The 'national shame' of the Taliban Tabernacle - Ireland’s recent history of the Magdalene Laundries


Supporters of victims of the Magdalene laundries gathered in Dublin 
last week in advance of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech about the issue.

Last week Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny delivered an emotional apology in the Dail (Parliament) to the women who had spent time in the notorious Magdalene laundries in Ireland, mainly in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.  

The name of the Magdalene laundries -- called after Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman or prostitute who was forgiven by Jesus -- gives you a good idea of what Irish society of the time thought of the women who were locked up in these grim institutions. 

But very few if any of them were prostitutes.  Very few were guilty of any crime. 

They were girls or unmarried young women who had got pregnant, girls from dysfunctional families where there may have been a suspicion of abuse, young girls from families where extreme poverty was deemed to be putting them at risk of corruption, girls who were disruptive in school, girls who had been caught stealing, usually as a result of poverty.

The vast majority of them were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing other than of being from deprived backgrounds or having got pregnant. Some were from families where the mother had died and the father could not cope.  Some had been transferred into the laundries from orphanages when they were old enough to work. 

Some were put into the laundries by their parents because they could not face the shame of having an unmarried young mother in the family.  Some were girls who were a bit slow and who, it was feared, might succumb if someone tried to "take advantage" of them.

So they were all put away, to keep Irish society tidy and in conformity with the piety and "modest behavior" that was expected in a Catholic country. 

The bleak institutions where the girls and young women were incarcerated were spread around the country, mainly in the cities.  They were run by nuns and the commercial laundries attached to them where the women worked without pay financed the entire operation.  

It really was slave labor.  The regimes in these institutions were a mixture of religion and working and living conditions that can only be called Dickensian.

Except that this was happening a hundred years after Dickens had written his great novels.  It was happening in the Ireland of the 1950s up to the 1970s and even later. 

And although most managed to get out in a year or two, many of the women were locked up for much longer. Some of them were kept so long that they became institutionalized and stayed for decades.

It was, as Kenny told the Dail last week, "a national shame."  

The descriptions by the Magdalene survivors of what they had gone through were heartbreaking and, indeed, shameful.  There was a great deal of physical punishment and cruelty, with girls and pregnant young women forced to work long  hours until they could no longer stand, and to endure the steamy heat in the laundries, the cold in the dormitories, the hunger, the fear.    

But the psychological cruelty was even greater, the cutting off of contact with families and the outside world, the intimidation, the contempt, the inference that the inmates were dirty, were sinners who had to atone.  

It was utter humiliation, a complete undermining of their human dignity and sense of self-worth.  It was done to girls who frequently did not understand why they were there, who were alone and terrified.  And any rebellion was ruthlessly crushed.     

Kenny was right in emphasizing that this was a national shame, not just a disgrace to be borne by the nuns who ran the laundries.  

Yes, the nuns who controlled the system had a lot to answer for and in many cases seemed to be guilty of a sickening lack of compassion, even of outright cruelty. 

But the culpability for what happened is much wider than that.  It's far too easy to turn the nuns into scapegoats, no matter how inhumane and un-Christian their behavior was.