In Sydney, there’s a restored old barracks in the central business district. From 1848, all single female immigrants came through there before being funneled on to jobs as maids or farm girls. Many were Irish, part of a government scheme to get poor women out of work-houses or other bad situations and send them to Australia where there weren’t enough women to work and marry.
Hyde Park Barracks is a wonderful museum; imaginative and unflinching. Visiting it a month ago, I was moved to angry tears. In a darkened room at the end of a bare wood hall, there were photographs, stories and artifacts of these would-be servant girls. The centerpiece was a battered wooden trunk, about the size of my council recycling bin. Each girl got one to carry everything she might need to a place she would never come home from. She was issued with a Bible, nighties and knickers, a comb and some soap.
This often involuntary transportation was actually a really good option for many girls. Most went on to marry and often outlive husbands, and support and raise families all over Australia. They are shown photographed formally as old women in high, white lace collars and stiff black crepe dresses, the very picture of Victorian respectability; proud, upright, straining just a bit forward, not to show how far they have come, but as if to imply they have always been so prosperous.
What upset me was how unwanted they were, first in Ireland, then in England, and finally in Australia. Irish peasant girls were considered dirty, cheeky and most likely fallen. They were damaged goods. (The good Protestant burghers of bootstrapping Sydney were alarmed at the influx of Catholic breeders, too.) My heart ached for those cheerful, ignorant, doughty girls who pitched up on a then-despised shore to find out even the people there thought they were lazy sluts.
In history and politics, we give a lot of thought to the Young Turk problem; what to do about young, un- or under-employed men to stop them fomenting nationalist revolution, bombing airports or stealing Nikes. But what about the young women societies consider troublesome or surplus? Those nineteenth century Irish girls were relatively lucky. They might scramble onto a ladder of progress, albeit the bottom rung. In Ireland in the twentieth century, we simply locked them up and threw away the key.
Last week, the report on Ireland’s Magdalen laundries was published. From 1900 until the last one shut in 1996*, thirty thousand women were detained as forced labour in ten religious institutions around the country. They included petty criminals on remand, young female offenders (Ireland had no borstal for girls), unmarried mothers, the mentally disabled, unwanted step-children and girls who had aged out of state orphanages. A number were simply placed there without comment in their record by family members, priests or the Legion of Mary.
The girls were stripped of their names, hair, clothes and the chance of an education, and made to work for years without pay in laundries attached to closed convents. The laundries were much less violent places than the state orphanages many had ‘graduated’ from, but they were thick with what we now call verbal and mental abuse, and the most common punishment seems to have been deprivation of food. It would be wrong to underplay the perfectly avoidable mental anguish the girls and women suffered.
The report includes accounts of bewildered girls taken from their complicit families in the back of the parish priest’s car, and deposited without warning or explanation in the convent parlour. One woman says she told a nun at her school that she was being ‘interfered with’, and found herself blamed and imprisoned. The cruelest part was that they often weren’t told why they were put away or when they might be let out. When they were let out – without notice or the chance to say goodbye to their friends – the deep social stigma and fear of being taken again meant many fled to England and America. Their ties with family and the places they came from were broken, and they had little or no education to help find any but the most menial jobs.
This is not a straightforward case of religious abuse; all of Irish society colluded in the imprisonment of troublesome girls. The question for the report is ‘how responsible is the Irish State?’. The State sent many girls to the laundries through the criminal justice system, but doesn’t seem to have bothered about how they were treated or when they would be released. Policemen captured and returned any escaped girls, not just those sentenced or placed on remand. Several of the laundries depended financially on State contracts. Legislation of the time set a wage requirement for all labour and required workers to be registered for their national insurance, but this was ignored when it came to the laundries. As a result, the aging survivors often have the most paltry pension entitlements.
The survivors have been excluded from compensation – unlike those from state orphanage – because the laundries operated in a grey area between Church and State. Last week, Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave what most consider a mealy-mouthed response to the report. It bears little resemblance to his justifiable outrage at the Church hierarchy’s self-serving cover-up of child sexual abuse. This week he wants to meet the survivors, but they’re holding back unless Kenny gives a good reason and stated outcome for the meeting. The women don’t wish to take part in a conscience-salving photo opportunity only to have all of Ireland turn its back on them again.
The last thing Ireland needs is another bill to pay, but this one pre-dates and trumps those of our well-to-do financial creditors. This time, the abuse is not just about the Church. Religious orders were the jailers, and the Church propagated the twisted values that made having sex or giving cheek punishable by indefinite incarceration. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Parents, older siblings and incoming wives kicked daughters out of family homes, and soothed themselves with pleasing lies about where those girls ended up. Hotels, hospitals and well-to-do housewives sent their dirty sheets to be washed at cost. (The report’s financial analysis shows, contrary to popular belief, that mostly closed religious orders made no profit on the laundries and probably subsidized them.) The common denominator in so many Magdalen stories isn’t sex, it’s money.
The laundries were not a dark secret hidden from most of society, but part of a punitive, denialist attitude to sex spliced together with everything ugly about our class system. The odd middle class girl was caught in the trap, but mostly it was poor families whose daughters stole or who acquiesced in having troublesome daughters taken off their hands. Poorer families might not have relatives well enough off to take in unwanted siblings, or the social and cultural standing to withstand a clerical browbeating.
The report includes the plaintive defense of a surviving nun; “Sure we were institutionalized, too.” You could read this as ‘we were just following orders’, or you could look harder at what she might have meant. When the girls entered the laundries they were at the bottom of the convent hierarchy, but only a rung or two below the lay nuns. Lay nuns were women from lower classes who didn’t have dowries or good educations when they entered the convent, and therefore spent their lives as cleaners with habits on. No one questioned it. The religious orders both acted as repositories for society’s unwanted troublesome girls, and reflected the mercenary social values that rendered those girls just above worthless.
Even if you do believe in a Whiggish notion of historical progress, it’s impossible to say nothing like this could happen now. We need to ask ourselves – those of us young enough to feel weightlessly innocent of the Magdalen and clerical sex abuse scandals – what would we have done to stop it, and what socially acceptable wickedness are we willfully not-noticing right now? What groupthink makes it only seem morally sound to ignore, say, the incarceration and mistreatment of asylum-seekers in the UK, or the slaughter of far away innocents by murder-drones?
It will only be progress when we stop waiting for today’s unwanted and mistreated to find their voices and holler loud enough to attract notice and extract justice – as a succession of groups from unmarried mothers to war-internees to refugees from each and every conflict we leap into eventually do – and instead go looking for them and see what can be done. Now. While it still counts.
- Keeping the last Magdalen laundry open until 1996 must sound anachronistically brutal, but it may have been a mercy. I remember when it was finally shut down, hearing on the radio the horror and confusion of the few institutionalized old women left in it who had nowhere else to go.