Let’s listen attentively to survivors of Magdalene Laundries

Rite&Reason: Mansion House event a small, significant step towards transitional justice

Unknown Magdalene Laundry with women at work: Women, the working classes and the poor  suffered inordinately at the hands of those newly established in power.

Unknown Magdalene Laundry with women at work: Women, the working classes and the poor suffered inordinately at the hands of those newly established in power.

 

Dublin’s Mansion House Round Room has hosted many historic occasions: the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in January 1919 and the dramatic turnout of thousands in April 1971 when the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement organised a public meeting.

Wednesday will see another historic occasion as hundreds of women who were incarcerated and forced to labour in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries will gather for a “listening exercise”.

The women will address three questions: “What should we know about the Magdalene Laundries?”, “What lessons should we learn from what happened there?” and finally “How should we remember what happened?”

The replies will be made publicly available (once personally identifying information has been removed).

The listening exercise is part of a two-day occasion where Magdalene survivors are being honoured by the State and Dublin’s lord mayor.

The gathering of the women fulfils key parts of the Magdalene Restorative Justice Scheme outlined by Justice John Quirke which recommended that women who wished to meet other survivors be facilitated and that survivors of the Magdalene institutions be publicly commemorated.

Until Charlie Flanagan became Minister for Justice it seemed these elements of the Magdalene scheme would never be realised. However, Flanagan is currently responding to the damning November 2017 report of the Ombudsman on the Magdalene Restorative Justice Scheme which found that the manner in which the scheme was administered by the department constituted maladministration within the meaning of the Ombudsman Act.

While the Central Area Committee of Dublin City Council generously put up the first amount of money for the event, Flanagan is funding the bulk of the costs. The organisation of the event is led by Norah Casey who was generous and skilled enough to take on such a complex operation.

The Ombudsman’s report on the Magdalene scheme recommended that the Government develop guidelines so future restorative justice measures can be readily applied across government departments and public bodies.

Magdalene redress

The concept of restorative justice is relatively new in the Irish context and perhaps Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) might claim they inspired Quirke in this regard through the document authored in 2011 which recommended restorative justice should be part of Magdalene redress.

JFMR’s thinking continues to evolve in working with other academics to consider how transitional justice might be applied to Ireland.

Now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA
Now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

The first century of Irish independence was typical of post-colonial states in being marred by endemic poverty, a Border dispute and the assertion of nationalist social and cultural purity projects.

Women, the working classes and the poor (who ironically had participated greatly in winning independence) suffered inordinately at the hands of those newly established in power.

Successive Irish governments continued the colonial Victorian apparatus, established post-Famine, which empowered Catholic religious orders to take charge of the welfare of the socio-economically vulnerable.

By privatising social welfare, the British Empire in Ireland was able to absolve itself of direct care for its subjects and allowed a burgeoning Irish middle class to assert itself as a powerful force.

Widespread incarceration

Throughout the 20th century, the large Victorian Catholic institutions which laced the landscape continued to be filled as the Irish State incarcerated its population in proportions higher than any other country in the world, including Soviet Russia, and continued the practice of handsomely paying Catholic religious orders ,as private operators, to deliver educational, health and social welfare services.

By privatising social welfare, the British Empire in Ireland was able to absolve itself of direct care for its subjects

Before we mark the centennial of the first Dáil meeting in the Mansion House, we ought to deal with the legacy of what went wrong in that first century. Transitional justice as practiced in regions attempting to deal with gross and systemic human rights abuse (such as the treatment of indigenous people in Australia and Canada) offers us examples of how we can revitalise our justice system in the manner that the Ombudsman has recently told the government we need.

Listening to Magdalene survivors is a small but historically significant step in the transitional justice movement towards establishing governance in Ireland that is founded on recognising the dignity and value of (even) the most economically and socially vulnerable.

We have much to learn from those who managed to survive the Magdalene institutions. We can be very grateful that they are generously willing to speak to us.

Dr Katherine O’Donnell is associate professor of history of ideas at UCD school of philosophy and a member of Justice for Magdalenes Research and UCD’s Centre for Ethics in Public Life

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