Well the luck o' the Irish… Between 1922 and 1996 Irish sisters operated a series of laundries in Ireland that also served as quasi detention centers for young women. Many of the women were sent there by the Irish government or their families. The women were often referred to as "Magdalenes" after St. Mary Magdalene. In recent years the Magdalene Laundries have come under closer scrutiny and have been described as cruel and pitiless places where women worked without pay and in poor and abusive conditions. At least that is the media representation.
In 2002 the film "The Magdalene Sisters" appeared in theaters. It was about four teenage girls committed to an Irish laundry where they supposedly experienced or witnessed routine physical and sexual abuse by nuns and a priest. It depicts the laundries as profitable, moneymaking rackets, and shows the women subjected to various indignities including head shaving. The film purported that it was based on actual historical facts and witness testimony.
But how true is all this? The Irish Government issued the official report on the investigation (www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/MagdalenRpt2013 see chapter 19) of these laundries and it paints a very different picture than has been popularized. The report states: "A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalene Laundries". The report goes on: "In this regard, women who had in their earlier lives been in an industrial or reformatory school drew a clear distinction between their experiences there and in the Magdalene Laundries, stating clearly that the widespread brutality which they had witnessed and been subjected to in industrial and reformatory schools was not a feature of the Magdalene Laundries".
"The following examples and quotations relate to the majority of women who shared their stories with the Committee and who indicated that they had never experienced or seen physical punishment in a Magdalene Laundry:
One woman summarized her treatment in a Magdalene Laundry by saying, 'I might have been given out to, but I was never beaten'.
Another woman said about the same Magdalene Laundry, 'I was never beaten and I never seen anyone beaten'.
Another woman said 'It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched myself by any nun and I never saw anyone touched and there was never a finger put on them … Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will … we worked very hard there … But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after'."
Obviously the film and the false media reporting were used to bash the Church (while exculpating the Irish government) and it certainly helped put another nail in the coffin of the Irish Church. Needless to say the same media that conjured up the horror stories of the Magdalene Laundries will do little to set the record straight. That is why when it comes to reporting on the Church and the history of the Church one needs to be very, very skeptical.
Even when the reporting is accurate we still have to be careful not to judge yesterday's behavior with today's information. Also when we from this side of the pond look at the Church in Ireland and how intertwined it was with the government and culture we have to be careful not to judge it according to our understanding of the First Amendment.
A lot of wrongs unfortunately were done by the Church in Ireland and they are paying a heavy price for it. But they also did a lot of things right including sending so many missionaries to America. In so many parts of this country the US Church has been built on the foundation that was laid by so many saintly Irish priests, sisters and religious. So I guess we are all sort of Irish Catholic, today anyway!
Erin go Brach!
Love, Fr. John B.
(As of this writing the Cardinals have begun the Conclave: do we have a new Pope? Maybe a Pope Patrick?)BACK TO LIST