Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Let's come clean about society's role in Laundries shame

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

If you were to take a poll among people today about the treatment – and mistreatment – of the women in the Republic's Magdalene Laundries, it is likely that you would find an overwhelming sense of compassion for the way these women suffered.

However, if you were to take a poll among people who were alive 50 or 60 years ago, you would probably find that most people approved of the laundries and imagined that they were doing a fine job.

A schoolfriend of mine, whose parents had a hotel, recalled that the main reaction to the Magdalene Laundries was that the linen came back so immaculately clean, efficiently washed and ironed.

I have come across allusions to the laundries in the media of the 1940s and 1950s and the tone was one of approval and admiration. It is said now that the women subjected to the harsh regime of the laundries had their human rights breached.

Indeed they did. Except that the legal concepts of 'human rights' simply hadn't entered the lexicon 60 years ago. It was in the UN Declaration of 1948, but it did not have a legal application in most jurisdictions until much later.

If the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, should apologise for the wrongs inflicted on the Magdalene women, so should 90% of Irish people.

Kenny is no more guilty, personally, of these injustices than any of the rest of us, whose mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandparents, aunts, cousins and wider kinfolk endorsed the values that made the laundries possible.

There is anger out there about the mistreatment of the Magdalenes, but there is also a great deal of what psychologists call 'projection'.

The 'projection' looks for a 'them' to blame. It was the state; it was the Church. But it was just as much 'us' as it was 'them'.

Adolescent anger is all about lashing out at a 'them' to blame; mature judgment involves accepting that we each bear a responsibility.

Values were different in the past and Ireland was not the only society in which cruel punishments were meted out to those who were deemed to have offended against the moral order.

In Sweden, as in several of the Nordic countries, those who were described as 'moral imbeciles' were forcibly sterilised under eugenic laws.

The Swedes have had to come to terms with this past policy and to accept that, until 40 years ago, most Swedes approved of this approach, designed to stop 'criminal classes' from reproducing.

They faced the fact squarely, rather than merely calling for apologies from younger politicians who had nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps Enda Kenny will issue his apology this week, since there is such a strong demand for the gesture. But it is no substitute for a real sense of responsibility on the part of the general populace. The honest truth is that the values that sustained the Magdalene Laundries were upheld by the majority of the Irish population.

There was indeed a strong cult of 'respectability' among middle Ireland, which begat a fear of crime and 'lawlessness' of any kind. Some of the women in the laundries were sent into these institutions for offences such as stealing a train ticket. I can imagine a social attitude that any tendency to 'lawlessness' should be nipped in the bud.

Apologise by all means. Pay the Magdalenes compensation. But be honest: the "harsh, uncompromising, authoritarian Ireland" that Enda Kenny referred to last week was the Ireland of the current generation's forebears and the values that they wholly approved of.

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