Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Airing Ireland's dirty linen

Moving to America has made me realise how proud I am to be Irish. While my migration to Davis was inherently daunting, the fear and uncertainty about being so far away from home has been tempered by the genuine warmth of those who detect even the slightest hint of my accent. In many ways, it has helped me combat the sense of feeling like an outsider.

While I consider it a privilege that the utterance of my nationality enjoys a largely positive reception, my absence from Ireland has imparted on me a large deal of objectivity in it’s assessment, particularly from a feminist perspective. The reality is, although I’m proud of certain facets of my Irish identity, as a woman I’m also deeply embarrassed by it.

Earlier last week, a New York Time’s video titled ‘The lost children of Tuam’ circulated my Facebook newsfeed. This deeply poignant video documents the discovery, and subsequent cover up of a mass burial chamber, where the remains of at least 796 ‘illegitimate’ children and infants were dumped by the Bon Secours sisters in an act of what can only be described as pure sacrilege. You see, the Republic of Ireland, since its nascence in the early 20th Century, has been ensnared and indoctrinated by the Catholic Church. The result? The systemic enslavement and abuse of thousands of unmarried mothers in ‘mother and baby homes’, otherwise known as Magdalene Laundries, which were run by four religious orders of the Catholic Church and covertly financed by the Irish State.

The Magdalene Laundries have left a gaping wound across the social and political landscape of modern Ireland. Often referred to as Magdalene Asylums, they appeared on the surface to be institutions where women were expected to work in a laundry in return for bed, board and atonement for their sins. Behind this façade a different story. The nuns that ran these laundries quietly profited off washing the linen of local wealthy families while at the same time physically, emotionally and spiritually abusing these women.

They functioned as institutions for ‘fallen women’, so firmly believed to be in the clutches of depravity for daring to, or having the misfortune of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. With contraception only barely being legalised in Ireland in 1980 (another string of society the master puppeteer Church controlled), accidental pregnancies, not to mention pregnancies arising from the abhorrent acts of rape and incest, were almost inevitable. Among these “fallen women” were sufferers of mental health illnesses as well as women with petty criminal convictions, however the vast majority of those enslaved were unmarried mothers averaging at the tender age of 23.

The short film gives a voice to some of the survivors of this particular mother and baby home in Tuam. One man painfully detailed that when his mother had gotten pregnant outside of marriage “the priest in the parish got to hear about it and told her parents that it was an awful disgrace. That she couldn’t be seen out because she’d be a bad influence”. I assure you, this was not an isolated incident. We have to remember that practically until the turn of the 21st Century, the Catholic Church ruled supreme in Ireland. A priest paying attention to a particular person or a particular family was akin to God himself sitting down with you for tea. This monopoly on society meant that a priest telling a family how disgraceful their daughter was would often garner a visceral reaction of shame and disgust, resulting in their ‘beloved’ daughter being coerced into a mother and baby home in order to escape the toxic scrutiny of the insular Irish society. Almost always the families were told the same lie; “the nuns would look after her there”.

While the government closed this particular mother and baby home in Tuam in 1961, it continued to operate similar homes across the country right up until 1996. I wouldn’t have enough space in this post to fully detail the abuses women faced at the hands of the supposedly ‘trusted’ clergy, however at least 23,000 unmarried women were put in these homes and forced to give up their infants. Whether they were starved, neglected, left to fester in their own waste, smothered, beaten or illegally bartered off to rich American families, their children were most brutally punished for being the fruits of a perceived union of ‘sin’. They were punished for the innocence of their mere existence.

I was born a year after the last laundry was shut. However, growing up in a supposed ‘post-laundry’ landscape doesn’t rid the horrors from Irish memories or consciences. In 2013, our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was moved to tears in the Dáil while issuing a formal apology to all women whose suffering had long gone unnoticed. This apology was accompanied by a plan to provide reparations to the few remaining survivors of the laundries, with the Church so piously refusing to contribute.  However, it was not until February 2017 that the mass grave in Tuam was addressed by Kenny in the Dáil;
“No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' care. We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the holier than thous were particularly fluent.... Indeed for a while it seems as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self impregnate”.

While State-issued apologies can do little more than affirm an injustice was committed, I struggle with the fact that my country propagated such a disgraceful, inhumane treatment of women merely because society deemed them to have "fallen". It’s a topic I can do little justice to in a blog post other than highlight its existence. However, to end almost where I began, in times such as these when I find myself marooned from home undergoing bouts of homesickness, I can’t neglect this. As a feminist, my national pride is wholly eclipsed by the embarrassment flowing from my country’s acts against women, and no number of Americans warmly telling me what percentage Irish heritage they are will ever override that embarrassment.


Aoife Mee said...


Thank you for highlighting such an important aspect of our national history that has, for far too long, been swept under the carpet by the Church and State. I too, share your embarrassment that such appalling abuses of Irish women and children were allowed to go on in supposedly "safe" mother and baby homes across the country.

Although the formal state apology by Enda Kenny came decades too late for so many women and children that were abused and lost their lives in homes like Tuam, I am glad that we are finally starting to recognise the dangerous hold that the Catholic Church has had over our state for so long, and the irreparable damage it has caused to the lives of so many Irish people.

Enda Kenny's comment that "for a while it seems as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self impregnate" highlighted the serious imbalance that existed in the Church and Irish society's view of women compared to men. Indeed, women who were put into homes and laundries run by the Church found themselves saddled with the entire blame for the "crime" of falling pregnant outside of marriage. Meanwhile, their "sinful accomplices", i.e. the fathers of their children, were not punished or shunned by the Church or wider Irish society at all and were allowed to go on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened.

My hope, is that we all can learn from the horrors of our nation's past so that such terrible abuses never happen again.

B. Williams said...


This was an excellent and incredibly sad post. I watched the entire NY Times video and was crying by the end.

Unfortunately, Ireland is far from alone in condoning and concealing forced adoptions of children born to unwed mothers. In the United States, similar abuses led to over 1.5 million women being forced or coerced into giving up their children for adoption while under the care of the Catholic Church between the 1940's and the 1970's.

I entirely agree with Aoife's assessment of the double standards imposed by the Church and society on unwed mothers in comparison to fathers. The Catholic Church's mistreatment of women hits close to home. While I spent 12 years in Catholic school, I often attribute my defection from the Church to it's unequal treatment of women. I find it kind of funny that attending an all-girls Catholic high school gave me the self-assuredness, feminist leanings, and critical thinking skills I ultimately used to justify my movement away from Catholicism. I found it truly difficult to follow a religion that refused to allow women to become priests, treated its nuns and sisters as second-class citizens in the religious community, and continued to hold onto dogmatic ideas about sex, contraception, and procreation that robbed women of their bodily autonomy and sexual agency.

At the very minimum it's heartening to see that Ireland issued state apologies for the horrors endured by women and children in these homes. One hopes that, even though it is too little too late, the Church will issue similar apologies.