News Martina Devlin

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Crocodile tears can't wash away indelible stain left by Magdalenes

Published 07/02/2013 | 17:00

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A council worker in the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry in Dublin

WELCOME to the age of washing whites whiter. When stains show up on laundry day, we know just how to neutralise them – identify the perpetrators and start baying for heads on a platter.

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Culprits are always other people, because Irish society never shares the blame for blots on the national reputation. Failures always happened without our knowledge or approval. And so, true to form, the default position is to round up the usual suspects following the Magdalene Laundries report.

You know the drill: the blame for the brutality of those workhouses can be laid entirely at the door of the Catholic Church, which moulded Ireland into a repressive place. The laundries are another example of the crushing hand of authoritarianism on the shoulders of women deemed dangerous, deviant or just plain inconvenient.

The Magdalene Laundries did, indeed, operate amid a narrow, self-reinforcing society: their harsh regime was indefensible during previous eras and remains indefensible today.

But they existed because citizens allowed it to be so. Their walls were high, but people entered laundries on business and closed their eyes to what they saw. The Catholic Church calls them fallen women? Then keep them apart before they pollute the community.

What happened behind laundry doors was known about, and acceded to. Society allowed girls and young women to be denied their freedom and used as forced labour: we collaborated in their dehumanisation.

Society played pass-the-parcel with their lives, shunting their care to religious congregations. Yet now we have the hypocrisy to cry: "Not in my name!" But it was done in our name: we knew it and kept silent. At least let's acknowledge our actions.

In Ireland today, the religious orders have become expedient scapegoats. Their reputations are at a historic low, with people willing to believe anything of them. But we are slow to examine our own consciences.

Where doubts prick, we point to servile politicians kissing bishops' rings and pandering to Rome Rule. The State collaborated in this human rights abuse, not us, we say. But we were part of the State. We re-elected those politicians.

Granted, the Catholic Church presided over a pitiless and unyielding ethos masquerading as Christianity, and psychological wounds were inflicted which continue to fester.

But its institutions can't be blamed for all of Ireland's ills: they didn't precipitate the economic collapse, surrender our sovereignty to the troika or sign off on those infernal promissory notes. You'd think they did, though, from the rush to load them with guilt for everything we find unacceptable.

The nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries bear some of the responsibility for the cruelties carried out there, no doubt about it. Those who defied them were not treated kindly. Their talk of having intended to offer a refuge rings hollow when set alongside survivor testimonies.

However, it is not the nuns alone who should be held to account. Their rulebook was ours: we were willing subscribers. We were what they were, and they were what we were. Mirror images of each other.

We were a conformist and immature society, and I don't advance the view that we're particularly mature today, but some movement has occurred.

Not everyone who ended up in a laundry offended against social mores. In some cases, inmates were orphaned, or came from homes where parents couldn't look after them.

Many an older sister made sacrifices to keep families together rather than allow members to be parcelled out to the nuns: their stern system was well-known and much feared.

In tolerating the laundries, society lacked charity and compassion, characteristics also conspicuous by their absence in the nuns who ran them. They were operated on the basis of humiliation and punishment rather than assistance or rehabilitation. However – and this is not to pander to the washing whites whiter urge – we must look at the laundries in context, rather than from today's vantage point.

Back then, society was content for these girls and women to be propelled out of sight. If laundries were brutish and condemnatory places – and they were – then society was equally brutish and condemnatory.

It is particularly deplorable that vulnerable young women bore the brunt of a tyrannical value system – especially those who were poor. They were powerless twice over: easy targets because of gender and poverty. It is shameful, too, how other women were their willing gatekeepers.

Survivors are now elderly, increasing the onus on the Government to offer swift reparation. It was dishonourable of earlier administrations to force these women to struggle so long for justice, blocked by arms of government – including that bizarre testimony to the UN Committee Against Torture, claiming the majority entered laundries voluntarily.

Members of previous governments sat on their hands while the Magdalenes withered and died. The Coalition must act without delay, and redress must include a formal apology.

While there may be legal reasons for the limited nature of the Taoiseach's remarks to date, a less equivocal apology – and financial settlement – must follow. The State would be bankrupt financially if it weren't for the bailout. It must not allow itself to be drawn into moral bankruptcy.

In the meantime, blame for the Magdalene Laundries can't be delegated to religious congregations. The broader community was complicit. The failure is ours, and crocodile tears can't wash it away.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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