I’m often asked (as recently as a few days ago), “Why didn’t the local population help when women and girls were dragged away from their families and communities and shoved away into the nearest Magdalene Laundry?”. It’s a fair question, but it doesn’t have an easy answer. I only have to think of my own mother and sisters and the manner in which they were shut away in Magdalene Laundries where they were to rot and die. I have always said that it is very important to remember and revisit the past, so we can have a better understanding of the future.
The extent of the Irish population’s involvement in turning-in their own women - daughters, mothers, aunts, sisters - because they were pregnant (or the family just wanted to get rid of them for some other reason) will be a shock to many, but not to any of the victims who survive to this day. Many women and girls were betrayed by their nearest and dearest and immediate family as well as by their Irish neighbours. Many rural parishes took part in the hunt for imaginary Jezebels, the name associated with fallen or abandoned women and used by the Irish Catholic Church as a synonym for a sexually promiscuous woman and as an excuse for controlling women. Even the act of dressing up in her finery and putting on makeup could lead to a woman or girl being called a painted woman or prostitute.
A whole apparatus was set up to hunt down these women and girls.The hunt was normally fronted by the local parish priest, who supervised and conducted nighttime watches, using local informers and even the local police if necessary, as well as a few well-intentioned gossipy women and local righteous men. These hyenas were actively and willingly involved in pulling these women and girls out of their own communities., They were simply seized, roughed up and delivered to the nearest Magdalene Laundry. The local people who participated in this orgy of betrayal volunteered willingly and without coercion, although many were induced with the promise of free drink and sweets. Some participated in the scheme out of blind obedience or job ambition and in need of a reference from the local parish priest.
Various other reasons were also at play, including Catholic ideological schooling, local peer pressure, getting rid of a local scandal such as an unwanted baby being born to a woman or girl out of wedlock and, for some, the pure pleasure of sadism and personal gain was sufficient incentive. Additionally, the being awarded with a mention of honour at Mass the following Sunday was surely of supreme importance to many. There is no doubt that the great majority of women and girls who ended up in the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland perished as a consequence of local betrayal.
The local population’s involvement in turning over these women and girls who sought their help is something that is rarely discussed today, but needs to be talked about. When the women and girls disappeared from their local communities -communities in which they grew up, went to school, played with their friends, and lived with their extended families - their disappearance was only ever spoken of in hushed tones. Sadly these women and girls would rarely, if ever, see their families or communities again.
We here in Ireland badly need an honest debate and a prolonged bout of real soul-searching about the role that the local population (including the local police and other professionals), had in sending their daughters, mothers, aunts, and sisters to the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland. Over the life of the Magdalene Laundries, well over 100,000 girls and women (who had committed no crime) were enslaved in a life of imprisonment with punitive labour and brutal hardship in these religious-run workhouses.
Many of the girls and women would die from overwork in this involuntary servitude and many died from beatings inflicted by their religious jailers. Then, to compound the horror, their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into mass disposal sites on the religious laundry grounds. The few ‘lucky’ ones who survived would go on to lead wretched lives burdened with the guilt of being outcasts from their own families, local communities and friends.
Historical truth is not always pleasant, and those who acted despicably and inhumanely should be utterly condemned. Yet I hear to this day sentiments such as, “Let bygones be bygones”, expressing a sense that we should forgive and forget unpleasant things that happened in the past.. I wish it was so easy. Was it not the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Or, as the American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and author Carl Sagan once famously put it, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
The Irish Catholic Church authorities turned Magdalene Laundries into a profitable industry, in pursuit of income from their unpaid slave labour. This put pressure on local parishes to find and provide ever more women and girls to run their labour camps. Religious servitude included hard labour and was a standard feature in all Magdalene Laundries. Religious penal servitude was never abolished in Ireland but penal servitude itself was abolished in Ireland by section 11(1) of the Criminal Law Act, 1997. It was finally expunged from the Constitution of Ireland by a referendum in 2001, but never by the Irish Catholic Church.
Any unmarried woman’s life was perceived as worthless by most Irish Catholic Clerics and this was a prejudice fostered by the teachings of the Irish Catholic Church. Irish people lived in a climate in which hate would be allowed and, indeed, encouraged, to grow. The deadly efficiency of this system of slavery operated by the Irish Catholic Church depended on the enthusiasm and willingness of local informers to be participants while the local parish priests methodically carried out their duties, collecting and exterminating undesirable women and girls, principally from the rural areas of Ireland.
I have always had the impression that there was a sense among Irish Catholic Church officials that they lived and worked in a kind of separate environment in which even the laws of the land did not apply to them. How else to explain their horrendous behaviour toward their Victims and Survivors; the rape, torture and murder of women and children, and then the disposal of their remains into mass graves and septic tanks at the back of their Religious-run Institutions.
Women outside the control of men (Priests) and the Irish Catholic Church were targeted because they were sexualised and literally demonised by the Catholic Church. Another teaching of the Catholic Church was that women were “weak.” and inferior to their male counterparts. All of this woman-hating rhetoric was, of course, holy and wholesome and good, because the Catholic religion deemed it so. The Catholic Church believed women to be particularly susceptible to evil and thus women had to be exceptionally pious and saintly, and were always to be kept tightly controlled. Nuns themselves believed this to be true. Extraordinary violence was carried out in Christ’s name, with Christian doctrine often a mere excuse for murder and pillage by a group of cultish, closeted, sex cannibals passing themselves of as Priests. It would appear that it was the mandated duty of Irish Catholic Clerics and the wider Catholic Church at the time to drown goodness with an abundance of profoundly immoral and scandalous corruption. Owen Felix O’Neill