July 7, 2013
DUBLIN, Ireland – On paper, Martina Keogh’s life reads like a tragedy – but don’t tell her that. When you meet her in person it’s hard to reconcile the facts of her early life, which included her quasi-legal incarceration in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene laundries, with the warm and funny grandmother she is today. I met Martina on a recent trip to Ireland, when she agreed to talk to me about her experiences in one of the slave-labor workhouses operated by the Catholic Church – with an as-yet-unknown degree of government complicity – from 1765 to 1996.
The Magdalene asylums, as they were formally known, weren’t unique to Ireland. They existed in other European countries and there were a few in North America, but Ireland had the largest number and kept them operating longest. The mission of these institutions was ostensibly to rehabilitate women the church deemed morally compromised, like prostitutes and unwed mothers. But that mission, such as it was, was lost in the Irish facilities, which were run as commercial laundries staffed by unpaid inmates and generating profits for the church.
Many of the women in the laundries were transferred from other church institutions without state involvement. I wanted to talk to Martina because hers was one of a small number of cases in which law enforcement played a direct role in her incarceration. Her two years in a church-sponsored workhouse began in a Dublin courtroom in 1968. The 16-year-old was rounded up with two older girls who had gotten into a fight. Martina wasn’t involved, but she was talking to the girls when the cops showed up and hauled them all off to jail. Story continues at the Sacramento Bee.
I’m a writer for the Sacramento Bee, contributing a monthly column on politics and women’s issues. I post links to my columns here on the blog.