It takes an age to squeeze much remorse out of the Irish government, doesn’t it? In 1999, after decades of child abuse in Catholic-run organisations, it finally issued “a sincere and long-overdue apology” to the victims and set up a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which took nine years to present its findings.
Now the government has been told – by a report prompted two years ago by the UN Committee Against Torture – that the Irish state colluded in sending 30,000 women to the infamous Magdalene Laundries between 1922 and 1996.
The prime minister, Enda Kenny, didn’t apologise to the families of the women who’d been incarcerated in these hellish institutions despite committing no crime. He said: “The stigma [of] the branding together of all the residents… in the Magdalene Laundries needs to be removed.” No, it doesn’t. The stigma of the Laundries will survive as a reminder of how inhumanly innocent people can be treated by supposedly charitable institutions.
These were places where “loose girls” or “fallen women” could be packed off to, girls impregnated by their fathers or uncles or the local priest, girls who were considered too flightly or flirtatious or headstrong to be biddable members of society. They could be put to work all day, washing sheets for the military, fed on bread and dripping, forbidden to speak and offered no way out, or any explanation about why they were imprisoned. Half of them were teenagers, doomed to spend their best years in a workhouse, being humiliated by nuns, told they’d offended God and that their parents didn’t want them.
The Laundries’ existence isn’t news. People have been familiar with their cosy-sounding name for years. Joni Mitchell wrote a song about them on her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. Candida Crewe wrote a novel about them in 1996. Miramax produced the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, left, directed by Peter Mullan. The only people seemingly oblivious to their existence are Irish politicians.
Why they stayed oblivious is pretty clear. Ireland has had a chronic problem of keeping church and state matters apart. Government and church traditionally, if tacitly, support each other – which meant, in the past, the authorities turning a blind eye to abusive priests. The girls sent to the Magdalene Laundries had committed no crime – they were accused of committing sin – but they could be taken by Gardai and locked away in prisons funded by the state.
No wonder the government didn’t want the ghastly business coming into the light. It’s vital Mr Kenny tries to frame some response to the victims’ families beyond feeling sorry for what the victims endured. And the Magdalene report confirms the importance of keeping church and state matters separate – even if, as we’ve seen in this week’s historic Commons vote, the institutions are heading for a fight.