The Magdalen Laundries: Ireland’s Shameful Past

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When the 133 graves at High Park were discovered, a huge cry went up among Irish society. What would become of these sad women and their legacy? Many of the graves were unmarked. With no family to claim or name them, so many women died within the system itself, actually cared for in their last days by their own sisters in shame, but with no other family member to step forward and bury them decently. And so the good Sisters of Charity did what they could, quietly interring these 133 souls over a period spanning nearly 100 years.

As public outrage grew, a decision was made to reinter the bodies in nearby Glasnevin Cemetery. Some were identified in the process and claimed by younger generations of whatever family they had left. Slight memorials exist at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and in St Stephen’s Green, where a simple, sad bench and plaque sit.

Society — still outraged at the sad history of these women — continued to stew over this state of affairs in the media, in books, and in plays. Recent allegations of abuse at the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin as well as newly-discovered archives of some 2,000 Irish children exported to the US and elsewhere had already added to the fury and questions began to fly. What kind of so-called moral, decent society could so shun and penalize its women?

Today we hear horrifying stories of ritualistic genital mutilation in some sectors of Muslim society; we hear of the thousands of Chinese infant girls left to languish and die at birth because they were not born male and exceeded the one-child-per-family rule in effect in China. We hear of Romanian orphans, illegal Brazilian adoption schemes, Chile’s horrifying baby-brokering history — each and every case a horrible example of man’s inhumanity to mankind, or in this case, womankind.

But in a relatively civilized European country? It seems unfathomable. But there it is — and the Catholic Church staunchly defending its actions, asking us to place it within the ‘context of the times.’ This is just the way it was done back then and besides, it was society who judged and sentenced these women, not the church, they say.

Well, there are two vital flaws in their theories:

If we accept their ‘place it in the context of the times’ excuse, then what next? Do we excuse Nazi genocide of Jewish and other people because it was ‘just the way things were done then’? Do we next excuse the Inquisition by placing it in a ‘time context’ as well?

And as for placing the blame on society — it is and was well-known that Irish society has been Church-driven since at least the 6th century AD, when Ireland’s native Brehon law was completely eradicated and replaced with Roman/Canon law. Interestingly, under ancient Brehon law, if a man impregnated a woman he was not bound to by marriage, regardless of her societal station, mental status, etc., he was required to care for her and the resulting child. The child was then accorded the same rights and privileges of inheritance and ascendancy as a child born inside the bonds of marriage.

How far Ireland has come. While it has always been and is still a highly matriarchal society, Ireland’s laws and social mores have for hundreds of years been not only Church-driven, but male-dominated. If the Church says birth outside marriage is wrong, then society would simply march in step and agree, not the other way ’round. Which throws a fly in the ointment of Mother Church’s other infamous excuse.

And what of the men who impregnated women in this modern Ireland? I have been asked so often what role Irish birthfathers play. The answer: none. These randy old goats simply went their merry way, or if they wanted to be involved, were forbidden by church and family. Many went on as if nothing had ever happened, still holding their head high, with no recriminations on the part of church or society. Perhaps a muffled, “Best be careful Paddy, boyo, next time.” on the part of a slyly winking father, would have been the only admonition. More likely, the lad’s evidence of virility would have been celebrated over a pint in the nearest pub, amid much laughter and derision over the poor girl’s plight.

The last wave of this legacy, women like my birthmother who bore the final vestiges of Catholic guilt and shame by bearing children out of wedlock, still hide shamefully in the shadows. Much like many of us sitting here today, they silently bore their stigma, doing as they were told to get on with their lives, forget the past, marry and never tell a soul your dreadful secret. Until the mid-1970’s, the birthmothers, the ‘penitents’, the Magdalens of Ireland, bore an unimaginable cross of ill-treatment, ritualistic abuse and, most cruelly — were often required to stay with their children until the time came for them to be adopted into new homes: some in Ireland, many far away in America. My birthmother and many of the women who entered homes like the Sacred Heart Convent in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, even breastfed us and cared for us — often up till age two or older. They were then cruelly parted from us, often under questionable circumstances. Many were told the relinquishment was a fostering arrangement, that they could reclaim their child if they proved themselves ‘decent’ women and came back with marriage certificates in hand. I know of one woman who did just that, only to learn her daughter had already gone to America. She was given a photo of her daughter’s first Christmas with her new American family. I cannot even begin to fathom that sort of heartbreak, even having relinquished my own daughter through the Catholic Church in Philadelphia in 1978.

Even today, the Irish birthmothers I have come into contact with are extremely skittish, scared, and unwilling or unable to come forward with their secret. It’s as if some invisible sword of Damascus hangs over their heads, ready at any moment to strike them the minute they publicly acknowledge their relinquished children. I have shared the success empowerment has brought to many of us here in the US with these women. Successes like the march on Washington, DC, the full-page ad we sponsored in the Oregonian prior to Measure 58’s passing. Still, the stigma hangs so heavy, they have only taken feeble, tentative steps towards making their voices heard to the Irish government and the Catholic church.

Much remains to be done. And for my part, I have made it my goal to continue educating people on the story of the Magdalens. Their voices have been silenced; mine has not. I will continue to speak out so that these women will be remembered.

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