Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Lise Hand: Mealy-mouthed 'regret' can never erase this stain

They were called Fallen Women.

But in reality they were Loose Ends. 

The 10,000 and more women and girls who passed through the gates of the Magdalene Laundries since 1922 were regarded as no more than female flotsam and jetsam which washed up on the shores of the State.

The authorities didn't know what to do with them, nor particularly care about what befell them. 

They were loose ends, round pegs in the rigidly square society ordained by the conjoined twins of church and State.

They were orphans, or children of neglected or abusive homes, or rejected by foster parents. 

They were dirt-poor, unloved, on remand or probation for crimes ranging from non-payment of a train ticket to manslaughter, but mostly convicted of petty offences.

They were unmarried mothers, or children born out of wedlock, or females accused of being morally suspect. 

They were girls released from industrial schools before the age of 16 and packed off straight to the laundries to see out the rest of their childhood. Some were disabled. 

Few, very few, were prostitutes.


After an 18-month investigation into the role of the State in the Magdalene Laundries, the 1,400-page report was finally released. And one fact was unequivocal – one in four women had been referred by the State. Its role was substantial and undeniable.

But, as the investigative committee's chairman Dr Martin McAleese wrote in the very first sentence of the report, "there is no single or simple story of the Magdalene Laundries".

Unlike the litany of horrific reports on institutional clerical abuse, this report was on one level less shocking. It found no evidence of physical or sexual abuse of the women.

There was no evidence of any babies being born in the laundries. And half of the women stayed fewer than seven months.

However, the absence of graphic violence doesn't lessen the widespread violation of Irish females and their basic human rights with the collusion of the State. Nor does it lessen the isolation, fear, anger and trauma experienced by the women who lived in the laundries and who lived with the stigma forever after.

This much was starkly evident in the faces of the four women of the Magdalene Survivors 
Together group who sat side-by-side in a Dublin hotel yesterday afternoon.

Maureen Sullivan, Mary Smyth, Marina Gambold and Diane Creighton were a sombre, sad quartet, each with a sorrow-filled story of a childhood shattered, of hope snatched away, of endless days of scrubbing, prayer and absence of love.

'They took my education, my name, my identity," said Maureen, who was removed from her school at the age of 12 to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry.

She brought all her schoolbooks because she thought she was going to a better school. "I never saw my books again."

Some of them cried, eyes turned inwards to the lonely, scary past which has proven ever harder to escape from than the laundries themselves.

All of them wanted an apology, an acknowledge-ment from the State that they had not been cherish-ed and protected while at their most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, in the Dail, the Taoiseach offered meagre fare, a mealy-mouthed regret for the "stigma" which attached to the survivors. This wasn't enough for the four women. "That's not a proper apology," they declared.

Nor was it. 

The story of the Magdalenes may forever be incomplete – of the 10,000 women, just over 100 were interviewed for the report. 

Many are probably dead, but many are still struggling with the shame.

But they aren't Fallen Women. 

They are the Mothers of our Sorrows; sad, invisible butterflies broken upon the implacable wheels of the Church and the State.

And the Taoiseach should know that what you do with dirty laundry is wash it and take away the stain. 

What you don't do is wash your hands of it.

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