Thoughts for International Women’s Day

I love Ireland – you know this. Every day being back brings this country and its people a little closer to my soul.

But, as with all things, there are dark sides to the ones we love. And there are parts of Irish history pertaining to women in particular that are extremely troubling – and this makes me sad. In light of International Women’s Day (now a day late), I thought it only right to acknowledge some of the injustices done to women in Ireland, pay respect to those who suffered here long before I arrived, and consider the women in other countries who face similar trials still.

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Over the last few years, there have been a lot of inquiries going into past treatment of women and children in the church-run hospitals, mother and baby homes, and Magdalene Laundries (sometimes called, more appropriately, Magdalene asylums). Each of these are such proverbial Pandora’s Boxes unto themselves that I could fill an entire blog with the stories (and many people have). Once you start looking, it’s almost too hard to bear at times when you read/hear/watch accounts of the horrors suffered in these places that were meant to offer charity and care to the country’s most vulnerable.

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As a human being, a woman, a mother, and a Christian, I find the cruelty at the hands of the Catholic Church to be unpardonable. The entire notion of a group of pious women who call themselves “The Sisters of Mercy” or “The Sisters of Charity” and yet treat other women so appallingly escapes all reason for me. Did no one have a conscience about what they were doing? Did no one consider for even a second that profiting from torturing and humiliating helpless women was not the way of God?

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I am not saying anything new, I know. But these stories are never far from my heart as part of my own identity as an adopted Irish person, and I do not know how far across the world they have been shared. I hope this post in some way brings new attention to those affected and increases our empathy for humankind.

I also discovered in the last couple of weeks that my daily commute takes me right by one of the Magdalene Laundries that closed in the 1990s. I have noticed the lovely enclosed graveyard in Donnybrook (which actually does not hold any women from the laundry, they are buried mostly in unmarked plots elsewhere) but I had not paid any attention to the shabby building or rising smokestack behind it. I took a walk there after work the other day, and standing outside the gates left me feeling shaken as I looked at the dreary windowless walls and considered the women who were imprisoned there for years, sometimes decades, of their lives.

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I wrote the following, after my brief visit:

In the shadow of a gleaming Rugby Club the looming tower can be seen. Contrasting with the powerful shouts of male teams chanting inside the stadium, just across the road there is eerie silence in the memories of hundreds of voiceless women once confined here.

Just around the corner is an adorable house with hearts carved above the dormer windows, the building in which the Sisters of Charity religious order still operate.

Charity. Mercy. Good Shepherd. All names of the outfits operating the ten Magdalene Laundries across Ireland. Names that invoke the very image of Jesus, bringing feelings of hope, kindness, compassion, love.

And yet, none of the estimated 10,000+ women and girls who were imprisoned in these institutions were afforded such luxuries. They were not even allowed friendships, contact with people in the outside world, or pay for their endless days of back-breaking toil.

Their crimes? Perceived promiscuity. Possible unwed pregnancies. Children of unwed pregnancies. Mental illness or disability. Previous time spent as wards of the state. Even those who had been victims of sexual abuse were delegated to these hopeless places as unwanted reminders of someone else’s sins.

How long ago did these blockades of inscrutable sadness operate? The last one closed in 1996.

1996.

The Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry is one of the few still standing, the others sold at a profit, bulldozed or repurposed or swept away like so many looming reminders of the Catholic Church’s ultimate stories of corruption have done over the generations. Some want it turned into a museum – others want to watch it burn.

For more information: 

“Magdalene laundries: I often wondered why they were so cruel,” The Irish Times, June 6, 2018

‘Burn it to the ground’: What should be done with the Magdalene laundry buildings?, the journal.ie August 25, 2017

“The Lost Children of Tuam”, The New York Times, October 28, 2017

“Symphysiotomy – Irelands brutal alternative to caesareans,” The Guardian, December 4, 2014

Justice for Magdalenes Research – a website dedicated to those affected by and interested in this topic

Wikipedia page

2014 BBC News story – Magdalene Laundries

The Magdalene Sisters, 2002 – This movie is based on a true story and while I’m sure parts are dramatized, I think a lot of it is a pretty fair representation. It’s readily available for rent or purchase and (though I shouldn’t say so), it may be on YouTube in full.

Sex In a Cold Climate, 1998 – Documentary. I have not seen this one but I hope to soon.

 

2 thoughts on “Thoughts for International Women’s Day

  1. How Irish people have suffered over the centuries (and still do). I knew about these places from the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” and “Philomena” (book and film as they were quite different from each other but it never ceases to amaze the scale of the places or how recently they were still going. I think all most-Western societies have judged unmarried women extremely harshly in the past, but Ireland did it on an industrial scale. Times are changing, thank goodness, and I think the laundry building should be preserved as places of memory and education (like sites associated with the Holocaust in mainland Europe).

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