The Magdalene Laundries

A few years ago, my sweety and I watched the 2002 Peter Mullan film, The Magdalene Sisters. What an excellent movie, though heart-wrenching to see the conditions imposed on young women and girls. The film centres on three teenage girls sent to live at the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland.

The Wikipedia writeup on the laundries says: “The Magdalene laundries in Ireland, also known as Magdalene asylums, were institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They were run ostensibly to house “fallen women,” an estimated 30,000 of whom were confined in these institutions in Ireland. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries. This led to media revelations about the operations of the secretive institutions. A formal state apology was issued in 2013, and a £50 million (CAD 85.6 million) compensation scheme for survivors was set up by the Irish Government. The religious orders which operated the laundries have rejected activist demands that they financially contribute to this programme.

An article published on the Catholic League website in July 2013, titled “Myths of the Magdalene Laundries,” includes this: “News stories about the Ryan Report quickly emerged maintaining that abuse was rampant in these institutions. Upon closer inspection, however, we learn that the Ryan Commission listed four types of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. Most of the evidence showed there were no serious violations. For example, physical abuse included ‘being kicked’; sexual abuse was considered ‘kissing,’ ‘non-contact including voyeurism’ and ‘inappropriate sexual talk’; neglect included ‘inadequate heating’; and ‘lack of attachment and affection’ was deemed emotional abuse.

Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970.” 

A truly stunning and appalling obfuscation of responsibility, trying to minimize abuses and mistreatment or put them “in context.” Clearly, with the size of the government compensation program, the impact of the institutions’ actions was widespread, and horrible. 

The writer of the article, a president of the League, blames the media and film director Mullan for propagating lies. He even goes so far as to say the laundries were better than other options available to “fallen women” (e.g., prostitution). Granted, the article states the Catholics weren’t the only organization to run similar facilities. So, basically, there’s plenty of folks to share the blame among.

It’s tough not to draw a parallel between the laundries and the historical sexual abuse of children by clergy, and to wonder how the church could allow a lack of accountability by its leadership and the perpetrators of such horrific crimes.

While not associated with the film, today’s selection tells a similar story. Likewise, it is a powerful indictment and condemnation of the institutionalized cruelty of the laundries and those who ran them, perhaps not too unlike that meted out in the not-so-long-dismantled Canadian residential schools.

“I was an unmarried girl
I’d just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a jezebel
I knew I was not bound for Heaven
I’d be cast in shame
Into the Magdalene laundries

Most girls come here pregnant
Some by their own fathers
Bridget got that belly
By her parish priest
We’re trying to get things white as snow
All of us woebegotten daughters
In the streaming stains
Of the Magdalene laundries

Prostitutes and destitutes
And temptresses like me
Fallen women
Sentenced into dreamless drudgery
Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?
Oh charity!

These bloodless brides of Jesus
If they had just once glimpsed their groom
Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries
They wilt the grass they walk upon
They leach the light out of a room
They’d like to drive us down the drain
At the Magdalene laundries

Peg O’Connell died today
She was a cheeky girl
A flirt
They just stuffed her in a hole!
Surely to God you’d think at least some bells should ring!
One day I’m going to die here too
And they’ll plant me in the dirt
Like some lame bulb
That never blooms, come any spring
Not any spring
No, not any spring
Not any spring

(“The Magdalene Laundries,” by Joni Mitchell)

Music has many vital roles in society. In addition to being for enjoyment, it is often the vehicle for change through calling for social action and justice. Mitchell does an impeccable job naming the wrongs done. The version I’m sharing here is one she recorded with The Chieftains on their 1999 album, Tears of Stone, a collection of collaborations with other artists (including “Jimmy Mo Mhíle Stór,” a Traditional Irish song they played with the Rankins, and the subject of one of my earlier posts). Mitchell originally recorded the song on her 1994 album, Turbulent Indigo.

Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today. Thanks for joining me here.

Here’s the audio for the song from The Chieftains (topic) YouTube channel

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