Society is about more than money

El Greco- Penitent Magdalene

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Unmarried mothers, and children with no mothers. Children whose mothers weren’t deemed suitable and women who weren’t deemed suitable to be mothers. Girls whose fathers weren’t working, or girls whose children were their father’s. Little girls whose crime was to give cheek to a nun or be from the wrong family.
Latter day prisoners of no conscience, the fates of these women were wrapped up in the sheets and towels they laundered for the profit of the church and the State.
Slaves for no reason other than coming to the attention of the wrong person or having a bit of fun. Or because they had been raped, or they were orphans, or their parents couldn’t cope.
The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996. 1996! The Celtic Tiger was underway, we were winning Eurovisions, the ‘knowledge economy‘ was in full swing and people were buying houses as if they were penny sweets.
All that time, women were being released who had spent 20, 30, 40 years incarcerated. Silent days of enforced prayer, laundering, locked doors and the threat of the national police being sent to retrieve them should they try to escape.
What good was the mirage of the Celtic Tiger if your life was spent in prison for committing no crime and nobody will acknowledge it?
We may be more educated, richer (despite the bust, the average household here has €22,125 in assets), open to civil union and immigration and all the other things that mark a modern pluralist country, than we were when those women underwent that ordeal.
But what good is a changed Irish society to them if it continues to ignore the terrible reality that they have lived?
The struggle of those brave women appears to be reaching a tipping point, but it has appeared this way before.
For 14 years – coming into power just after the last laundry closed and at the apex of the church abuse scandals – successive Fianna Fáil Governments completely ignored this issue. They made noises, some promising and others absolutely, disgracefully dismissive.
Former Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe just last year referred to the incarcerated women as “employees”, then as “workers”, in an appalling statement that firmly denied any right to compensation and attempted to wash the State’s hands of its sordid past.
The new government promised yesterday that Justice Minister Alan Shatter was very close to making a statement on the matter. It’s to be hoped that the Government is taking the long view on this and that those around the Cabinet table realise that a society is made of more than money.
It took a long time for abuse victims to be acknowledged and compensated. Many never were. These women are abuse victims too, and our failure to acknowledge them says as much about our society now as the society we think we have left behind. It’s time to acknowledge their suffering, apologise for it and, yes, compensate them. Their slavery made millions over years for the church and the State. Time they got some of it back.

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