The Sunday Times Published: 12 June 2011

Justine McCarthy: Sorry still seems to be the hardest word

For a man who likes to hear an apology, Kenny has refused to offer one to the Irish women held captive in Magdalene laundries and made to work as slaves

Enda Kenny is a man who appreciates an apology. When he was leader of the opposition, RTE abjectly apologised to him after somebody phoned Liveline and erroneously accused him of queue-jumping in an airport for a Dublin-bound flight.
Last year, he thundered that Brian Cowen, as Taoiseach, should apologise to the people of Ireland for the state of the economy. An expression of contrition was essential, he argued, for the 450,000 people out of work, and the many thousands more emigrating, in negative equity and who had lost their life savings in bank shares.
Only a few months ago, Kenny refused to participate in the first leaders’ debate of the general election campaign because Vincent Browne, the journalist chairing it, had melodramatically advised him the previous September, when Kenny’s poll ratings were uninspiring, to go and shoot himself. Browne apologised, but Kenny still wouldn’t come out to play in the debate.

Last Tuesday in the Dail, the taoiseach was repeatedly asked if he would offer an apology to the uncounted number of Irish women who were held captive in Magdalene laundries and made to work as slaves since the foundation of the state. He wouldn’t. For a man who likes to hear “sorry”, he couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
One woman waiting for it is aged 76 and living in America. She slave-laboured in one of the for-profit Magdalene workhouses from the age of 14 to 19. Then, the nuns who ran it transferred her to an orthopaedic hospital where she worked as a skivvy.

Like so many of the victims catalogued in the Ryan Report on abuse in residential institutions, she fled Ireland as soon as she could, and stayed away.
In October 2008, this woman phoned James M Smith, associate professor of English at Boston College, because she had read his academic, annotated study, Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, published by Notre Dame Press and costing $28 (€19.49). The woman told Smith she had disciplined herself to read a set number of pages each day, because she was a Magdalene survivor. Smith helped her apply for a pension from the Irish state. Ireland offered her €12.40 a week, minus the bank fee for transferring the money and the cost of currency conversion. It leaves her with $7.50 and the memories that never go away.

Females — called “penitents” — were incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries for perceived sins of the flesh, even including the anticipated sins of pretty girls deemed headed for a fall because of their looks. Some were sinned against; raped by family members, employers or other male figures of authority, maybe even priests. The Department of Justice’s excuse for denying recompense to survivors of the laundries is that they were private operations, run by four orders of nuns (the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity) and, therefore, the state is not liable in law.

The state tried, for a while — trotting out the same mantra about the legions of children abused, neglected and enslaved in church-run residential institutions — but got short shrift. The fact is that Mother Ireland used the laundries as places of detention. Judges sent girls there. Probation officers escorted them there, and never went back to release them when the time was up.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture (Uncat) has exposed as fallacy the state’s defence that females entered the laundries voluntarily or, if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians. In Geneva on May 24, Felice Gaer, the committee chairwoman. said: “We had testimony about locked doors and people being captured by the police and returned to the institutions.” She asked if the state had made any efforts to inspect or regulate the laundries or to ensure acts of torture were not being perpetrated behind their walls.
Last week, Uncat expressed “grave concern” at Ireland’s failure to promptly investigate allegations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of females in the Magdelene laundries, “amounting to breaches of the [UN] convention”.
It wants to see independent investigations get under way, perpetrators prosecuted and punished, a channel of redress for victims, and an enforceable right to compensation. Furthermore, it wants a progress report within 12 months.

The auguries are not good. When an advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) — mostly academics, half of whom are based overseas — wrote to Sr Marianne O’Connor, director-general of the Conference of Religious in Ireland (Cori) on July 9, 2010, requesting a meeting, it waited three months for a reply. No, was the answer.
Something else is troubling. Last December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a woman’s human rights had been violated by the Irish state’s abortion laws when she had to go abroad to terminate a pregnancy while she was in remission from cancer. Kenny, then opposition leader, immediately refused to make a commitment to a referendum if he became taoiseach, offering instead to pass the hot-potato issue to yet another all-party Oireachtas committee. It mirrored a statement he made to the Irish Catholic newspaper four years ago, and which was welcomed by the Pro-Life Campaign, that, if he became taoiseach, he would not introduce abortion legislation.
This is significant because, at the core of both the Magadelene laundries scandal and the continuing hypocrisy of the Irish state turning a blind eye to more than 4,000 of its citizens annually seeking abortions abroad, is a warped attitude to women’s sexuality.
Future generations may find themselves investigating why females were banished, albeit temporarily, because they had an unviable pregnancy or were pregnant from rape, despite the X case ruling entitling them to abortion under certain circumstances.
Some people argue that for the taoiseach to make an apology to the Magdalene women now would be meaningless because a forced apology is no apology. Not true. Were Kenny to do so, he would be speaking for the state, just as David Cameron was when the British prime minister apologised for Bloody Sunday, or as the Australian state does every year when it has its day of atonement for the maltreatment of Aboriginal people.
Until the Irish state says sorry to the Magdalene women, it is perpetuating the idea of “fallen women” and that they need to be punished.


2 Responses to “Sorry still seems to be the hardest word”

  1. Raymond says:

    The word SORRY – indeed – seems to have been deleted from the language altogether.

    The Magdalens will finally have their day in court – and hopefully some semblance of Justice and Reparation – even if the wrongs of the past can NEVER be put right.

    But the Irish people are still dis-connected and un-moved, despite the FACTS that none less than the UNITED NATIONS are involved, with the full authority of AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, with the COUNCIL of EUROPE pointing the finger at Ireland, ACCUSING US, using such words as TORTURE, CRUELTY, CAPTIVITY and INCARCERATION….!

    It took HUMAN RIGHTS experts, academics and big-names for weight and credibility, having their action and petition heard in Europe, to finally get some sense over the airwaves. And very rightly so.

    But what about the stories and scandals which have been in the news for decades now ? The Reports we’ve been getting almost every year ? The media telling us DAILY about similar cases ? What about the Ryan Report, over two years old ? What about that the culprits still get away with their crimes ? What about the Catholic Church, Rome, The Pope, past and present and all now Saints in the bargain ?

    Are we going to keep hiding behind the millions paid out to the victims of Irish Abuse ? Behind the Redress Board ? Are we going to have to tow the line as we are being lambasted about being POSITIVE, as we must go FORWARD, and stop MOANING……

    How come so many – THE MAJORITY – are still complaining ? How come these Funds are being channelled into organizations who are known to have broken every law and every decent aspect of Charity in the land ? In full view of the Gardai and knowledge of the Politicians ?

    Well hear again please, that NOTHING HAS CHANGED. The cold-heartedness of the Irish people, so locked-up in their emotional no-man’s (and women’s) FROZEN HEART, paralyzed in denial, and more importantly SO DEVOID OF EMPATHY and COMPASSION, BRAIN-WASHED, BRAIN-DEAD, are not – have not – learnt the lessons of the abuse heaped on them, by Church and State over the years, and for the great benefit of sharks and profiteurs, our Leaders and their servants (elected by ourselves!). These are the VERY REASONS WHY WE ARE IN SUCH A MESS TODAY.

    Sure ! We rape and beat our CHILDREN. Deny them ALL RIGHTS (while keeping FULL CONTROL WITHIN THE HOLY FAMILY). We ignore their cries when the truth finally breaks through. We use and abuse them to satisfy our needs. And their mothers. And their grandmothers. SHAME ON US SHAME ON US SHAME ON US SHAME ON US SHAME ON US……FOR ALL ETERNITY (maybe THAT will ring a bell somewhere).

    And so, FOR THE FIRST TIME since I shake my fist and shout for justice, for the first time I HEAR AN ECHO of what I’ve been saying all along. Is it possible that THERE might be a glimmer of hope and a sign of life? Would all IMPORTANT people who read this site please TAKE NOTICE (even if the Haunting is has well started and is in full swing already) ? Not my words, but the Irish Examiner’s Editorial of Thursday 9 June 20011 :

    “ All of our energy is focused on rebuilding our economy but we need to do so much more.


    YES YES YES ………


  2. amere-brush-hand says:

    The Irish Government is in denial. They want to erase the past, like they erased the history of the Irish State’s culpability and cruelty in maintaining the Industrial Gulags. Only the religious were investigated in the Ryan report. There was no investigation of the history of the State in working side by side with the religious in keeping innocent children incarcerated.

    What the religious got was indemnity from prosecution and the survivors were bought off with paltry settlements and gagging orders. What horrible justice. Can you get justice in Ireland?

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