If you know anything about the Magdalene laundries, it’s probably the following: that, between the mid-19th and late-20th century, thousands of Irish women were forcibly incarcerated in institutions set up and run by the Catholic Church. Their children were taken; their hair was cropped; they were forbidden from mentioning their life prior to entering the institution. Their lives revolved around work, penance, discipline, silence and prayer. In the beginning, these women tended to be sex workers, but, as the institutions proved profitable, the church allowed their definition of “fallen women” to expand to unmarried mothers and, eventually, young girls who were “in need of restraint”.
Maybe you saw the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters, and were shocked at the idea that this went on in Ireland until the very recent past, and that many of the women who survived this treatment survive still. You should be shocked. It is shocking.
And we still don’t know how many there were.
We think about 30,000. We think. According to the last report, at least 11,500 were admitted to laundries between 1922 and 1996. It’s an incredible thing to be so vague about, particularly when this all happened in the 20th century. But the truth is, we don’t know the full truth of who these women were. We don’t know their circumstances, their “crimes” or what happened to them and their children. And, as of today, we will continue not to know, because the Irish government has “rejected a plea from the United Nations for a thorough investigation into allegations of abuse at the state’s Magdalene laundries”.
This follows a request from the UN committee against torture for Ireland to call out and punish members of the Catholic Church for their role in the infamous laundries. According to the committee’s vice chair, Felice Gaer, Ireland appears to be going back on its 2013 apology from the then-Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who also set up a €50m survivor’s fund for the women who suffered at the hands of the laundries. According to Gaer, Ireland has claimed to have “no basis” for believing that these events even happened. They see no reason to investigate the case further, claiming that their last report – one that was solely populated by stories from survivors, rather than data from the Church – was more than enough to work with, thank you very much. The country continues to insist that they have no jurisdiction in seizing the Catholic Church’s records, or any right to subpoena them.
Because the victims are primarily women, their individual testimonies will be questioned, underestimated, misunderstood, lost
The more you think about this approach, the more insane it becomes, filled with the kind of upside-down logic that only exists when you’re trying to protect the wrong person. The story of the Magdalene laundries only exists in the form of story, anecdote and first-person testimony from a generation of women who will die before their experiences are verified by data and fact. Without any official documentation, without any public record, without any trial of the Church and without any solid piece of information that we can then transcribe into every history book, we increase the likelihood that these women will be forgotten and that the story of the Magdalene laundries will disappear into horrifying folk legend. That’s what happens when you refuse to give a country its history – stories your grandmother told you become murky, half-remembered facts, and we surrender ourselves to the chance of history repeating itself. And, because the victims are primarily women, their individual testimonies will be questioned, underestimated, misunderstood, lost. We know that this happens, because it happens every day.
Ireland may have passed equal marriage by popular vote. It may be getting better at recognising women’s rights. But the government’s repeated insistence on kicking dirt over its own history, and of refusing to interrogate the Catholic Church lest it inadvertently expose itself is making its many liberal victories seem hollow and superficial. You can’t grow anything good in bad soil and, as a formerly agricultural country, we should probably already know that.
When Margaret Atwood originally published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she said that she wanted to make sure that “I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time”. In other words, that every torture inflicted on the women of Gilead is a fate that was shared by a real woman. Sometimes, we know exactly who these women are, and how many of them there were, and what happened after they survived whatever it was that they suffered. In the case of the Magdalene laundries, we are forced only to speculate.