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. 

The real guilty party in what happened was Irish society as a whole, the priest-ridden, ultra Catholic and conservative, miserable little Republic we had created when we got our independence.  

This was the Ireland created by the founding fathers like de Valera, the tall, ascetic figure who dominated Irish politics for so long from the 1930s onwards.

Gaunt, pinched and driven by an almost monastic zeal, de Valera was forever dropping to his knees to kiss the rings of the bishops.  In this Ireland, church and state ruled hand in hand, and anything that conflicted with Catholic teaching, particularly in relation to sex, was crushed.  

De Valera dreamed his dream of innocent "comely maidens dancing at crossroads" in a mythic Gaelic Ireland of devout, poor, hard-working Catholics who never had sex outside marriage, and only then to create children in big Catholic families. 

This was the Ireland where the Taliban of the Tabernacle ruled, obsessed with anything sexual, no matter how slight. 
This was the Ireland where there was no contraception, where everything was censored, where bishops complained if corset ads were put in newspapers, where priests patrolled dance halls to make sure nothing was going on.  

This was the Ireland of the Children of Mary, of Sodalities, of numerous Catholic organizations which helped to create a society that matched or surpassed that in other repressive countries like Spain at that time. 

A central part of this was the obsession with sex and the fear of sexual behavior.  It was this national obsession, driven by the Catholic Church, which was the root of the creation of the laundries, the places of "refuge" for the "fallen" women. 

In this society, being seen "keeping company" with a married man or being a teenager with too many boyfriends was enough to require you to be "rescued."  You did not even have to do anything. 

Having a reputation was enough.  Or being in supposed danger of corruption was also enough to get you put away in a laundry.  So even if you had done nothing, just being perceived to be at risk was enough to have you put away. 

If you were a girl from a broken home, or a family in extreme poverty, or one with an alcoholic father or mother, you were a candidate for saving.  

Most shameful of all were the cases where parents of teenage girls put them away because they had "got into trouble."  In this Ireland, keeping up appearances was everything.  A teenage pregnancy was the ultimate shame.  

So it was not just the nuns who were to blame for this appalling system that locked up an estimated 10,000 girls and women over five or six decades.  The whole society was complicit in what was going on. 

Although as ever in Ireland there was a lot of willful ignorance involved, a lot of not wanting to know, of pretending not to know, or of never bothering to find out.  Questioning the church -- especially nuns -- was not the done thing. 

Did the upright citizens who ran the hotels, hospitals, government offices and posh boarding schools never wonder how their laundry was being done? 

Did they never wonder about who was taking the sheets and towels and table cloths and boiling and scrubbing the stains out of them? 

Even private homes in some cities used the Magdalene laundries (those were the days before domestic washing  machines).  No doubt many of these solid citizens felt that they were doing good by giving work to the nuns who were doing such a great job with the "unfortunate" women.  That was much more important than getting their mountains of laundry done at such a bargain rate, right?  

Also complicit in this were the state officials who failed completely to monitor what was going on in these institutions, just as they did in the  industrial school system, that gulag of abuse and cruelty which destroyed so many young lives here and was finally exposed a few years ago for the horror it was.  

The survivors of the Magdalene laundries are now older women.  They welcomed the apology from Kenny last week, and they are seeking compensation. 

They want to be paid for all the unpaid work they did in the slave labor laundries over the years.  The older ones want pensions and health care. 

If this country has any decency it will give them a fair deal.  Many of them escaped without too much damage, especially the majority who got out after a year or two.

But nothing will undo the damage done to so many of them who were caught in the system for much longer.