June 3, 2013
Me in County Clare, Ireland NOT thinking about women’s rights.
I should preface this post by assuring you that I did not spend the entirety of my Ireland vacation ruminating about international women’s movements and researching Dickensian penal institutions. I had fun! There was road-tripping, and castle-viewing, and the consumption of mountainous piles of fish and chips. However, this being me, and “fun” having many possible definitions, I also set up some meetings so I could interview Irish activists about that country’s feminist movement. My curiosity was piqued last year following the death of Savita Halappanavar; in the aftermath of that awful story it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about Irish feminism. Clearly they hadn’t made much headway in reproductive rights, but what had they been up to, what issues were on their agenda? I wanted to find out.
But as sometimes happens, I went in thinking I was working on one kind of story—in this case, a post for the Ms. Magazine blog about the Irish women’s movement—and ended up with something different, and more interesting, on my hands. Around the time I was setting up my Ireland interviews, a friend emailed and asked me to please write something about the Irish facilities known as “Magdalene laundries.” That was the first I’d heard of them, but two hours and several Google searches later I’d had a crash course in the extralegal, Church-run slave-labor institutions that were an open secret in Ireland for two centuries. The Magdalene Asylums, as they were officially called, originated in Dublin in the late 1700s, and eventually spread to a few other places in Europe and even as far as the US. But Ireland had the largest number of them and kept them operating for the longest time; incredibly, Dublin’s last Magdalene laundry didn’t close until 1996.
The laundries, so called because they operated in Ireland as commercial laundries that generated revenue for the orders of nuns that ran them, were originally conceived as places to rehabilitate “fallen women.” You’ll recall that it doesn’t take much for ladies to “fall” in the Catholic Church’s estimation; women were incarcerated, sometimes indefinitely, for offenses ranging from prostitution, to adultery, to having children out of wedlock. The extent to which the Irish government was complicit (and man, was it EVER) is only recently coming to light, with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny issuing a formal apology to Magdalene victims in February. In short, this is a fascinating, ongoing story: the UN is involved, advocates are reviewing official records and trying to get the government to agree to a settlement for surviving victims . . . there’s a lot happening, almost too much, it seemed. I reluctantly concluded the laundries story was too big to fit into my little week of vacay, and filed the idea away to possibly explore another time.
But then I got to Ireland, and talked with Katherine. My first full day there I’d scheduled an interview with Professor Katherine O’Donnell, who runs the Women’s Studies program at University College Dublin. I met her at her flat just on the edge of the city, armed with a set of questions about the history of the modern Irish women’s movement. As she was making me tea (which my jet-lagged ass was in dire need of) she started telling me about the week she’d just spent in the UK. I asked if she’d been vacationing and she explained it was a work trip, that she’d been doing research for an advocacy group called Justice for Magdalenes. Had I heard of the Magdalene laundries? Well, as a matter of fact . . .
Katherine went on to explain that she’s a coordinator for the national campaign that’s putting pressure on the Irish government to own up to its part in the incarceration and enslavement of tens of thousands of Irish women. Unsurprisingly, the government’s been reluctant to do this, so the Magdalenes campaign soldiers on, reviewing official records and collecting information from Magdalene survivors. It’s a big story in Ireland, but never quite took off here—though it did get some coverage around the time of the Taoiseach’s apology. I suspected the story would interest American audiences, particularly feminists and women’s advocates. So I ended up doing two interviews with Katherine that day: one for the Ms. post, and a shorter series of impromptu questions about the Magdalenes campaign.
As we were wrapping up our chat, I asked if I could get in touch again if I decided to do a separate piece on the laundries. She said yes, then paused for a moment and said that actually, there was a survivor of the Magdalene laundries living in Dublin, who she thought would do an interview if Katherine put in a good word. Was I interested in talking to her? “Yes,” I said. “I’d like that very much.”
And that was how I came to meet Martina.
Next week I’ll post Part 2 of my Ireland dispatches, but in the meantime, what do you guys think of this whole Magdalene laundry thing? I think it’s an amazing story, and encourage anyone who’s interested to go online and learn more.