Friday 18 January 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'I wasn't married when I got pregnant... but I wasn't locked up like the Magdalenes'

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly

This week Dublin honoured the Magdalenes. Those women who were sent to live in Magdalene laundries around the country - the last of which closed in 1996. The Magdalene laundries were where 'fallen' women were sent to 'atone for their sins'. So many of the young women would've had a child, or been sexually active or sadly been the victims of rape or sexual abuse themselves.

Magdalene laundries weren't the same as Mother and Baby Homes. Women who entered a laundry were locked up and not allowed to leave, despite having given birth. They were beaten and they worked without pay - from early until late in the hot, miserable conditions of the industrial laundry. They had their hair cut off and their names replaced by religious names. It was closer to a prison sentence, if prison entailed slave labour, having your hair shorn and your identity removed and you'd never committed a crime. Atonement through suffering.

I can only imagine what it must have been like as a young woman to find yourself incarcerated in such a brutal place and not knowing how or if you'd ever escape it.

I wonder how those elderly women who Ireland turned its back on, feel now being brought to Aras an Uachtarain and the Mansion House for dinner. In one lifetime going from social outcast to a guest of the President, must be a lot to get your head around.

Their lives and the change in how they're viewed, mirrors the changes in how Ireland treats women generally.

I wasn't married when I got pregnant in 1999. If that'd been 1969 or 1979 I've no doubt that there would've been very different pressures put on me than there was 30 or 20 years later. Even in 1999 there were difficult conversations around an unplanned pregnancy with family but no one ever suggested giving the baby up or me being sent off somewhere to avoid the shame.

I remember my Mam asking me if the pregnancy was planned? I said nervously "No it was a mistake". She said sharply: "It may not have been planned but it's not a mistake." And she was right. Her support was a big help to me and something that would have been missing for previous generations.

I say all that very easily; I was pregnant and unmarried. It's long ago and I am and was financially independent (more good advice from my mother) so not beholden to anyone really for their approval. But a woman being able to say that without cringing in shame is a relatively recent thing and something that would have been unthinkable when the Magdalenes found themselves in the same position.

Just a week before this, we voted to repeal the 8th Amendment from the Constitution that gave equal status to a woman's life and that of a foetus. And we are this autumn about to vote in another referendum - this time on a woman's place in the home, also enshrined by our Constitution. What our mothers and grandmothers had to put up with since the foundation of the State - which, incidentally, was worse in many ways than what they experienced under British rule - is very different to what we had to deal with.

I'm hoping that what our daughters have to put up with will be better again.

The women of Ireland are on a journey. Some people decry the advances as PC gone mad or radical feminism. But there was no doubt when you saw the buses of frail, elderly women - who we locked up in cruel institutions in their youth, for no crime at all approaching the Mansion House - that Ireland has changed and thank God for that.

But what struck me was the last two coaches out of the eight. They were filled with women who didn't want to be photographed or engage with the media. They're women who still don't feel able to say 'I was pregnant and unmarried'. They are women who despite the changes that have happened are still not free in their own lives to speak that truth.

We've come a long way but we've a long way to go and some of us will never escape the legacy.

@ciarakellydoc Ciara presents 'Lunchtime Live' on Newstalk weekdays from 12-2

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