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.


24 hours after the Magdalene Report was delivered to cabinet and I am still engulfed in a deep feeling of unease about the whole thing.
This unease began as I listened to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dail yesterday, telling us he was sorry for various things but unable to say sorry to the women who were incarcerated in these labour camps.  As an Irish citizen I am deeply offended that the leader of our country couldn’t or wouldn’t do that on our behalf. 
The report into the Magdalene Laundries was commissioned by Government to investigate if there was state involvement in the running of these facilities.  The report states categorically that the state was most certainly involved – on various levels.  It states this unambiguously.
The state referred girls and women to these institutions via the courts system, the health system and informally via the gardai.  The state paid subventions to these institutions for various categories of women incarcerated there.  The state inspected these facilities regularly and various state departments were clients of the Magdalene laundries. 
This is the core truth of the McAleese investigation.  Therefore it is crystal clear that the state first and foremost owes these women a sincere and heartfelt apology for their appalling treatment even if it was in “an uncompromising Ireland”, to quote the Taoiseach.    
But according to Kenny and Minister Kathleen Lynch (speaking on last night’s Primetime) before an apology can be issued, the Government needs to be study the detail of the report.  The other details are largely irrelevant and are being used as a smoke screen to hide behind while an assessment is made on the cost of retribution. 
However, there is one assertion made in the report which I find incredible.  Apparently having studied the accounts of the charitable orders that ran these facilities, McAleese says they didn’t make a profit. They were being run on a barely break even basis. 
I am not an accountant and my mathematical ability can be very ropey at times but I fail to understand how a business that was being run with a completely free workforce and some clearly very large contracts couldn’t make a profit.  The laundries were being run by orders of nuns who presumably didn’t individually earn large salaries either.  Where did the money go?  I find it incredulous that the Magdalene Laundries didn’t make a profit.
Is this part of the smoke screen?  We know from previous reports into institutions run by religious orders that they like to hang onto their money… but it is outrageous that they are not held accountable financially to these women now. 
So while many of us are incensed by the absence of an apology, are horrified at hearing the testimony of many courageous women, some of whom were children when they were placed in the care of these factories, our elected representatives and our religious orders are concerned about the money. 
I wonder what it is about the Magdalene Laundries and the story of these women that has been so problematic for repeated governments to deal with. 
The abuse and torture of children in other religious institutions was met head on with a formal apology to the victims in 1999, a statutory inquiry (resulting in the Ryan Report), and the setting up of the redress board to handle compensation to the many thousands of claimants.
But the issue of the laundries was ruled out of this enquiry and it has taken until now for it to be looked at seriously, after governments repeatedly claimed that Magdalene Laundries were privately run and nothing to do with the state.  It is also worth noting that the number of surviving women who are entitled to payment and pension contributions is relatively small – probably no more than 1,000.  And let us remember they have earned this payment.
So why is the case of the Magdalene Laundries so different from the other abuse scandals?  The most obvious difference is that the victims are exclusively women.  And there is of course the link to ‘fallen women’, ‘unmarried mothers’ or Magdalenes as the nuns rechristened them on entry. 
The reaction of government to the outcome of the McAleese report shouldn’t really surprise me.  The continuing stigmatisation of single parents, particularly women in this country lies just below the surface, just below the veneer of political correctness.
It can be very subtle but it is as insulting as Enda Kenny’s assertion that at least the Magdalene women didn’t suffer sexual abuse.  And invariably it is justified by concerns over the cost to the state of these single mothers. 
I was recently chatting to a well educated, business man in his late 50s when a young girl in school uniform walked past.  She was heavily pregnant.  Without missing a beat he commented “another one who will be living off yours and my tax for years”. 
Some months ago I was on a panel discussion on radio outlining the bizarre situation I had experienced as a former single mother having to adopt my own daughter when I later got married.  Having heard my story a fellow panellist was asked for his reaction.  He immediately commented “well I think Barbara should have gone after the ‘natural’ father for maintenance”.  At no point had I made any reference to money at all.  But clearly this man (again well educated professional man) thought that until I married I had been a ‘burden to the state’… which was not the case.. but equally is not the point.  It is the mindset that disturbs me.
The Magdalene Laundries flourished in a deeply patriarchal society that ceded power to an equally misogynistic church.  Whereas we seem to have broken the power of the still misogynistic church, this country has a way to go to rid itself of patriarchy.  Why else have we not legislated for the X case which seeks to safeguard a pregnant woman’s health?  Why else have we had at least two budgets that have seemed to target women unfairly in carrying the burden of austerity?
Is it any wonder I feel such deep unease in my own country?