In 2002, my mother and I went to see a film called The Magdalene Sisters, which told a fictionalized story of a dirty little secret of Irish history: for over 200 years, young women and girls on the social and economic margins of society were sent to work from dawn til dusk in asylums under the supervision of Catholic nuns. These institutions were known as Magdalene laundries, as the bulk of their labor was just that, as well as other domestic work. Based on the 2002 film, and the narratives in the 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, those confined in laundries ranged from being prostitutes to unwed mothers to mentally retarded to “too pretty.” Their penance for any and all of the above was to work deep into and well past the point of physical exhaustion and to be regularly castigated for the sins they had (yet) to commit. Silence and obedience was strictly enforced, often through corporal punishment and psychological abuse. And, all you have to do is layer that onto the deeply entrenched misogyny of the Catholic church hierarchy, and so, sexual abuse and sustained protection of the abusers inevitably followed.
When I saw these two films, I was outraged and deeply disturbed. Anyone would be. But my feelings came out of the awareness that if my great-great grandparents had not left Ireland in the late nineteenth century, there’s no reason to think I wouldn’t have been rounded up alongside other poor, unsuspecting, and hopelessly trusting young women. I say “trusting” because it’s likely that when they were shepherded into the laundries by the nuns, they saw these women as ambassadors of God, who would ultimately protect them (provided they asked forgiveness). It’s likely their families felt the same. I would have believed in their good intentions, and I, too, would have been devastated upon realizing I was confined to a prison without the knowledge I had even committed a crime. When I think of these women, I think of the absurdity of human existence, of my existence in this time and place. There’s no good reason I am here expressing my thoughts and there’s no good reason they lived, worked, and died having suffered such injustice.
So, when I turned on the radio yesterday I was surprised and grateful to hear about the report of the findings of the Inter-Departmental Committee Investigating State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, thanks in large part to the efforts of Justice for Magdalenes. Unsurprisingly, the report found that the Irish State was directly involved in maintaining the Magdalene Laundries–the last of which was shut down in 1996. I’m very interested to see how this unfolds, and I expect to be appropriately haunted as more light shines on this dark truth.