The context in which the laundries were established was one of a nascent republic governed by a political elite educated, informed and, to a certain extent instructed, by the Catholic Church. In the late thirties upon the death of the first President of Ireland, Dr. Douglas Hyde founder of the Gaelic League, the Taoiseach and the government had to stand outside the church at the funeral. Dr. Hyde was a Protestant and the majority of the politicians Catholic. It was forbidden at the time for a Catholic to set foot in a Protestant church. Within the wider society, the Church had almost complete control of the health and education systems of the country. Even now the Church owns almost 90% of the schools in the state. The words spoken from the pulpit had more force and reckoning than that of elected representatives in the parliament. These crushing and claustrophobic conditions were contributing to, if not instrumental in, the fact that emigration from Ireland in the period 1940-1960 was largely of women.
These examples starkly contextualise the Magdalene Laundries and illustrate and highlight the context of womens role and subjugation in Irish society. They could not inherit the land, could not socialise outside the ideal proscribed by the then Taoiseach Eamon De Valera. The Irish Constitution written by De Valera in 1937 proscribes that a womans place is within the home and that the State should provide for her so that she shall not have to leave the hearth due to economic circumstances. Those that remained at this hearth and home were subject to the rule of the Church. Thus within political, social, health, educational and domestic affairs the church had an unquestioned monopoloy on power and influence. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton) In this light the Magdalene Sisters endures as the most damning but at the same time the most vivid illustration at what unchecked control of human lives can create and paradoxically achieve.
The Magdalene laundries stand as a testament to the perversion of human nature, perversion to avoid sin among women where sin was anything done outside the proscribed model of Mary, the Mother of Christs virgin purity, leading to the labelling of Magdalene, the wayward soul needed repentance. In the light of the 21st century, almost a decade on from when the first stories of the Magdalene laundries breached the silence, what has changed? True the institutions have been shut, true the Sisters of Mercy, who were one of the largest religious orders in the country, have not had a new nun in almost seven years, but can that bring us to look in Bernadettes eye? When one reads that the Vatican has banned the film, disowned the facts and hidden behind its amassed millions, can we look in Bernadettes eye? Yeats wrote in his poem September 1913 that romantic Irelands dead and gone. Is Catholic Ireland dead and gone or have we matured as a nation to embrace women, their sexuality, and their waywardness.
The restriction of women to the hearth and home and the enforcement of strict purifying and cleansing measures is often indicative of nascent nationalism and nation-states (Ireland being the example used here). In a bid to control the present, politicians and societal leaders rewrite the past through the future. To create a perfect society in the future, they look for the best policies to achieve this based on the power politics of the present. Legitimacy for these policies must be sought in the past, a past, which is, rewritten in the power politics of the present. Thus in essence, it is the distilling power of the present, which shapes the future and rewrites the past. A present that must strive to be inclusive, non-denominational but never oblivious to the suffering of the past.
On one final point, I wish to clarify a sentence in the original article. The Church was not aided by the silence and blindness of bourgeois families. It was funded and staffed by them. The social status implicit in having a priest or nun within a family in rural Ireland was immense. The Church were extremely selective in who they took, and it was indeed a bourgeois rooted selection process. Reflectively, one should note that this is one side of the coin of Irish Catholicism. Life, religion and retribution is rarely if ever black and white. The majority of us, namely Irish citizens, have been educated in its schools, instructed by its members and nursed in its hospitals. We are the instruments of the power politics of the present, through which we shape the future through policies legitimised by the past.