Sunday, 17 February 2013

Magdalene Laundries put in context

Following the publication of the McAleese Report into Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, and subsequent apologies in the Dail for the Irish state's involvement, there has inevitably been yet another round of denigration of Catholic institutions by the popular media.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Brendan O'Neill presents a balanced and fair account of the Magadalene Laundries, examining the actual findings, putting them into context, and including quotations from former Magdalenes whose ecperiences did not tally with the popular images of brutality and abuse, and who actually remember the Sisters with some affection. Thanks to Fr. Tim for drawing attention to the article, and for his own post on the subject.

When reading the article, I was reminded of part of the BBC series 'Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs' presented by Dr. Pamela Cox and broadcast last year. In one episode, shown in the video below, Dr. Cox refers to St. Faith's House of Mercy in Cornwall, run by an Anglican order, which was to all intents a Magadene Laundry. Please have a look at the sequence from 24.30 to 27.50. The historian being interviewed by Dr. Cox presents the actual philosophy behind these institutions and the reasons for the procedures within them. What is very telling is when she remarks that, "This all sound repressive, until you realise that the sisters did precisely the same themseleves", forgetting former lives, taking new names, wearing 'uniforms' and living under strict rules. Also interesting is the way that the presenters treat the topic as matter of fact and ,if anything, in a mildly positive light, in the context of the times in which it occurred.

As Brendan O'Neill suggests in his article, perhaps the biggest fault with the Irish Laundries, was that they deprived women of their freedom, with inmates often being sent for inappropriate and trivial reasons, to appease a sense of 'decency', and also that they continued to use the outmoded rules of the Victorian workhouse long after these had fallen out of use eleswhere.

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