Dark stain of Irish gulag system not yet addressed
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.