Dark stain of Irish gulag system not yet addressed
But with the other two main parts of the system – the mental hospitals and the Magdalene homes – the State is, in one case, entirely ignoring the problem and in the other engaging in deliberate obfuscation.
By 1966, Ireland was incarcerating a higher proportion of its people in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world. It follows that very many of these people (21,000 at the height of the system) were not mentally ill but were locked up for social, political and familial reasons. Conditions were generally abysmal. Mental hospitals were not just grim places of incarceration, they were also death traps.
O’Sullivan and O’Donnell show that an astonishing 11,000 people died every decade in Irish mental hospitals – that’s 33,000 people between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many of them died because of neglect and insanitary conditions. “Around one in 20 patients died each year from a variety of ailments, such as tuberculosis, influenza and malignant tumours . . . Occasionally patients perished because they had been given the wrong medication, or tried to escape but fell into a river, or lost their lives in ways that are unexplained, but seemed to involve neglect or deliberate harm. Only in exceptional circumstances were staff called to account for such deaths.” Basic decency demands that the State should, at the very least, commission a full independent historical report on the mental hospital system.
In relation to the Magdalenes, though, that decency is conspicuously absent. The State is being cruel, nasty and cynically evasive. The line all along has been that the Magdalene laundries were private institutions for which the State bore no responsibility – a falsehood forensically exposed in a detailed report released by Justice for the Magdalenes.
The Government has done nothing except establish an unnecessary committee to “clarify State interaction with the Magdalene laundries”. Asked in the Dáil why the State didn’t even inspect the laundries in the way it inspected every other commercial premises, Richard Bruton explained that “the mere fact that the State has a right to inspect particular premises does not mean that it has an obligation to do so”.
There are elderly women who have not been given the wages and pensions they are lawfully entitled to for years of back-breaking work. How long must they wait before the stain of the laundries is washed clean?