The laundries were tough places, undoubtedly. But there was no sexual abuse and no physical punishment

I usually maintain a general scepticism about the BBC’s reporting of stories involving the Catholic Church, but I have to admit that I missed out on this one, maybe because it has to do with Ireland, and because there have been so many true Irish stories one really didn’t want to contemplate. The saga of the Magdalene laundries has been one I just didn’t want to think about; here we go again, I thought: now, it’s Irish nuns. And last week, the BBC reported (as did everyone else) that another enemy of the Church, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has formally apologised on behalf of the state for its role in the story.

Some 10,000 women and girls, reported the BBC, were made to do unpaid manual labour in laundries run by Catholic nuns in Ireland between 1922 and 1996. More than a quarter of those who spent time in the laundries had been sent there by the Irish state.

Mr Kenny apologised to all the women affected.

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He said their experiences had cast a “long shadow” over Irish life and that it had been “humbling and inspiring” to meet them. “For 90 years Ireland subjected these women, and their experience, to a profound indifference,” he said. “By any standards it was a cruel and pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in mercy”.

Cruel and pitiless: that was the story; and most cruel and pitiless of all were allegedly the Irish sisters who presided over the women’s incarceration. The popular perception of the story of the Magdalen laundries has been a growing certainty which in the end led, politically, to the Taioseach’s apology (itself an implied attack on the Church) and it has been formed over the past 20 years by a series of plays and movies about what went on in the laundries. None had greater impact than the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. It is about four teenage girls committed to a laundry where they experience or witness routine physical and sexual abuse by nuns and a priest. It depicts the laundries as profitable, money-making rackets, and shows the women subjected to various indignities including head-shaving.

But how true was all that? According to the Irish Times, a striking feature of the government report by Senator McAleese is the number of women recorded as speaking positively about the sisters, women who absolutely rejected allegations of physical abuse. Most agreed that there was what was termed “psychological abuse”: most “described verbal abuse and being the victim of unkind or hurtful taunting and belittling comments. Even those who said that some Sisters were kind to them reported verbal cruelty as occurring during their time in the Magdalene Laundries”. The real question about these places is whether they should have existed in the first place in the way that they did, and whether the women sent there understood why. Why was their freedom taken from them? Often they were never told, and for that, the State is directly responsible (usually the sisters didn’t know either). But these were not, as is widely believed, brutal institutions.

I quote directly from the government report by Senator Martin McAleese:

“33. A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalene Laundries.

“34. In this regard, women who had in their earlier lives been in an industrial or reformatory school drew a clear distinction between their experiences there and in the Magdalene Laundries, stating clearly that the widespread brutality which they had witnessed and been subjected to in industrial and reformatory schools was not a feature of the Magdalene Laundries.

“The following examples and quotations relate to the majority of women who shared their stories with the Committee and who indicated that they had never experienced or seen physical punishment in a Magdalene Laundry:

“One woman summarised her treatment in a Magdalene Laundry by saying ‘I might have been given out to, but I was never beaten’.

– Another woman said about the same Magdalene Laundry ‘I was never beaten and I never seen anyone beaten’.

– Another woman said ‘It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched myself by any nun and I never saw anyone touched and there was never a finger put on them … Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will … we worked very hard there … But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after’.”

Fr Tim Finigan described an article by Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph, the standfirst of which was “Catholic-bashers have embellished the truth about abuse in Catholic institutions. It’s time to put the record straight” (and which pointed me to much of the above) as being “The kind of article Catholics dare not write”. Well, Brendan O’Neill wasn’t writing as a Catholic (though he may well be one); I, however, unavoidably am. So if Fr Tim is correct, I expect I’ll get it in the neck for this one. I’m not saying that the use by the Irish state of the Magdalene laundries as reformatories to which people could be sent without explanation or due process was in any way defensible. And Irish nuns could undoubtedly be tough in those days (my wife has fond memories from her convent school in Swanage, now a holiday hotel, of being called “a bold girl” and having her hand thwacked with a 12-inch ruler). But, says one woman quoted above, there was in the Magdalene laundries no physical punishment that she saw, and though things were “not rosy”, “we were treated good and well looked after”.

Needless to say, none of that was reported by the BBC.

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