This is, of course, never the full story. Else Call the Midwife would be considered a documentary of the golden age of solving any difficulties with an It’ll All Come Right in the End ethos in the 1950s. Which never happened. As far as I can tell anyway. Wayward Sister Monica Joan seems to have the most balanced view out of the whole cast with her mystical quotes and mysteriously insightful comments.
It wasn’t until I was working on an adaptation of Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba that I learned of the Magdalene Laundries. Someone had the idea of casting Bernarda as a nun and her daughters as ‘Magdalenes’. We didn’t have to do particularly in depth research to be horrified, The Magdalene Sisters film which focused mostly on 3 young women condemned to the laundries. One a victim of rape, another an unwed mother and one a flirtatious beauty.
The idea the film was set in the year 1964 felt jarringly recent to me. The sickening fact that the last laundry, in Waterford, did not close until September 1996. 1996. The 90s aren’t even a contender yet for The Good Old Days status, unless you really like bomber jackets. It makes you realise that much nostalgia is dependent on silence or discretion.
This week, 17 years after the closure of the last laundry Irish senator Martin McAleese headed a report that “found that the state and the Irish police force bore a major responsibility for sending the women there and failing to protect their rights as workers. The laundries were not private and the vast majority of women and girls were sent there against their own wishes.”
it is important to honour the women who were condemned to the laundries by questioning where we go from here.
The report stated: “The large majority of women who engaged with the committee spoke of the deep hurt they felt due to their loss of freedom, they were not informed why they were there, they had no information on when they could leave and were denied contact with the outside world, including their family and friends”
The Taoiseach issued an apology of sorts: “The stigma of the branding together of all the residents… in the Magdalene Laundries needs to be removed.”
When such atrocities have taken place it is hard to know quite what to do. It is believed 30,000 women were enslaved by these laundries. Official apologies, acknowledgements or compensation don’t do justice to the suffering. This is why it is important to honour the women who were condemned to the laundries, particularly those for whom a pension is too late, by questioning where we go from here.
Currently in Ireland there is involvement between orders such as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, who formerly ran a laundry until the 1990s, and anti sex-worker organisations, such as Ruhama and Turn Off the Red Light. These organisations advocate the criminalisation of the sex trade. It is vital we monitor the activities of these campaigns and groups, in order to prevent a similar legacy from the 00s to the laundries. Otherwise we won’t be able to make women safer. Don't be silent.