Monday, March 18, 2013

A proportionate view of the Magdalen laundries (Comment) Friday night's God Slot on RTÉ radio broadcast an interview with two nuns who had worked in Magdalene homes. 

This was the first interview of its kind and the nuns granted it on condition of anonymity because they were scared of the backlash that would follow if their names became public.

The nuns had main four main points. 

The first was that Ireland during the era of the Magdalen homes was extremely poor and this must be taken into account when assessing the place of the laundries in Irish society.

The second was that women who fell outside society's norms were more harshly treated than men.

The third was that women ended up in the Magdalen homes for a variety of reasons, and the fourth was that the homes are being judged by a very anti-Catholic media.

So, how poor was Ireland in the middle part of the last century? 

By one calculation based on CSO data, in real terms Ireland in 1935 was less than a tenth as rich then as it is today, even taking into account the present recession.

The following figures give us a further insight. In 1946 there were 662,654 households in Ireland.

Almost half of these had no indoor toilet and no outdoor toilet. That is, they still relied on bed pans and the like as people had done for centuries before.

To put it another way, in the middle of the last century the living conditions of many Irish people were not so different from those of their distant ancestors.

Life expectancy was also much lower. In 1926, the life expectancy for males and females was 57.4 and 57.9 years respectively. Today it is 76.8 and 81.6 years respectively.

The much lower life expectancy meant many children lost one or both parents. In 1946, 13.8 percent of children aged 14 had lost one parent, most commonly the mother, and 1.1 percent had lost both parents.

There was no welfare state in those years and the answer to many of the problems created by grinding poverty was institutionalisation.

This is clear from the Martin McAleese investigation into the Magdalen homes. 

The two nuns on the God Slot were quite correct to imply that if these places did not exist many of their inmates would have been on the street instead.

They could have added that they might have been in prison instead (in a small minority of cases) or remained with abusive parents or been placed in mental institutions. (Which may or may not have been better than the Magdalen laundries).

In a sense, we need to consider two separate issues when examining the Magdalen homes and their legacy. 

The first is the justification for institutions in themselves and the second is what actually took place inside them.

Without question, institutions in general were justified in their day. In conditions of great poverty when there simply wasn't the money available to alleviate many of the problems caused by poverty (including the early death of parents) what alternative was there?

And if the institutions had not been run by the religious orders, someone would have had to run them. This would likely have meant fewer institutions and it is highly unlikely they would have been run any better than the orders ran them to judge from the record of lay-run institutions both here and overseas.

Today, foster care is often the alternative to institutional case but foster parents are paid over €1,200 per month per foster child. If that money wasn't available there would still be thousands of children in institutions.

As for the Magdalen homes themselves, how bad were they? They certainly were not as bad as portrayed in the film, The Magdalene Sisters, or in some of the popular accounts generally.

For example, they were not set up for single mothers and few of their residents/inmates were single mothers. Indeed, those who spent them in them were rarely in for 'sexual sins' at all.

Second, the average length of stay was seven months, and not years as many people still seem to think.

Third, sexual abuse and physical abuse were very rare.

Fourth, they were not money-making enterprises and for the most part barely broke even.

Fifth, the average age of the women who were placed in them was 23 and finally, in all about 10,000 passed through their doors over a 70-year period and not 30,000 as was previously believed.

All of this is clear from the Martin McAleese's inquiry into the laundries but in many ways he might as well not have written the report at all because very quickly the movie version of the Magdalene homes was reinstalled in the public mind, namely that they were highly abusive places in which women were placed because of sexual sins.

For example, at one point in his second address to the Dáil on the matter, Enda Kenny says women were placed in them for being out of step with the “sort of moral code that was fostered at the time”.

But the McAleese report makes clear that this is not why they were placed in them in the vast majority of cases, something the Taoiseach points out later on in his speech contradicting what he said at an earlier point in the same speech.

One hundred and eighteen women testified to the McAleese investigation about their time in the laundries. Some commentators have suggested that their evidence was not representative of most of the women who passed through them.

But 53 of the 118 women who testified were from the Magdalen campaigning groups so was their account also unrepresentative?

Indeed, if the account of the 118 is unrepresentative, including that of the 53, then by this logic we cannot ever know what really happened in these institutions and should therefore be silent about it.

What, therefore, can we say about them? I think we can say that they were not Ireland's version of Stalin's gulag as some insist on saying.

I think we can say they were badly misnamed because their name gave the impression that the women in them were 'fallen' even though they were not.

I think we can also say, in agreement with Martin McAleese, that they were harsh and cold places for much of their history and often fell far below the standards we should expect of places that are properly Christian.

If we could wind back the clock what would we do differently? Given the poverty of the time and the lack of alternatives, we should still have had versions of the Magdalen homes, but they would not have been called that and they would have been more humanely run.

In the end, the best advice for anyone interested in this topic is simply to read the McAleese report for themselves, and at the very least the introduction by Mr McAleese.

This will provide you with a more accurate account of these institutions than media reports determined to perpetuate an image of the Magdalen homes that is frequently at variance with the facts.