Census, Religion & Magdalenes

Every year, on the Sunday before International Women’s Day, the public are encouraged to place flowers on the graves of ‘Magdalene’s’ – so called fallen women, ‘unmarried mothers’ who were placed in laundries run by the church.  I recently discovered that there had been a laundry local to me in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin and the Justice for Magdalene’s Research group are aware that some of their ‘residents’ are buried in my local cemetery at Deansgrange.  So far only one grave has been identified because of the difficulty in assessing the records of these women.  The religious orders who ran these laundries refuse to open records from post 1900.  So one of the very few sources of information as to who was incarcerated in the laundries is the census data from 1901 and 1911 which in the case of the Dun Laoghaire laundry lists 45 women laundresses in 1901 and 48 in 1911.   The painstaking cross referencing the census records with the burial records of Deansgrange which has been undertaken by volunteers of the Justice for Magdalene’s Research Group, is naturally very slow.  But it is vital work as it enables this generation to in some way acknowledge the wrongs inflicted on these women and ensure that they are not forgotten

In the case of the Dun Laoghaire laundry this exercise is only made possible by the existence of the census records.  Currently my family’s Census 2016 form is tucked away safely in a drawer until the night of Sunday 24th of April when it has to be filled in.  It’s a substantial form and reasonably straightforward.  But there is one question that once again is causing me angst over how I should answer it.  The ‘What Is Your Religion?’ question might seem simple enough but for many of us, it is far from easy.   The options are Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Islam, Presbyterian, Orthodox or Other with space to fill in what your religion is.  The last box is the ‘no religion’ option.

I could tick ‘other’ and insert Christian as I would generally be a follower of Jesus’s teachings but I don’t believe he was God or the son of God and as far as I can ascertain most Christians believe he was both human and divine.

When one has grown up with a spiritual practice and belonging to a religious community like the Catholic Church, it’s not always straight forward to walk away.  Well the walking away is relatively easy, particularly if you were a second class member of that church as I was, being that I am a woman.  I am also mother to three daughters and so I felt I owed it not only to myself but also to them to leave the patriarchal church of my birth, the one which boasted an all-male deity system and an all-male management team here on earth.  The rape of children by some of this team, the continuing attitude of the Catholic Church to gay love all made leaving much easier, especially as a parent.   But once the novelty of liberation fades I was left with a gap in my life. I need a belief system.  I do believe in a higher something – call it God or Allah or whatever you like.

And therein lies my problem.  I consider myself a spiritual person.  I pray almost every day.  Hey, I even love visiting churches in order to experience that sublime peace and sacredness of the spaces with the flickering candle light, the silence, the glinting beauty of magnificent stained glass windows and perhaps the faint, lingering aroma of incense.

There is currently an online campaign to tick the ‘no religion’ box presumably in a bid to take religion out of politics and planning.   Among the reasons listed as to why you should do so (if you do not have a regular religious practice) is to encourage Government and state services to support equal services such as non-religious chaplains in hospitals. But the most pressing reason to tick ‘no religion’ is to help to end religions discrimination in our national schools.  All of which I fully endorse.  My problem is that I do have a regular ‘religious’ or spiritual practice.  But my God does not belong to any church, to any religion.  And nor do I.

I am not sure how this fact might be important to researchers in the future.  Much in the way I am sure that the unfortunate women who were incarcerated to the Magdalene Laundry in Dun Laoghaire one hundred years ago never imagined that a century later the Justice for Magdalene’s Research group were using the information on the census returns to identify their graves.  And that as a result, this writer visited the unmarked grave of the one woman whose identity we do know and left flowers.

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