Dark stain of Irish gulag system not yet addressed

FINTAN O’TOOLE

ALMOST EVERY European state has a dark stain on its conscience – totalitarian violence at home and/or colonial violence abroad.

Ireland, to its great credit, has not had a totalitarian government and, as an independent State, has been broadly anti-colonial. But it has its own dark stain and its own unfinished business – with the hundreds of thousands of people it locked up in the Irish gulag. The survivors of the Magdalene laundries are, as RTÉ’s Prime Time will highlight tonight, among those who are still waiting for a simple acknowledgement of a nasty truth: that this State imprisoned and enslaved astonishing numbers of its own citizens.

This story is one of those in which the plain facts seem like hysterical exaggerations, making reality incredible. Breathtaking numbers of citizens were kidnapped, confined and enslaved with the active collusion of the State. Ireland operated a huge, highly organised system of unlawful imprisonment into which hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, sometimes for good. Shamefully, the State is still refusing to face this fact.

In a very important recent book, Coercive Confinement in Ireland, Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell have brought together documents and statistics that begin to map the system. By “coercive confinement” they are not talking about what that term would mean in a normal society – people being sent to prison by the courts because they have been found guilty of breaking the law. For most of the history of the State, the lawful prison system was dwarfed by the shadow system of confinement, made up largely of industrial schools, Magdalene homes and mental hospitals.

These institutions were much worse than prisons. Prisoners had finite sentences, adequate food, protection against assault, and the right to appeal to the courts against abuses. The shadow system offered no such luxuries. It was much closer to what might be expected under a totalitarian regime – arbitrary, closed and not subject to law. I don’t think the vast majority of Irish people have any idea of how enormous the system was.

At any given time between 1926 and 1951, there were about 31,000 people in these institutions. That’s 1 per cent of the entire population. If the system were a town, it would now be the fourth largest in Ireland – a shade smaller than Bray but much bigger than Navan, Ennis, Kilkenny or Tralee. Even in 1971, when the system had shrunk to 20,000 people, it was as large as Athlone or Mullingar are now.

One part of the system – the industrial schools – has been acknowledged by the State, with a formal apology, the Ryan report, and a compensation scheme. The children’s rights amendment to the Constitution, though it also has practical significance, is in part a symbolic response to the crimes against children.

But with the other two main parts of the system – the mental hospitals and the Magdalene homes – the State is, in one case, entirely ignoring the problem and in the other engaging in deliberate obfuscation.

By 1966, Ireland was incarcerating a higher proportion of its people in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world. It follows that very many of these people (21,000 at the height of the system) were not mentally ill but were locked up for social, political and familial reasons. Conditions were generally abysmal. Mental hospitals were not just grim places of incarceration, they were also death traps.

O’Sullivan and O’Donnell show that an astonishing 11,000 people died every decade in Irish mental hospitals – that’s 33,000 people between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many of them died because of neglect and insanitary conditions. “Around one in 20 patients died each year from a variety of ailments, such as tuberculosis, influenza and malignant tumours . . . Occasionally patients perished because they had been given the wrong medication, or tried to escape but fell into a river, or lost their lives in ways that are unexplained, but seemed to involve neglect or deliberate harm. Only in exceptional circumstances were staff called to account for such deaths.” Basic decency demands that the State should, at the very least, commission a full independent historical report on the mental hospital system.

In relation to the Magdalenes, though, that decency is conspicuously absent. The State is being cruel, nasty and cynically evasive. The line all along has been that the Magdalene laundries were private institutions for which the State bore no responsibility – a falsehood forensically exposed in a detailed report released by Justice for the Magdalenes.

The Government has done nothing except establish an unnecessary committee to “clarify State interaction with the Magdalene laundries”. Asked in the Dáil why the State didn’t even inspect the laundries in the way it inspected every other commercial premises, Richard Bruton explained that “the mere fact that the State has a right to inspect particular premises does not mean that it has an obligation to do so”.

There are elderly women who have not been given the wages and pensions they are lawfully entitled to for years of back-breaking work. How long must they wait before the stain of the laundries is washed clean?

  1. Christina wrote:-

    “Everyone knew that these women were working in the laundries, was our tax office not in the least bit curious as to why none of them were paying tax/PRSI?”

    I didn’t know anything about the so-called Magdalene Women until Mary Raftery’s work: Suffer The Little Children documentary and book appeared on the scene, circa the early/mid 1990’s.

    “Does anyone know if the industrial schools were paid (financially) for allowing the children in their care to be used in the Vaccine Trials?”

    Its now clearly obvious that the Roman Catholic Church (regardless of whichever branch of it) was in the business of making profit out of human suffering.

    Some call it “Social Darwinism”. Seems to me like its just Nature doing its natural thing, After all, Nature abhors a vacuum …

  2. Does anyone know if the laundries were taxed on their earnings?

    Everyone knew that these women were working in the laundries, was our tax office not in the least bit curious as to why none of them were paying tax/PRSI?

    Does anyone know if the industrial schools were paid (financially) for allowing the children in their care to be used in the Vaccine Trials?

  3. Paddy wrote:-

    “That’s a lot of money made from what can only be described as slave labour.”

    Yes, Paddy, that’s the essential purpose of all organised religion: it works in tandem with our socio-political system which is dominated by Money.

    As Kevin (above) pointed out: the Magdalene Laundry in Galway made a huge profit from their “business”. And that was just one of many such “slave labour” institutions in Ireland.

    Suffice to say, the Catholic Church made an absolute fortune out of Irish society, with the acquiescence of the majority of the Irish people themselves. Talk about “psychological rape” on a grand scale …

  4. That’s a lot of money made from what can only be described as slave labour. Hundreds of thousands of Euro were made from the sale of High Park, Drumcondra, Dublin that the nuns sold for development of houses and apartments. These funds should be given to the Magdalene women who were forced to work their fingers to the bone – literally. The collusion between the State and religious orders is a scandal of enormous proportions. Paddy

  5. I watched the programme on RTE last night. It mentioned how the Magdalene Laundry in Galway run by the Sisters of Mercy made 54,000 pounds in 1968.Over 1 million euro in today’s money.

  6. Fintan O’Toole wrote:-

    “Ireland, to its great credit, has not had a totalitarian government and, as an independent State, has been broadly anti-colonial.”

    And what would you call the domination of Irish society by the Roman Catholic Church (aka The Vatican) other than totalitarian?

    I don’t know about Fintan O’Toole, but I know a Control Freak when I’m faced with one.

  7. Judging by the comments on the Irish Times website to this article today, the Irish are still a very divided people.

    I’d say the “score” is:

    Survivors = 0
    Romans = Won!

    Nothing like bit of “Brute Force” (with a Benign Smile) to keep people in their place, eh?

  8. Fintan O’Toole is one of the best journalists in Ireland. However I’ve no idea how anyone could write what is an otherwise excellent article and leave out the term Roman Catholic. The Gualg was a product of Roman Catholicism with all the toxic fumes the Vatican pours over the world in concentrated form.

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