Ladies last


Hurray! In Britain, women aged 30 and over got the vote on this day in 1918! It seems astonishing that there was ever any quibble that women should be entitled to that right, given that they mop up the consequences of most government policies. But then again, news from Ireland of a mealy-mouthed non-apology from the Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, at the state’s involvement in the Magdalene laundries punctures some of that astonishment. The state’s involvement, that is, in imprisoning people whose only link to crime was being a victim of it. Too pretty, too gobby, attracting the attention of men (your dad, your funny uncle, the butcher’s boy) or simply being surplus to requirements could get you banged up with hard labour for life by the brave new state of Ireland.

“To those residents who went into the Magdalene laundries from a variety of ways, 26 per cent from State involvement, I’m sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment,” Kenny managed to choke out yesterday. “The stigma that the branding together of all the residents, all 10,000, in the Magdalene Laundries, needs to be removed, and should have been removed long before this. And I really am sorry that that never happened, and I regret that it never happened.”

I don’t even know what that last bit means. Something about stigma and branding together. Does he mean that some of the women probably were trollops but fair’s fair, they shouldn’t all have been called that? Knowing some of the darker corners of the Irish mindset, yes, that might well be what he means.

Academic James Smith notes that Ireland’s commitment to punishing women for men’s desires let rapists go free and buried their victims alive. Blaming women and children ‘not only sanitised state policy …but also disembodied sexual practice, concealing sexual crime while simultaneously sexualising the women and children unfortunate enough to fall victim to society’s moral proscriptions.”

The last Magdalene laundry was closed in 1996, the year I sent my first email. I was living in Dublin at the time, and well remember the disgrace coming to light when the nuns’ order sold off their convent to a property developer. The nuns made a packet on the deal, as everyone selling off building land did in those days, and they sloped off to a comfy retirement. The small matter of the 155 unnamed victims buried in the grounds was solved by digging them up, cremating them all and reinterring them in a mass grave. The ghastly, money-grubbing pragmatism of that shoddy burial set the match to the tinder, and Church and State had yet another opportunity to shuffle, obfuscate and lie. Anything, ANYTHING, but face up to what James Smith has called “the architecture of containment” that has informed the culture of the Irish state since its inception.

This “architecture of containment” made undesirable segments of the population – illegitimate children, unmarried mothers, sexually active single women – literally invisible by shoving them behind high walls and changing their names so their families couldn’t find them. ‘Your name is Fidelma now,’ the nuns told a weeping girl called Marina, who’s now a 60-something, still alive and still raging. Let’s just have a think about that. The nuns changed the names of the women they imprisoned so that their families couldn’t find them.

The cruelty of those places. The profiteering by the nuns who didn’t pay wages, the ‘respectable’ institutions who got their linens cleaned on the cheap, the legitimate laundries that were forced to sack their workforce and close in the face of unbeatable, state-sponsored competition. The punishment, brutality and starvation that was inflicted on these blameless girls. So the state, once more, is left on the back foot, muttering that times were different then. But do you believe that? Yet again, it catches my breath that the last Magdalene laundry was closed in 1996, about a mile from my office, the year I sent my first email.


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