Sunday 18 August 2019

John Boland's week in TV: 'Coming Home' reminds us of a debt we owe to the Magdalenes

 

Coming Home: an event to honour the Magdalene women held on Dawson Street, Dublin last June
Coming Home: an event to honour the Magdalene women held on Dawson Street, Dublin last June
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Every generation has its own scandals. After all, when historians look back at this period in time, the words 'HSE' will loom large.

For older citizens, however, the phrase forever emblazoned on their brain will surely be 'Magdalene Laundries.'

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But as we saw in the infuriating but ultimately uplifting Coming Home - When Dublin Honoured the Magdalenes (RTÉ1), the ghosts of the past never really leave us.

Focusing on two days in June last year when the Magdalenes were finally, officially recognised, Coming Home spoke to a number of women who had endured hellish conditions under a regime that bore more resemblance to a gulag than an institution providing social support.

We've all become rather inured to the various indignities suffered by these prisoners - and that's what they were - who were guilty of nothing more than being working class and having a child out of wedlock. This was a timely reminder of the reality of their life.

The testimonies were searing. The facts were horrifying. As one contributor pointed out, in the 1950s, 1pc of the population was incarcerated in some form - the highest proportion in the world, eclipsing even the Soviet Union.

As one survivor, Deirdre Cadwell, looked back at photographs of her time in a laundry, it was like peering into another dimension - frightened young women, dressed in smocks, working their fingers to the bone.

The parallels were immediate and obvious and Cadwell was quick to point it out - the conditions in these factories of misery were almost startlingly similar to The Handmaid's Tale.

They were beaten, they were deliberately starved as punishment and they weren't allowed to speak without permission.

Well, they have found their voice now. Last year's event, which was organised by Norah Casey and saw Michael D Higgins at his best when delivering an apology on behalf of the State, may have provided a form of closure for some of the women.

On the other hand, maybe not. After all, 10,000 young women went through the gates of these places.

Invocations of The Handmaid's Tale have become predictable these days. Here, however, we saw young women who came closer to experiencing life in Gilead than anyone should ever have to. This wasn't our distant past, it's a living memory for thousands of women today.

If every generation has their own specific scandals, so does every country. In the UK, Windrush is up there with the worst of them.

As historian David Olusoga explored in The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (BBC2), 2014 saw an entire generation of black British people officially informed that they weren't actually British at all and must prove their right to stay in the country.

Many of them, who had arrived as youngsters from the Caribbean in 1948 aboard the Empire Windrush, discovered that decades of service and paying their taxes counted for nothing.

The levels of racism they encountered was perhaps best exemplified by the fact that former SS prisoners of war received better treatment from British officials than these citizens of the Commonwealth.

If both of those harrowing documentaries were enough to have you despairing for humanity, there was a far more optimistic outlook in the last episode of The Planets (BBC2). Presented by astronomer, author and former pop star Brian Cox (and they say men can't multi-task?) this five-part exploration of the solar system concluded with a mind-bending look at the mysterious wonders of Neptune and Pluto.

While the images of these planets were astonishing, the enthusiasm of the scientists was infectious, as was Cox's insistence that space exploration, while expensive, is vital to our evolution.

Apart from the technical wizardry on display - putting the New Horizons satellite into hibernation for years and simply hoping it would wake up in time must have been a rather nerve wracking experience - there was a boundless curiosity about the universe that was inspiring.

Our acceleration in terms of space travel has been astonishing. Let's look at it this way - the first man to fly, Wilbur Wright, and the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, were alive at the same time. In fact, Armstrong was 17 when Wright died.

Although as impressive as that progress has been, the way things are going down here, we should all hope the scientists start to find habitable planets quickly.

If you think that TOWIE is a fascinating slice-of-life documentary, then you were probably glued to the return of The Hills (MTV).

The show, which gave us such luminaries as Spencer Pratt, returned after a decade off air and is the source code for all the rubbish that infects the channels these days. The major changes seem to have been the amount of work they've all had done. In fact, all the cast seem so frozen it was like watching a bunch of Easter Island statues trying to communicate.

A better use of your time is Schitt's Creek (Netflix). The most recent season of the brilliant Canadian comedy dropped a few weeks ago, but if you haven't caught it yet, do so immediately.

Catherine O'Hara is a genius, and this is genuinely brilliant stuff.

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