Oh Mercy: the Magdalene Laundries


In case you thought the Catholic Church reserved its wrath for young boys, you’ll be pleased to learn they don’t treat young women particularly well either. Oh yes, they’re very fair like that. We’re all equal in God’s eyes, after all.

The Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has  responded to a report into the Magdalene laundries by Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality. He has described the laundries as the product of a “harsh and uncompromising Ireland” and has said he was “sorry for the people who lived in that kind of environment”.

Victims of these Catholic-run institutions, which were operational in Ireland between 1922 and 1996, have felt let down by Kenny’s failure to provide a full apology on behalf of the Irish government or to provide compensation for their years of suffering. It’s disappointing that Kenny’s response has been rather tame, especially as he had so robustly criticised the Catholic Church in July 2011 for the years of clerical child abuse.

The Magdalene laundries were workhouse slave shops for “fallen” women – those who had been abused (some of them by priests, ironically), who were homeless, who were orphans, who were poor, or who were just deemed to be trouble. They were sent to the laundries to be out of sight and out of mind so they could indulge their no doubt insatiable passion for doing unpaid washing in brutal conditions. Because that’s exactly what vulnerable, innocent, abandoned women love more than anything. That, and being given new first names, not having their surnames used, and being cut off from their families.

You get a feel for how inhumane these institutions were when you realise this government inquiry was prompted by an investigation by the UN Committee Against Torture. The clue is in the phrase “UN Committee Against Torture”. The resulting inquiry has established that the Irish state colluded in sending women to these hellholes.

Shocking? Certainly. Surprising? Not in the least.

This is what happens when religion has power. This is why I am a secularist.

And just as you should always be wary of countries that have words like “freedom” or “liberty” in their name, so you should sometimes be wary of religious orders going by the names “the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity”, “the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy”, “the Religious Sisters of Charity” and “the Sisters of the Good Shepherd”, the organisations who exercised power over these captured, captive women.

Not all religious people or institutions are bad, and not all harm committed by humans against other humans is done in the name of religion. But religion is a highly effective method of infringing human rights because of the protection from scrutiny its institutions, its leaders and its ideas have historically enjoyed. Religion obtains no stronger protection from scrutiny than when it is bondaged to the State, as it was (and still is, to a lesser extent) in Ireland.

And because so many people instinctively see religion as a good thing deserving of immense respect and even charitable status, this places an incredibly high bar in front of anyone seeking to hold it to account. Throw in a bit of fear – be it physical harm, threat of physical harm, or eternal damnation in the fires of Hell – and that task becomes virtually impossible. Especially for children or others who are vulnerable. Other ideas and institutions are not treated in this way, and so any harm carried out in their name is more likely to be challenged.

Next time you hear someone talk of the immense good done by religion – of which there is undoubtedly some – just try and remember the Magdalene laundries. Were institutions of cleanliness ever so squalid? And remember the flowery-named religious orders who managed to use their shield of undeserved respect for so long to exploit desperate, powerless human beings. And spare a thought for the women who will carry the mental scars of these barbaric prisons for the rest of their lives. And maybe, just maybe, think twice before giving something your “respect”.