savagely punished, within an all-pervading culture of physical violence. So the Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools were in their own way the very quintessence of post-independence Ireland, one that even followed the children of exiles who fled these barren shores.
The most searing works of the English playwright Mary O'Malley are based on the brutality of the Irish nuns who educated her. Dusty Springfield, aka Mary O'Brien, similarly rejected her own Irishness, largely because of the sadism she experienced in her convent school in London. Indeed, the most violent teachers in my English childhood were, I'm sorry to say, usually Irish.
To apologise to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries today, and then to proclaim the glories of 1916 tomorrow, is as hypocritical as deploring 9/11 one day and praising the good intentions of Osama bin Laden the day after. Which of course doesn't mean it won't happen: after all, we do sanctimonious hypocrisy pretty well, when required.