To A New Ireland

On March 9, 2013 by Joy Shannon

Every year around St. Patrick’s Day I find myself fondly remembering the things about Ireland that I love and what I miss about the place. Yet, even while the holiday reminds me of my pride in my heritage, I still remember the more complex reasons why my family found themselves in America in the first place.

Though, this St Patrick’s Day might feel different to me due to the historically significant moment that occurred in the Irish parliament this past February 19th.

Irish Prime Minister Edna Kenny issued an emotional apology for the Irish state’s involvement in the abusive Roman Catholic workhouses called the Magdalene Laundries. Between 1922 and 1996, around 10,000 women were sent to these institutions, imprisoned, and forced to do unpaid labor. These institutions essentially acted as religiously- run juvenile halls, which women were sent to for numerous reasons from being unwed mothers to being older orphans or patients of psychiatric institutions. Women in the Magdalene Laundries were shamed and abused in various ways and often were never told why they were sent there, nor when they might be leaving. Kenny called these institutions a “nation shame” and declared that “as a society, for many years we failed” the women of these workhouses.

The survivor advocacy group “Justice for Magdalenes” has fought for years for the Irish government and Catholic Church to recognize the abuses that women in these laundries were subjected to. Kenny’s speech came two weeks after the publication of an official state report on the Irish government’s knowledge of and involvement in the Laundries. The report caused a public outcry for a state apology. For years, the state had argued that they were not responsible for what occurred in these private religiously-run institutions, but this official report finally publicly recognizes the more complex truth. Kenny has been commended for going well-beyond a forced apology and showing genuine remorse and expressing hope for Ireland’s future. Kenny stated that “in naming and addressing the wrong, as is happening here today, we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future.” Magdalene women will be issued state compensation and a state memorial will be built in their honor.

This day was particularly significant to my family because my grandmother and father were both abused in these institutions during the 1950s. My grandmother was sent to a Magdalene Laundry for being pregnant with my father out of wedlock and my father was born within the institution. My grandmother was forced to sign away her rights to my father, and a few years later he was essentially sold to an Irish American family looking to adopt an Irish child. 

While I have had an immense amount of faith and hope for the younger generations of Ireland to bring about change and weed out the oppressive attitudes of the judgmental Ireland my father and grandmother experienced, I don’t think my family never expected an apology like this to ever come. This apology means that the Irish government is finally choosing to not sweep these survivors of institutional religious abuse under the rug anymore.

There still needs to be recognition for the women abused in Northern Irish Magdalene Laundries. Even though this apology is only a start to hopefully facilitate more healing, it feels like the ushering in of a new era for Ireland.

So, this St. Patrick’s Day I will be cheering to a new Ireland. One that bravely rights its past wrongs and, as Kenny said, is a “society guided by the principles of compassion and social justice.” Slainte!

Photos: Magdalene Asylum Co. Cork, www.abandonedireland.com

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