A Reflection on the Dublin Honours Magdalene's Event 5th June, 2018

The creation of a new future in post-apartheid South Africa depended on a national willingness to deal with the country’s past.   In her book, Country of My Skull, the Afrikaans author and journalist Antjie Krog illustrates how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began in 1996, offered silent, unheard and often unheeded voices, a microphone to the nation.  As South Africans, individually and collectively struggled to find an identity within the shadows of their country’s brutal history, a recognition of horrendous experiences illuminated future possibilities. 
 
Within an Irish context, if collective reflection is a process that a rapidly global, heterogeneous populace deems necessary for future prosperity, how do we choose an appropriate entry point to revisit our past?  Contemporary Irish citizens, increasingly at ease with publicly voicing their opinions and confident in shaping the parameters of a shared society, may struggle to comprehend Ireland’s recent triangulated relationship.    A civic society instructed by the state, but ruled by the Catholic church effectively sanctioned, facilitated and until recently concealed the most horrific traumas inflicted on the State’s most vulnerable citizens.  More than simply architectural structures, the Magdalene Laundries assumed the mantle of Ireland’s moral court.  What our society considered the deviants, the morally corrupt, the poor, the illiterate, the retarded, the disabled, the sexually promiscuous, or those with the slightest potential for sexual transgressions, were rounded up and placed into slavery.  Given the lifelong damage this enforced incarceration created, admission to the Magdalene Laundries was a relatively simple affair.  A nod from a priest, a signature from a school principal, or transport by a family member, all created a steady supply chain that only ceased to exist in 1996 with the closure of the last Magdalene Laundry -- the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin.  As the Celtic Tiger roared, the discovery of a mass grave containing 155 corpses unearthed in the convent’s grounds, called time on the secrets surrounding Ireland’s internal slave trade. As Frappuccino Ireland steadied itself to look through the doors, the vacant eyes of 40 Irish women starred straight back at them.  The oldest in their 70s; the youngest in their 40s, a nation marketing itself as a model of modernity saw that Ireland’s own twisted experience of incarceration did not simply belong to a bygone era.  
 
The Magdalene Laundries
 
In his book, The Secret Lives of Buildings, Edward Hollis suggests that a building’s biography contains its hidden stories, which are all too often overlooked or wilfully ignored.  The architectural frame of the Magdalene Laundries, built to contain a lifetime of silence, is no exception.  Moving through the walls into the corridors, washrooms and the laundries themselves, one can hear the stories of abandonment, betrayal and abuse whispered by Irish females.  These stories lament childhoods cruelly stolen. They reveal animosity at being lured into educational institutions where learning was prohibited. Indeed, the sheer poverty and daily grind of 1950s Ireland reveals another complex narrative. Reassured by the Church that sending their daughter to a laundry would ensure the education of at least one child, was a promise too irresistible for the poor. Instead of sitting in rows of desks, women and girls stood in industrial lines from 6am until bedtime, forced to wash the piss, shit and blood from the nation’s sheets.  On leaving the Magdalene Laundries,  women’s stories reveal how they were often plagued by the challenges of living with functional literacy.   Indeed, this ingrained stupidity remains a constant companion for some.  Today, many of these stories cannot resist returning to the past as old women struggle alone with futile thoughts about what might have been.  Hushed murmurs yearn for children, who are still missing. Yet the passing of time acts as guarantor that some will never smell the scent of their child.  Indeed, the abuse they endured often affected their ability to maintain relationships or indeed, bear children.  Grandparents who acquiesced in the illegal trafficking of their grandchildren, died with family honour, and the honour of the nation, intact. Their stories were taken to the grave.  Stories reveal heartbreak over relationships with parents that were often changed forever or sibling relationships destroyed.  The cement poured on these, our national secrets, has been so effective that even siblings who were incarcerated together in the Magdalene Laundries never shared their stories with each other, even in private.  As one such woman mentioned to me at the recent Dublin Honours Magdalenes event:
 
     “I simply put all of what happened to me at Stanhope St. into my bottom drawer, and didn’t open it for fifty years”.
 
With time, most interiors disappear, or are forgotten, as we simply fail to notice them.  But everyday items are not trivial. A bottom drawer containing an archive of pain, can be explosive to touch, particularly when compounded by decades of self-guilt.  Yet memories contained in the bottom drawer often live in constructed conversations with the top drawers, between the past and the present.  Intergenerational chats, snippets of gossip or indeed disagreements, oscillate between drawers, circling, nudging and eventually prodding the memories in the bottom drawer to come out.   In his book, The Memory Place, Edward Hollis states that modernity implies a rejection of the past, a commitment to the future, and a deliberate forgetfulness.  Yet on 5th June 2018, a modern Ireland demonstrated its readiness to embrace its forgotten past as it strives to move forward.  Those waiting outside the Mansion House exhibited this readiness by bending down with these women to collectively open their bottom drawers to take national responsibility for the memories of the Magdalene Laundries.
 
Dublin Honours Magdalenes
 
The public declaration of support on the 5th of June as seven coaches
carrying these women from Áras an Uachtaráin to the Mansion House,
indicated a willingness from Irish citizens to stand in solidarity with a private
shame that has been hidden away for decades. The continuous round of
applause that met these women at the Mansion House, signalled the
moment when Ireland’s torturous reign of silence began to evaporate.
The juxtaposition between then and now, defines articulation. As thousands
of children heard the Magdalene doors shut firmly behind them, Irish
citizens, with their eyes cast downwards, granted permission for this state
abuse through their silence. On the 5th of June, these women were
warmly greeted by a population who looked these former children in the
eye and simply acknowledged them.   For my aunt, who was sent to
Stanhope St. in 1954, this moment was truly monumental.
 
Looking to the future
 
Two weeks on, the overwhelming excitement building up to this event has been matched by a crashing deflation, as my aunt is alone once again with only her debilitating pain for companionship. While her body continues to defy her wishes, her agile mind has returned once again to the one singular question that has consumed her life for the past 60 years:
 
      “What could I have been, if I’d been educated?”
 
Whenever I speak to her she continues to ask if I have heard anything about the day, or what is happening next.  Apart from what I have already said, I struggle to answer her.   
 
So where do we go from here?  Indeed, with the enormity and longevity of this period of Irish history, a series of diverse, yet micro interventions may be required to move us forward.  Yet the recent public acceptance of our aunt has prompted pause for internal reflection and the possible need for her own family to truly acknowledge her.  My aunt’s incarceration in the Magdalene Laundries destroyed her relationship with her parents and siblings, the reverberations of which are still being felt two generations on.  During dinner at the Mansion House on the 5th June, my aunt quietly mumbled something that I had to ask her to repeat.  “I think it’s time to forgive them… the nuns”, was and continues to be profound in its simplicity, but towering in its courage.   It has prompted us, her family and descendants to begin to consider how we can begin to lay to rest an era of Irish history that entered a humble family home in rural Ireland, extracted its beating heart, a young girl, and placed her into slavery in Dublin.        
 
A Final Note
 
Given the sensitivity of this subject along with the profound impact the Magdalene Laundries has had on my own family, I asked some close friends and family members to read this piece before I published it online.  After several emotional responses, one clear question emerged. Why had I chosen to write in a style that may prove inaccessible to those less comfortable with the written form?  I had given this serious consideration before I chose my words, but my intentions from the start were clear.  We, Mná na hÉireann of the 21st century, are educated.  We are articulate.  We have a voice. How we choose to exercise our voice for the betterment of ourselves and others is a decision we can now make for ourselves.  
 
The medium I have chosen to exercise my own voice has been through the
teaching profession.  I was raised on the knee of the 1950s generation, whose
shambolic experience of Irish education remains with them to this day. Their
laments, which swung like a pendulum between humour and anger, pausing
at self-deprecation, were so painful to listen to, and harrowing to watch as a child.       
 
And so to bring this reflection to a conclusion, all that remains to be said to my
aunt is that I have listened to you.  I have learnt from you.  And because of you
all, I am educated. 

Dublin Honours the Magdalenes, 2018

Together at Áras an Uachtaráin, 2018