Ireland's Forgotten Maggies

High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

Last week I went to a screening of the Forgotten Maggies at the Cantor film center in NYU. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s a small, independent film made by one Stephen O’Riordan from Cork. He located four women who had been Magdalenes — incarcerated for years in Magdalene Laundries where they worked for nuns, without receiving pay — and got them to talk about their experiences. The interesting thing is the resistance the film encountered in Ireland: O’Riordan had to battle for it to be shown at the Galway Film Festival (where it went on to be a big hit); and only after it was screened in New York did the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, start to show an interest in it, mooting the idea of making it into a series.

The film was shocking. The women spoke of being beaten and abused sadistically by the nuns, though they were little more than children. Shame taints their experiences and some never told their husbands and families what they’d been through. But they’d had done little to deserve their punishment — one was on the street because her mother couldn’t care for her, another didn’t want to go to convent school; sometimes girls were put in Laundries just because they were beautiful, it was for their own protection. Perhaps most horrifyingly, O’Riordan discovered the mass graves of more than one thousand women, who were buried often without name or date, in groups, on convent grounds. They were the women who simply never got out.

The most fascinating aspect of the film, for me, was the Irish government’s continued resistance to acknowledge the Magdalenes. Although the government has investigated child abuse in the so-called industrial schools in Ireland, it says the Laundries were private institutions for which it’s not responsible; this is despite the fact that when girls tried to flee from the Laundries the Gardai would bring them straight back. The state certainly colluded in what happened.

Why won’t the current government, which can’t be blamed for abuses in the past, apologise to the women for their treatment meted out to them by the state? I asked O’Riordan this question in the Q&A session that followed the film. He pointed out that if the state apologises, it’ll have to reimburse the women. The Irish government has already paid out billions to the victims of child abuse, and its coffers are hardly full now.

The Magdalene women were always told by the nuns and other officials that nobody would believe them. This is something the Nazis also told their concentration-camp victims (the situations are utterly different. Still …). The irony is that now, even in our modern society, even with the Celtic Tiger (ok, it’s over. Still …), the government is refusing to give credence to their accounts. That says something terrible about Ireland. On the other hand, O’Riordan’s boyish support of the women and their cause says something altogether different, and better. Here’s hoping his advocacy pays off.

(Note: the photo above is from the image gallery in the website of Justice for Magdalenes)

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