There’s no doubt the laundries were unpleasant

Speaking of Brendan O’Neill, a friend pointed out to me that he’d done a piece belittling the horrors of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland. It’s a disgusting read.

The Australian, 22 February 2013

THIS week, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised to women who had been institutionalised in Magdalene laundries. He described these Catholic, nun-run institutions, in which 10,000 girls and women did unpaid labour between 1922 and 1996, as “a dark part of our history”.

There’s no doubt the laundries were unpleasant, filled with “fallen women” or petty criminals, who were made to wash sheets and do other laborious tasks for local businesses. But – and here’s the rub – it seems the laundries were not quite as unpleasant as we’d been led to believe.

“Unpleasant” – easy for him to say, since he was never locked up in one and never at risk of being locked up in one.

The Irish government’s report into the laundries, which prompted Kenny’s apology, discovered a disconnect between the public perception of the laundries and the lived reality in them.

Ah yes, and similarly, Donald Trump keeps discovering a disconnect between news reports of his administration and his lived reality of them. I wonder why that might be.

Many people’s view of the laundries was cemented by the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters, where nuns were shown shaving girls’ heads, forcing them to strip and perving over them in the showers, among other horrors.

But the government report found not one case of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry.

One, the government report was the government report – it had an interest. Two – yes, and? Is that the standard? The nuns didn’t sexually abuse their captives?

It also found that in most cases where girls were beaten, it was in the same way as was commonplace in schools across Europe in the 1950s and 60s: they were rapped on the knuckles or caned on the legs.

Oh that’s fine then. Let’s all go back to sleep.

The “girls” shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Having sex isn’t a crime, and it’s likely that not all of them even had that sex voluntarily. Women shouldn’t be imprisoned for having sex and so they shouldn’t be physically abused while wrongfully imprisoned. We don’t need smug men dismissing the whole thing later because they’re callous sneering toads.

Where once there was much talk of the Magdalene girls being slaves, the report found 35 per cent of women stayed in the laundries for less than three months and 60 per cent stayed less than a year. Many entered voluntarily.

So 40 percent stayed more than a year and many did not enter voluntarily. Also how “voluntarily” was it really? How many women entered “voluntarily” because their families were making their lives hell, because they didn’t have the money to go elsewhere and couldn’t get work because they were pregnant, because neighbors were tormenting them?

This was priest-ridden Ireland, which treated girls and women as well as you would expect a priest-ridden country to. It was bad: it was repressive and punitive and theocratic, and the laundries were part of the infrastructure of all that. Saying it wasn’t that bad for pregnant women to have to do hard labor in a laundry that raked in profits for the church is just smug and callous.

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