Text first published in Corks Evening Echo, 21May 2013
On Tuesday 21st May, at 7pm to 9pm at The Other Place on South Main Street, Cork Feminista will host a public meeting on the topic ‘What Does Justice Mean for Magdalene Survivors’. Guest speakers include Claire McGettrick, Public Relations Officer at Justice for Magdalenes, and Dr. Sandra McAvoy of UCC’s Women’s Studies Department. Their insightful and pertinent talks will be followed by an open discussion.
As a Co-Organiser, I have been ruminating on the question of ‘justice’ in the Magdalene Survivor context for several weeks, and I believe that first and foremost we, the people of Ireland, must acknowledge the suffering of the survivors and recognise that the abuse intentionally inflicted on these women was gender-based in motivation.
The Magdalene Laundries were run by nuns, from various orders, who set up the institutions as workhouses where women who were perceived as sinners would do penance. In many cases, women who became pregnant outside of marriage were sent to the laundries by their families, ostensibly to keep the shameful pregnancy a secret. The men who participated in the sex act, either with or without the consent of the women, were protected from judgement and the women were further shamed as temptresses and liars. Other inmates were female children from other residential institutions who were sent to the laundries in anticipation of their pubescence.
‘Penitents’ were denied their freedom of movement, their given names, their identities, their hair was cut and, most harrowingly, mothers and children were separated from one another. The women were forced to wash soiled sheets and garments in silence as a powerful and oppressive symbol of the Church’s perception of these women as dirty, fallen, and deserving of punishment.
The state and the public colluded with the Church to imprison these women and children. The Gardai returned escapees based on reports from members of the public. Some families abandoned their daughters and sisters in the convent both temporarily and permanently. The women could only be released if their families came back to claim them. An unknown number of women died in the laundries and were buried in the grounds of the institutions. The laundries were subject to state inspection, and the state had contracts with the nuns for the cleaning of linen from hospitals and other institutions.
The confinement and treatment of these women and children in Magdalene Laundries is truly the greatest shame of our nation since the famine. Its legacy is a culturally embedded belief in matriarchal martyrdom that affects women to this day. The nuns’ cruel treatment of women in the laundries and their continued unwillingness to apologise betrays the Church’s and the sisters’ conviction that women deserve suffering in the context of their fertility; I call it the Virgin Mary complex.
There was and still is an almost unquestioned belief that women should suffer. The survivors of symphysiotomy, a barbaric procedure which involved sawing a woman’s pelvic bone in half, know all about suffering. Their bodies were broken by doctors who were trying to control female fertility in a time and place where contraceptives were illegal.
The legacy of our cultural perception of women’s fertility as one that involves martyrdom can be seen in the contemporary debate on abortion. We live in a culture where a woman enduring a painful and high-risk miscarriage is left to suffer (and eventually die) for the ideology of motherhood, despite the fact that the foetus would not survive. We live in a country that refuses to help women whose pregnancies have been given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. A country where rape victims who become pregnant are expected to stoically endure bearing the child of their rapist. A country that exports 12 women a day to the UK for terminations of crisis pregnancy.
In order to re-balance the damage done to the Magdalene Survivors, we must first see their reputations restored. We must ensure that the Magdalene Survivors receive an apology and financial redress from the religious institutions that operated the laundries and the state which colluded with the Chuch. But we must do more. We must take public and symbolic steps to re-position the public image of Magdalene Survivors from that of fallen women to that of victims of institutionalised patriarchy.
This system of institutional slavery and suffering was designed to shame and blame women for their gender and fertility. A national monument in honour of the survivors has been proposed and is, in theory, a positive step; but, if this proposal is not embarked upon from a genuine position of reconciliation, then it will fail and do more harm than good. If the monument is designed in collaboration with survivors, then it may begin to address their stories and have a beneficial outcome. However, in order to generate sincere reconciliation, I propose that we need to go further than simply creating a statue or obelisk, we need to ensure that each Magdalene Laundry site becomes part of our official history.
The Good Shepherds Convent on Sunday’s Well Cork was the last laundry in the state to close in 1996. The site is inaccessible to the public and the building was largely burned out in a fire some years back. The graves of the nuns occupy a part of the site that overlooks the convent grounds and the city; each marked with a cross and named individually. In stark contrast, the grave of those enslaved is a mass plot in a walled and spatially cut off section overlooking Cork City Gaol. There is also an unmarked plot which one can only assume to be the grave of unbaptised babies.
The Magdalene graves are almost completely inaccessible to those who wish to bring flowers to these women and babies, and it is obvious that this is the case because of intentional design. The City of Cork has an opportunity to lead the way by preserving what is left of the site in collaboration with the Magdalene Survivors and an artist/architect of their choice. The site should be reclaimed from that of a shameful secret to a place of reflection and remembrance.