Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shame In A Cold Climate

October 4, 2009

By Jennifer O’Connell

Christina Mulcahy’s first boyfriend was a soldier. He told her that if they did it, it meant she loved him.

Since it was 1940, and she knew no better, she did what he asked. The story ended the way such stories always did in Ireland in those days: Christina found herself in the mother and baby home in Galway.

One day, when her baby was ten months old, Christina was summoned by the mother superior and told she was going home. She was still breastfeeding her son, but the sister insisted that she couldn’t even say goodbye to him.

The little boy on the cusp of toddlerhood wouldn’t know any different, the nun said. The nuns knew best, just as they knew best when they decided not to exchange the letters sent between Christina and the soldier boyfriend who had wanted to be a father to his son.

Full of breastmilk, feverish, and distraught with grief for her baby, she went back to her family home, where her father met her at the door. “What do you think you want? You’re not coming into this house. You disgraced us. You’re not right in the head, bringing a child into this world, and you deserve punishment.”

The punishment was to be meted out at the Magdalene Laundry in Galway, where she spent four years, sobbing for her son in the steam of the laundry room.

When she eventually told her story in the Channel Four documentary, Sex In A Cold Climate, over half a century later, Christina was still shedding tears for the secret, lost baby, who was now a man of 56.

Phyllis Valentine didn’t end up in the Laundry because she misbehaved with a boyfriend. She’d never had a boyfriend. She was only 15, and had grown up in the shelter of an orphanage with the Limerick nuns.

But there was a problem anyway. She was a bit too pretty, was Phyllis, and the nuns reckoned they might have trouble with her. So they sent her next door to the Magdalenes as a kind of preventative measure.

Christina and Phyllis might have been interested to learn that they were not, in fact, penitents or prisoners; they were not being detained at the discretion of the State, the nuns, the courts, the priest, a doctor, their own father, or anyone else.

They were, in fact, willing ‘employees’. That was, and – so it would seem – remains the view of the State, according to no less an authority than Education Minister, Batt O’Keeffe. In a recent a letter to Tom Kitt, he explained why it wouldn’t be appropriate to pay these women compensation.

He didn’t mean to say ‘employees’, he clarified later. “The word 'workers' would have been more appropriate.”

Christine won’t have heard his generous acknowledgement of the hard work she put in ironing priests’ robes and laundering hospital bedlinen when she’d much rather have been caring for her baby, because she died in 1997 - not long after finally being reunited with her son, and a few months before the broadcasting of the Sex In A Cold Climate documentary, which I watched again last week.

Funny enough, Phyllis laboured under a similar impression to O’Keeffe when, at the end of her first week in the Laundry, she asked to be paid. “They laughed at me and I felt degraded. And that’s when the sister told me I was here and I would stay here until someone came for me.”

Easy to understand how you could mistake that for a consensual ‘working’ relationship between adults.

In reality, of course, the nuns were merely doing the State’s dirty work.

Throughout much of the existence of the Laundries, there was no social welfare system to care for unmarried mothers, their children, or children from ‘respectable’ married homes which were no longer safe places for them to live. So the nuns stepped in.

Everyone understood that the women would stay there until someone in their family came to vouch for them. For many of the 30,000 imprisoned, this meant until they died, or managed –as Christine heroically did – to escape.

Until the last Laundry closed its door – exactly thirteen years ago last weekend – they continued to act as a kind of state-sanctioned reform institution for girls and women, whose chief crime was to have got herself noticed for the wrong reasons.

Changing social mores are usually cited as the reason for the move away from the Laundries, but it’s just as likely to have been the advent of the washing machine. These were, in their day, thriving businesses.

Which is, according to O’Keeffe, the reason for the exclusion of the former inmates of Magdalene Laundries from the Residential Institutions Redress Board.

“The Magdalene laundries were privately-owned and operated establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the State. The State did not refer individuals to the Magdalene laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them,” he said in his letter to Tom Kitt.

He also pointed out that the Institutions were not subject to state supervision.

What exactly is he saying here – that it’s okay to kidnap and detain girls and young women and force them into slavery, as long as you don’t expect the State to officially okay it? If only Josef Fritzl and Phillip Garrido had known this, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

This is, of course, a nonsense.

How they ended up in slavery is largely irrelevant, but nonetheless, many of the women in the servitude of the Magdalenes were actually sent there by the courts. Most were minors. They worked in laundries that were fulfilling State contracts. They were never paid; never given holidays and were not free to return home at the end of a working day, or even a working year. They were not employees, and they were not workers. They were slaves.

They were each entitled to the same basic human rights as the rest of us. They each had a constitutional entitlement to the protection of the State. The State let them all down.

And yet, according to the government, they are not entitled to any compensation for the years – in some cases – whole lifetimes of suffering.

Unlike the former director general of Fás, Rody Molloy, who is entitled to generous state compensation for the loss of a lifetime of first class flights and golf outings. Unlike the banks, who are entitled to compensation for the explosion in their faces of the giant punt they took on the property market.

What a warped little country this is.


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    1. SCAM. Hidden links all of them. Why they leave this trash on the board is inexcusable. Wake up moderators, and do your job.

  2. Thank you for giving them a voice

  3. their pain and loss of their sense of being themselves. even finding out who they were, could never be compensated for, these were decent young lives that have been poisoned and destroyed forever/ what compensation could be put on that?
    The Irish government has a lot to answer for, they should at least try by appologising and monetary compensation, they were slaves, at least admit this and try to make this right instead of denying they were to blame