Irish society owes apology to Magdalene women

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

In 1862 the Westminster parliament established a committee to inquire into the prevalence of venereal disease in the British armed services and this resulted in the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864.

There was popular sympathy for the male members of the armed forces who contracted the disease for they were celibate, in the main, confined to fairly awful barrack conditions and, anyway, what was a man to do? The problem was the women prostitutes who infected them and there were tens of thousands of them around in Victorian Britain – according to some claims, hundreds of thousands.

The 1864 Act sought to deal with the problem by requiring these women to be subjected to compulsory examination and, when found to have venereal disease, forced incarceration in what was known as a “lock hospital” for up to three months and later for up to a year, or until “cured”.

In one of the first feminist campaigns in Britain, a movement known as the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (there were subsequent amendments to the 1864 Act), secured the repeal of the Acts in 1886.

There had been religious movements – Anglican and Catholic – concerned about “fallen women” from the previous century but they got a new energy in the Victorian era, where there was much moral agitation about the iniquity of women in prostitution but little about the male clients of these women and hardly any agitation at all about the social and economic conditions that drove so many women into prostitution.

‘Children’ and ‘mistresses’

The first Magdalene asylum was opened in Limerick in 1848, followed by houses in Waterford (1858), New Ross (1860), Belfast (1867) and Cork (1869). They catered, in the main, for women in prostitution, known as “children”, while the nuns were referred to as “mistresses”.

Central to the operation of these houses was the “rule of silence”, regarded as “a necessary condition for the surveillance of good order” to be respected with “scrupulous care”. Silence was enforced for most of the day and throughout the night and was found to be an effective control mechanism. In addition there were long hours of prayer and devotion.

The wearing of drab and shapeless uniforms was obligatory to discourage vanity and improper thoughts. In some of these houses women’s hair was cropped. This practice was carried out in the Limerick house up to the late 1950s. Visits from family or friends were discouraged and correspondence was restricted and then scrutinised. The women in the laundries got little or no education and many were unable to read or write.

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.

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