Irish society owes apology to Magdalene women
One of the first studies of Magdalenes in Ireland, Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland by Frances Finnegan, records: “Even more exposed to a lifetime of penance than those who had entered the asylums voluntarily, was that vast category of inmates (about 50 per cent of the total over the period analysed) who were neither ‘recommended’ nor entered the Good Shepherds ‘of their own accord’. These were ‘brought’ to the institutions by priests, relatives or friends, but how unwillingly and under what constraints they were kept in the homes will never be known.”
Frances Finnegan continues: “Many of these were undoubtedly ignorant of their legal status, with very young inmates and increasing numbers of ‘simple-minded’ women being especially vulnerable.” She records how many women “absconded”, “scaled the wall”, or “ran away”, evidence not only of their enforced confinement but their desperate state of mind.
She writes that such escapes “defining constant surveillance, locked doors and high boundary walls”, risked punishment if unsuccessful. “Ashamed and dispirited, they lacked the confidence, the education and support to make themselves heard. Even had they done so, it is doubtful if a public so indifferent, so prepared to tolerate a system in the first place, would have intervened on their behalf.”
Many of the women were denied or disowned by their families and to the outside world they almost ceased to exist.
It wasn’t as though the existence of these laundries was a secret. Advertisements for the laundries regularly appeared in the newspapers.
Class distinction followed the nuns and the “children” from the outside society into the asylum laundries. Frances Finnegan writes that many of the nuns were from privileged backgrounds and had been cared for by servants before entering the order. “They were not accustomed to rough labour, nor, in spite of their vow of poverty, was it something they were required to perform. There was little social equality in such convents; and, as in other orders, women of wealth and distinction had almost separate existence from the daughters of the poor.”
It is not just the State that owes thousands of women subjected to such cruelty, loneliness and neglect an apology. Irish society at large owes an apology but then it is not just to these women to whom Irish society owes apologies and it is not only for past injustices and humiliations.