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Unidentified Magdalene laundry in Ireland, circa early twentieth century. Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

What Ireland did to women (and what it still does to them)

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Unidentified Magdalene laundry in Ireland, circa early twentieth century. Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

In the last fortnight I’ve listened to commentators lament “what Ireland did to women” by confining them in Magdalene laundries or shipping them off to Victorian-style mother and baby homes, which were run like penitentiaries and which existed to shame and silence them.

But in each case I have been struck by the continual use of the past tense. Apparently we have all moved on from the days when “what Ireland did to women” included popularly supported oppression.

I’m not so sure about that. In the last fortnight I’ve flown to Ireland, I’ve visited the site in Tuam, County Galway where 796 recorded infant deaths took place in a home run by a religious order, and in the process I have been reminded first hand how much our outward piety cost, and is still costing, women.

Some comparisons between then and now are unavoidable. On my recent trip to Ireland I passed by the University Hospital in Galway city, the place where Savita Halappanavar died a needless death after a doctor refused her an emergency abortion because, in his words, Ireland was “a Catholic country.”

Praveen Halappanavar told an inquest after her death that he and his wife had been sent home from the hospital, but they returned a couple of hours later because she was in such severe pain. He was told that his wife was miscarrying.

“Savita was crying loudly,” Halappanavar told the court. The doctor told him: “You have to be brave.”

Can you think of another life-threatening situation where a doctor could recommend such a course of action to a man and where that would be considered an acceptable medical response?

Apparently we have become so comfortable off-shoring our consciences, off-shoring our social questions, and even off-shoring our citizens that we have come to depend on the UK and other nations to solve or appear to solve what we have decided is unsolvable at home. Even our medical professionals concur. And we’re still doing it.

The Tuam home that made international headlines in the last month was originally a workhouse built in the early 1840’s, when the women it confined were often sent there for the “crime” of prostitution. Improving economic conditions saw the numbers of “inmates” dwindle, until unmarried mothers were selected to replace them as the latest social threat.

Unlike Germany, we did not liquidate our social misfits in concentration camps. We much preferred pious platitudes to National Socialism, but our Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mother and babies homes and mental hospitals were just as ruthlessly efficient at ridding our society of the unwanted and the unloved.

Ask an immigrant detained in one of our prisons now if anything has changed.

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