Jennifer O’Connell: It was not just in Gilead that women were stripped of their names

It is time we remembered all Josephs and Marys whose dignity, freedom and lives were stolen

'I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong – it does matter," wrote Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale, on the effect of stripping someone of their name.

Names give us power. Names give us individuality. They influence how the world sees us, and also how we see the world. Names can also be weaponised. If yours is taken away, it can feel like the world doesn’t see you at all.

As Atwood understands, denying someone their name is to deny them their agency. In hellish, dystopian Gilead, handmaids are given the names of their captors as a way of obliterating their dignity.

But it doesn't just happen in Gilead. I thought about this recently as I read comments by Chanel Miller, ahead of the publication of her book Know My Name.


You may not have heard the name Chanel Miller. But you've probably heard of "the intoxicated victim of Brock Turner, Stanford swimming champion". Or maybe you know her as "the Stanford rape victim" or "Emily Doe". Not any more. "In newspapers, my name was 'unconscious intoxicated woman', 10 syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am," Miller said.

Names matter. In the aftermath of the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her children – Liam, Niall and Ryan – by her husband, Alan, the hashtag #HerNameIsClodagh trended on Twitter, an outraged response to media coverage that seemed, in many people's eyes, to render her invisible.

The dehumanisation extended into death, when their bodies were buried in mass graves

Names matter. As a nation, we instinctively understand this. One of the things that caused unspeakable pain to survivors of Magdalene laundries was the assault of having their names stripped away. The interdepartmental committee report, which was published in 2013 and chaired by Dr Martin McAleese, refers to “the practice, in some Magdalene laundries, of giving ‘House’ or ‘Class’ names to girls and women on entry in place of their given names”.

The dehumanisation extended into death, when their bodies were buried in mass graves. Some of these burials happened in a manner that perpetuated the violation of their human rights: in High Park in Drumcondra, there are 51 names on a headstone that have no relationship to the women actually buried there, according to work done by the Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) group.

Incomprehensible pain

Last week, Ireland remembered Joseph Tuohy, one survivor of that ignoble period in our history. At his funeral, mourners heard how he was separated from his mother at the age of five, and how 80 years later, he was still suffering the loss. Joseph's story was told by his friend Brian Boylan, who remembered his kindness, intelligence and his incomprehensible pain. The public outpouring of grief at what happened to him was bound up in other complex emotions: shame, sadness, the desire to make recompense. Because, of course, we have known all along there were people like Joe out there. It was our society and our legal institutions that forcibly removed him from his mother, Mary, because she was not married. It was our society that incarcerated Mary in a Magdalene Laundry, the Good Shepherd in Limerick, where she is thought to have remained for the rest of her life. She is buried in a mass grave there.

It is time we remembered all of the Josephs and Marys whose dignity, freedom and lives were stolen from them, because they didn’t meet the standards set by this so-called civilised society of ours. It is time we heard their names.

The Magdalene Names project, which was launched in 2003 by the Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) group, is an attempt to allow us to do that. It has so far has recorded the details of almost 1,750 women who died in Magdalene institutions between 1835 and 2014 – a remarkable achievement given that each name had to be gathered through a process of photographing graves and combing through ledgers, Census data and electoral registers.

Only initials

They are the names of all the women Ireland tried so hard to forget. The Annas and the Catherines and the Julias and the Lillies and the Winifreds and the Anastasias. The Delaneys and the Fitzgeralds and the Kellys and the Mahers. And the ones who, heartbreakingly, were not given any names in public records at all, only initials.

Reading their names is one way to end the silence, and to acknowledge these women’s stories. Claire McKettrick, one of the three founders and researchers with JFMR, is in favour of this kind of active memorialisation – exploring the database of names, putting flowers on a grave – rather than static, “plaques on a wall” style memorials. But with the securing of the site of the former laundry on Seán McDermott Street, there is an opportunity for the State to do something enduring and meaningful. We have the chance to create a national archive, preserving the histories of all the women and children who were hidden away in plain sight. It is time.

Their names matter. Their stories matter. We owe it to them to acknowledge them, to speak them, and never to forget.