“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Aldous Huxley.
A few weeks ago at a major meeting in Waterford City at which I was the speaker, I was asked, “Why were Irish Nuns so cruel?” At the time I didn’t have a ready response, so I answered that I wanted to reflect on the question for some time before I would reply. Here is my reply.
I certainly didn’t need any time to reflect on my own experience of cruel Irish Nuns.. After all, I was nine years with the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Dublin in both a Mother and Baby Home, St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road where I was born and spent the first four years of my life, and for five more years at St Philomena's Home, Stillorgan. My time with these Nuns was horrendous. I endured all their frustrations directly with violence, beatings, rapes, and mental trauma. As the result of a rape and beating by a Nun, I spent two years in a coma in hospital hiding from my mangled mind and body. I was five years of age.
Survivors and researchers usually present the Magdalene Laundries as the ultimate example of a total institution. The terror so enthusiastically applied by the Religious Nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries was very real for the Survivors of such Institutions. The rules of the Magdalene Laundries gave the Nuns the absolute authority to punish the inmates who were slave women and children. The Nuns believed they had the right to use violence on them arbitrarily, including, if necessary, killing them. The Nuns carried out their daily tasks of interplay of the inmates bloodily and with great relish, and the slaves everyday experienced these practices through their interactions with the frustrated Nuns.
Some of the Irish Nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries had notorious reputations and were known for their extreme violence, even in many cases as we know today, beating the inmates to death. No doubt there were a few gentler Nuns, but they remained passively silent as they watched the violent Nuns run amok, behaving in a frenzied, out-of-control and unrestrained manner. In the Magdalene Laundries and other Institutions run by the ‘Holy’ Sisters, it was all about the exercise of power. The Nuns were the power and to them the inmates were slaves, criminals and whores. The Nuns’ total exercise of power included the daily use of extreme mental as well as physical violence as they believed that the women and the children were to be broken on the Catherine wheel, so to speak, and destroyed mentally, if possible, by the whims and acrimonious tempers of the sexually frustrated Nuns. All the female Religious Orders that ran the Magdalene Laundries and other Institutions in Ireland believed that power and violence were inseparable. You must remember that Catholic Ireland believed that the Religious-run Institutions were legitimate and acceptable places in which to put unmarried women and their children who were judged as being anti-social and ungodly.
Most - if not all - of the Irish Nuns were from respectable, rural and middle-class families. It was considered very prestigious to have a daughter become a Nun as was having a son in the Priesthood. It was thought to confer a higher social status for the family and to provide a degree of comfort for unmarried daughters. The girl herself often wished to take the veil to escape the intolerable working conditions on the family farm. Some of these women and girls from middle-class backgrounds and with no professional training, were transformed into some of the most vicious Nuns running various Religious Institutions in Ireland.
The innocent novice Nuns, with their good intentions, had no idea of what awaited them in the hellholes known as the Magdalene Laundries with their captive and illegally-held female slaves and their children who, although they had committed no crime, toiled there. Later in life, all the Nuns were exhausted with the monotonous work and the intolerable religious life in the convents attached to the Magdalene Laundries or other institutions to which they were assigned.
In truth most of the young Nuns were not yet expert in administering human suffering; they were to become that later. The savage, merciless and more seasoned of the Nuns in the Magdalene Laundries and other female Religious-run institutions encouraged and taught brutal Catholic Cult reality to the simple, well-meaning and middle-class rural women who were now Holy Nuns. Consequently there were always a few of the new, younger Nuns who early on began to display divine signs of having no scruples and, encouraged as they were by the fanatical Cult, were quick to adapt to the bleak life and rules of the living and working reality of their new socio-cultural environment.
The novice Nuns watched and learned from the older, more experienced Nuns, so that they too could attain the level of cruelty and depravity they daily saw being committed on the slave women and their fatherless children. It took maybe a week or two to metamorphose the awkward, timid, novice Nuns into the new, confident and vicious Nuns so demonstrably capable of using verbal and physical violence on their captive slave women and their children illegally detained in the religious prisons known as the Magdalene Laundries and other institutions.
The religious habit was a distinctive set of clothing worn by members of a religious Order with the style and colour differentiating each Order. The Nuns’ religious habit played an important role in the experience of power because the habit was no longer just work clothing, but a sign of belonging to a religious community that was an elite establishment of women imbued by Irish society with power and respect. The proud wearing of the religious habit was a profound experience for the middle-class women, and the uniformity contributed to forging an esprit de corps, a feeling of pride and mutual loyalty even though it did not exclude hierarchies of rank and did not preclude friction within the group.
The Nuns enjoyed certain privileges both in Irish society as a whole and in their palatial Convents where the daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing-up, ironing etc, were all performed by their slaves. The extravagant Convents offered the Nuns a degree of gentile comfort, a warm room of their own, the best of food and drink, and wanting for nothing. No Nun ever died of hunger, yet hundreds - if not thousands - of the enslaved women and children in their care died from hunger and cold.
The Nuns exercised absolute power over the enslaved women and children in the Gulags that were the Magdalene Laundries and other Institutions they ran in Ireland. Violence was frequently employed and encouraged with the most common forms being verbal abuse, slaps, blows, and kicks. For the enslaved women and children, the Magdalene Laundries were places of constant suffering and death through hunger, brutal violence, epidemics and systematic mass-murder.
Some thuggish Nuns who worked in the Magdalene Laundries and other Institutions were notorious for hitting the enslaved women and children for no reason, even beating some to death. A few Nuns kicked women and children down the stairs and then took the opportunity to kick them as they lay injured or struggling to stand or crawl away. Kicking, you see, took the degradation of the victims to a new level. It is a greater act of contempt than striking the face because it emphasises the asymmetry between the torturer and her victim. The victim lies prostrate on the ground, at the Nun’s feet. The impact of a blow is much greater if administered with the foot. It was a known fact among the slave women and children that beating them was a way of compensating for the Nuns’ own incompetence and of imposing and demonstrating their authority. Physical violence was allowed and was encouraged by the frustrated Nuns in all the Institutions in order to get the upper hand - literally and brutally - by striking blows with hands, feet, sticks, chains, metal objects or whatever else came to hand. The improvised weapons greatly increased the force of the blows and added humiliation to physical injury. In some cases the Nuns even used their long heavy-duty wooden rosary beads to beat the slave women or the children. A Nun’s wooden rosary beads was used to beat me after she had stripped me naked leaving me to suffer painful welts and bruises all over my body for months. I was 8 years of age.
The Magdalene Laundries were a profitable business for the Nuns and the Cult of the Irish Catholic Church. For the barbarous Nuns who lived there and in other Institutions, they were a great place in which to eat, drink, work and play once you locked the slaves away at night as any competent slave trader and owner would do. The slave trade they operated included the illegal selling of the children of the enslaved women. After all, slavery played a crucial role in the development and ongoing operation of the Cult’s economy. It has enriched the Irish Catholic Church to the extent that, even to this day, it is the wealthiest organisation in Ireland. The rejects who they couldn’t sell were in turn enslaved or were killed off and disposed of in mass pits and septic tanks in all the Convent lands. Even in death, the ‘Holy’ Nuns administered this final insult by depriving the innocent women and children of Catholic burial rites.
The exercise of absolute power is crucial for understanding the running of the Religious Institutions in Ireland. Power incites, induces and seduces especially when used or mixed with fear. The Nuns had complete power over the women and children and overwhelming dominance over everything in their Institutions.. The purpose of the daily perpetration of violence against slave women and children of all backgrounds were to dominate, break and destroy them.
Some Nuns systematically accelerated and intensified their violent acts in the presence of another Nun, and considered it better still if she was an incoming novice. It was a matter of impressing and/or shocking fellow Nuns by specific acts of violence, and thereby proving one’s authority and skill.
The Nuns must have realised that the exercise of power over others can never be definitive, as to act with their accustomed violence beyond the walls of their institutions was impossible. Within them, however, nobody could escape the interlaced structure of these complex power relations. Many Nuns pretended not to see or hear what was going on around them, but instead were passive, taking refuge in their work and silent prayers. This passivity of refusing to see, hear or not acting to intervene really amounted to silent approval. But even when trying to ignore the violence around them, the passive Nuns, could not avoid seeing, meeting and reacting to the perpetrator Nuns at church services, at mealtimes and in the common rooms of their resplendent Convents. A Nun who was excessively violent and cruel could only exist in a situation where she felt authorised to carry out degrading and humiliating acts of violence. A passive Nun permitted and regulated the actions of the violent ones. By using physical violence, the Nuns exercised power not only over the slave women and children, but also over their fellow Nuns.Physical domination was indeed the proof of what they were capable of and, for some Nuns, it expressed a real thirst for power. The daily torturing and beating of the slave women and children enabled the cruelest of the Nuns to assert their place in the Magdalene Laundries and other Institutions. Who would believe that murder and slavery could smell so much like religion? Owen Felix O’Neill