Let’s talk about Ireland’s missing Magdalene men

What made many Irish men treat women as badly as they did?

The grotto where 15-year-old schoolgirl Ann Lovett died with her newborn baby in Granard, Co Longford, on January 31st, 1984. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The grotto where 15-year-old schoolgirl Ann Lovett died with her newborn baby in Granard, Co Longford, on January 31st, 1984. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Hopping on the toxic masculinity bandwagon to sell toiletries is so passe. Last October, three months before Gillette, Ireland’s Darren Kennedy suggested that if young men were encouraged to take better care of themselves they would gain “confidence to become the men they are, and not the men they think they should be”.

His noble call ended with a plug for his “capsule range” of cosmetics – a stunt he repeated again on RTÉ on Sunday night.

Self-promotion from an “influencer” won’t solve a bigger issue however: the blinkers we still wear rather than look at our Catholic past’s untreated toxic residue.

After a quarter century of investigations, inquiries and court cases, Ireland has done remarkable work bringing justice – or, at least, air and light – to wounds inflicted in the name of Catholicism.

Rather than tar these men with the 'toxic masculinity' brush, let’s discuss instead the toxins that made many Irish men treat women as badly they did – and still do

Much still has to happen – on compensation and memorials, in particular. Yet we refuse to discuss the biggest mystery of all: Catholic Ireland’s apparent epidemic of immaculate conceptions.

How else to explain the army of young women we locked up for being single and pregnant with priests as judges, nuns as jailers, and us as jury.

Some women were lucky: they had family, friends, or the ways and means to help and support them. Less lucky women sought out – or were brought to – the local mother and baby home to remove from sight their “shame”.

Unlucky women

The really unlucky women were brought by their families, often assisted by a local priest, to a laundry. There, stripped of their names and dignity, these Sisyphean sisters washed away their “sins” – and lives – with never-diminishing loads of laundry.

We know now what these women look like, sound like, walk like and talk like. They are ordinary women who survived extraordinary cruelty. Last June they were guests of honour at a presidential tea party. Afterwards, as the entered the Mansion House, people cheered on the women Ireland once shunned.

Today these woman can tell their stories, but the narrative is incomplete. If we want to talk about toxic masculinity, then let’s talk about how, behind every former so-called Magdalene Women, was a Magdalene Man.

The young farmer who took his girlfriend behind the byre; the father who raped his pubescent daughter; the priest who took advantage of a teenage charge. A short sexual act, often non-consensual, and one life was over as a new life began.

Women were disappeared into Ireland’s shame containment facilities; nuns got free labour; hotels got good-value laundry; families’ preserved their “honour”; parishes avoided scandal; and men vanished from view.

Who are these men, where are they now, and how do they feel today about what happened then?

In these days of instant, social media outrage, it would be easy to view – and condemn – these men as one collective, detestable group. But creating, and silencing a new group through shame would merely repeat how Ireland treated the women. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are mature enough as a society to listen instead.

Rather than tar these men with the “toxic masculinity” brush, let’s discuss instead the toxins that made many Irish men treat women as badly they did – and still do.

Ann Lovett

No doubt many Magdalene men – perhaps even a majority – chose the easy route and walked away from their responsibility. But did any walk away at first only to reconsider and find society’s shame machinery had already been set in motion? Were there other men who sought another way but were hampered by religious, families, neighbours – in other words: us?

Last year, after 34 years, Ricky McDonnell spoke about his love affair with the teenage Ann Lovett, her pregnancy and tragic death.

Ann will always be the tragic victim of that case. The man who spoke out said he had remained silent for so long “first out of fear, then out of respect” for the dead woman.

The man who emerged in Rosita Boland’s award-winning article was a small, scared piece on the board game of 1980s Ireland.

There are other men out there who, for decades, have lived quiet lives of denial or silent self-reproach. Who are you? Where are you? Help us fill in the remaining blank of our recent past by coming forward.

What’s to be gained after all this time? Simple: silence hurts and speaking heals – if, that is, an empathetic ear is available.

In absolute confidence, and with no legal risks, I would like to listen to your story. dscally@irishtimes.com

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent

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