Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. Mark 15:40.
I’ve known for many years that one among the many horrors in Ireland’s past are the Magdalene Laundries. I knew that “fallen women” who had become pregnant out of wedlock were sent there, kept there, and had their children taken from them there. I knew they were run by nuns. I knew that women were forced into exhausting physical labour without pay. And I was ashamed and angry with both the Church in which I was raised and the State of which I am a citizen. Ultimately, though, it’s not an issue that has kept me awake at night.
I’ve spent the last hour watching the documentary “The Forgotten Maggies,” and I have been horrified and devastated by the stories it tells. Maureen Sullivan, Maureen Taylor, Kathleen Legg, Josephine Meade, Mary Collins, Mary Condon, Mary Smyth and Mary King recount physical abuse, pain and slavery, but they represent in their stories of the Magdalene Laundries a bigger story of 30,000 stolen lives.
These lives include those of the 155 bodies exhumed in the garden of the High Street Laundry in Dublin. 32 remain unidentified, women who died without names, without explanations and without record. But death isn’t the only way to have your life taken. Women’s names were taken, they were assigned new religious names, or sometimes numbers. Mothers had their children taken, children had their parents taken, they were all cut of from the communities that gave them a sense of belonging. They were denied the education these nuns claimed to provide. They were forced to wear “long grey coats” as Mary Smyth remembers. Control of their bodies was taken from them with repeated physical abuse. The nuns made efforts to send women and children to mental institutions, people who were responding naturally to the horrific conditions in which they lived.
They weren’t allowed to speak. Several of the women return to the same idea. That children weren’t allowed to speak to adults, women weren’t allowed to speak to each other, they had to remain silent in everything but “prayer”. And I noticed that most of the women interviewed still have trouble speaking. They suffer from speech impediments, speak indistinctly or through almost closed lips. It seems fear of being beaten into silence that can never be fully psychologically overcome.
When the director, Steven O’ Riordan asks the women if they feel their lives have been taken, they invariably answer that they have, that regardless of what has happened since the lives they could have had were closed to them in the Laundries. He asks Mary Collins if she has any happy memories from the Laundries she tells him she has none.
Up to 30,000 women in this country lived without happiness, without love or care, without respect or even recognition of identity. The last of the laundries closed in 1996. Last month the UN Committee Against Torture recognised the laundries for what they were, criticised the Irish State for failing to protect women and called for a long overdue state inquiry. The Irish government as well as the four religious orders involved don’t deserve any congratulations for undertaking the inquiry, they’re decades too late. But it is my deep hope that they uphold the responsibilities forced on them by the UN, to prosecute those responsible, to pay restitution to those who suffered and, probably most importantly, to acknowledge that suffering and apologise for it, without reservation.
Then there are the four religious congregations and the Church they represent, and I really don’t know what to say to or about them. There are no defences left.
The women who speak are heroes, in the truest sense. ‘Magdalene Survivors Together’ is the support organisation they have founded and a charity single, ‘From a Distance’, has recently been released to raise money for a memorial monument for all Magdalenes. But the most important support we can offer, the responsibility we all have to accept, is to listen to those with the courage to speak, to support those still suffering in silence and, through full public recognition, to take this issue out of the shadows.
I’ve realised today that I really should be losing sleep over the Magdalene Laundries.