THE BURDEN OF HISTORICAL TRUTH ON THE LAUNDRIES
Irish Independent, Monday, February 18, 2013
The burden of historical truth, in respect of the Magdalene Laundries, is huge. It also was in respect of the Industrial Schools. It has not been fully confronted in regard to either of these monstrous blemishes on the State. The grim reality of this faces Enda Kenny as he tackles a history of events made more confused by the Report presented to Government by Martin McAleese. History cannot be confined to the period since 1922. What the State took over from the British and how it then changed it has also to be part of the picture.
If we go back well before the State’s foundation, to the first twentieth-century census in 1901, the material that bears upon the present question of the Magdalene Laundries emerges more clearly in historical terms, and though painful, sets the context of how the system worked then and later under State control.
For example, the Dublin Sisters of Charity had a total of sixteen convents run by 341 nuns. Their most notable property was St Vincent’s Hospital, then in Stephens Green, ‘a most remunerative institution, judging by the vast sums of money it receives, and by its continuous absorption of expensive private houses to accommodate the ever-increasing number of paying patients’.
Least-known was the ‘Donnybrook Magdalene Penitentiary’, in the charge of 19 nuns who directed the “free” labour of a hundred penitents. ‘The bedroom doors are locked at night and they are bound to stay in that penitentiary at the hard work of laundry for the best years of their lives; and should they ever leave it, they find themselves in a world in which they are more helpless than they were on the day of their birth’.
An outside observer wrote of the Magdalenes in chapel: ‘They were dressed as outcasts, and they looked outcasts. And a more melancholy existence I could not imagine than theirs; changing from the soapsuds in the steam laundry to the confession-box, or the chapel, the only recreation they get. Far indeed would it seem to have been from the thoughts of Our Saviour to have condemned the original Magdalene to such a life as the poor galley-slaves in these penitentiaries lead.’
Rudimentary clothing (the girls were never seen), indifferent food, no freedom, no money, no education, no future – that was their lifelong fate. This record, twenty years before the foundation of the State has been airbrushed out of existence, as have many other historical circumstances. The McAleese Report has mistakenly belittled monetary gain through the twentieth century.
There were 93 Dublin convents run by different orders, enjoying government endowments, deathbed gifts and legacies, charity sermon subscriptions, alms and earnings from laundries. The congregations were spread across the city, a collective community of 1649 professed nuns who, together with novices, postulants and the like came to 3000 souls ‘enough to people a fair-sized town’.
The new State’s baleful inheritance of misery continued to flourish and expand. The Church exercised greater power and tolerated less control than during British rule. These nuns dominated the world of ‘care’ for penitential girls and miscreant boys and girls, in a large agglomeration of laundries and industrial schools the true history of which has yet to be confronted.
We know a good deal but are in denial about how bad it was and how much the new Irish State collaborated in the illegalities, brutalities, deprivations and criminal assaults. Escape clauses aligned the State with the religious communities, denying the rights of those interned. The historical truth has never been properly addressed. It is too shameful. Successive governments have covered up and we are in danger of further deliberate obfuscation over the State’s responsibilities in order to make Mr Kenny’s Apology “safe”.
In clearing up the embarrassment of the Industrial School scandal, the Irish State eliminated all those who failed to sign the waiver and the oath of secrecy, reducing the abused to a tidy enough 15,000. The legal side cost us a fortune while the recompense to victims was more modest. Those outside the fence, whom even the Christian Brothers thought should receive statutory fund payments, have been excluded by the State and “erased” from Irish history.
The McAleese Report, discussing available records, encounters (or fails to encounter them because they are not there) 27,000 personal files “missing” from Department of Education archives. They are said to have been “thrown out in the Department’s ‘general clear out’.” What an absurd piece of nonsense! These are legal documents, seen by others, not by inmates who are still living.
The Magdalene Laundry girls were different. They did not generally merit ‘personal files’. They did not merit their own names and identities. They merited nothing.
It is an historical truism that official reports, media coverage and government statements can create the impression that we have all relevant evidence. This view then enters the history books as established historical fact.
My own experience, with the Industrial School scandal, convinced me that the State was involved in cover-up, in effect a crime against the ex-inmates, against the country and against history. This I suggest is true with the Magdalenes.
Ms Justice Mary Laffoy blew the whistle when she resigned from the Industrial Schools Commission having been obstructed by the Department of Education. The whistle-blowing was ignored. Her plea to have the inquiry removed from that department’s control was rejected by Mr Ahern’s Government.
History can change the doubtful into actual reality. The McAleese Report is based on a widespread acceptance of evidence that is far from reliable with large chunks of it “lost”.
The Report plays down the question of beatings in the Laundries contradicting what the ex-inmates say. This flies in the face of the curatorial reality in such institutions which were excessively punitive physically as in the Industrial Schools. The public has become immune and does not wish to re-visit the endless narrative of violence against the person, starvation, illegal imprisonment and destructive humiliation of more girls than the Report tells us were there, mincing its words over the full awfulness of what went on.
How reliable is inmate testimony of those in the custody of the former Laundry proprietors? An Artane inmate, complaining of violence and interviewed in the presence of his assailants by a bishop, recanted his complaint. As soon as the bishop had left the premises the assailants took their revenge on the wretched complainant.
Tthe challenge facing the Taoiseach is a huge one. If he seeks the whole truth he needs to start from a platform of great scepticism.