August 3, 2003

How Ireland Hid Its Own Dirty Laundry


ONE of the most ancient and thriving products of Irish industry isn't mentioned in the tourist brochures, or the guidebooks, or the economic histories. I don't mean linen, tweed or Jameson's. What I have in mind is shame.

"The Magdalene Sisters," by the Scottish director Peter Mullan, which opened Friday, is a fictional rendering of a historical situation that could only take place in a culture of shame. The film follows three young Irish girls who are sent to one of the Magdalene Asylums, institutions run by nuns, primarily in Ireland, to house girls who got pregnant outside of marriage, or who were considered too sexual, too flirtatious or even too attractive. They were incarcerated in these asylums, which doubled as laundries, where they worked, unpaid, seven days a week, 364 days a year, with only Christmas day off.

Often the girls were put there by their families, in arrangements facilitated by the parish priest; if they escaped, they were returned by the police — a perfect collusion of family, church and state. Some girls spent years there; some a whole life. The laundries were founded in the mid-19th century; the last was closed only in 1996. It is said that 30,000 women passed through their doors.

Mr. Mullan's film raises the inevitable questions: how can this have been allowed to go on? Didn't anybody know what was happening? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the soil in which the Magdalene laundries flourished was the soil of shamed silence, the kind of silence that allows words to be spoken but makes full understanding of them impossible. And so the answer to the question — didn't people know what was going on? — is yes and no.

Yes, in that the laundries' existence was well known enough to become part of the vernacular, to have generated nicknames, proverbs, cautionary tales: the domestic architecture of demotic speech. Girls who were sent to the laundries were known as Maggies. There was a saying, "Bad girls do the best sheets." Children who misbehaved were told to mend their ways or they'd be sent "to the laundries with the sisters." And no, in that all the Irish people I have asked have said that they had no idea of the conditions of the laundries themselves. The girls were literally kept behind stone walls; invisible, isolate.

And one of the most distressing aspects of the film is the girls' isolation: they seem so utterly unbefriended, even by one another. Women who spent time in the laundries say that one of the film's unrealistic touches is the conversations among the girls; these would never have been allowed. Silence was part of the penitential discipline that was meant to cleanse them — while keeping them, of course, from forming any sort of community. But we ask ourselves: didn't any of the women who escaped or left legitimately (any adult male relative could rescue them) tell anyone — a family member, a friend, a sympathetic confessor — what they had endured? The answer seems to be no, and the explanation lies in the particular flavor of Irish shamed silence.

Is the Irish mania for keeping things in the family explicable only by colonization, by poverty, by the prevalence of alcoholism? I'm not a good enough historian to trace the causes. But I do know this: one of the mistakes that people make about the Irish is to confuse their volubility with a sharing of information; the Irish believe that language is at least as much ornament as telegrapher, and one can be astonished at how many words one has heard at an Irish gathering without having learned the slightest thing about the speakers' lives.

All the ex-Magdalenes interviewed by historians and documentarians insisted that they never told anyone what had happened to them because they feared the stigma of being known as an "ex-Maggie" so intensely that they denied themselves the consolation of sharing their experience. They never spoke of it to their families, and their families never spoke of it to them, because they had endangered their families' position in the world, the future success and happiness of their siblings. In the film, the father of one of the girls who has tried to escape (he is played by Mr. Mullan himself) brings her back and beats her in front of the smirking mother superior while shouting: "You have no parents. You've killed your mother and me."

The moral horror of the Magdalene laundries is that the abuses they perpetrated were not the outgrowths of simple sadism, or even of unmindfulness, but of a belief that they were intended for the victims' own good. It is difficult to understand now that even in my childhood, people who were neither insane nor stupid believed in literal hell fire, a torment that was physical and spiritual and went on for all eternity. If you really believed this, it could certainly be seen as an act of kindness to lock someone up, even for life, to subject her to humiliation and deprivation, if that would purge her sin and wash her as white as the sheets she scrubbed.

And it is important to remember that the Magdalene laundries came into being in the social, political and religious context of Victorian Ireland, and the defenders of the laundries say that we must also put them in their historical context. They say that we must remember that for some girls they were a refuge from a life on the streets, a shelter from death by starvation or the fate worse than death: prostitution. When the laundries were founded, Ireland was a colony of England, its population halved by famine. The country's economic and social reality, and its image of itself, were closely tied to Mother England. It was a perverse relationship, as colonial relationships tend to be, a common-law marriage whose shaky legitimacy could be easily threatened.

For important segments of the Irish middle class, respectability was a tantalizing fruit always ready to be devoured by the savage maw of Irish instinctual life. The most visible sign of this threat was the sexually active woman; a pregnancy outside of marriage was a reminder of fecundity that could not be controlled by the mores of the widowed queen — even with the collusion of the church.

But if the relationship with Mother England was fragile and vexed, if the signals were confusing and shifting, there was the rock of Peter upon which the church stood. That need never be doubted: whatever the winds blowing across the Irish Sea, the breath of the Holy Spirit could be felt every time a nun or a priest opened his or her mouth.

The burden of these girls' shame was made heavier by their conviction that no one would believe them if they said that the nuns were cruel torturers rather than angelic saviors. Their abuse was hidden from the world by a wall of long-skirted, veiled Brides of Christ, who were themselves incarcerated: if it was good enough for them, why wasn't it good enough for ordinary sinners?

One of the most arresting scenes in the film is the one in which Sister Bridget, the Mother Superior, watches, in tears, while Ingrid Bergman, as Sister Benedict in "The Bells of St. Mary's," weeps while she prays. We can see Sister Bridget's image of herself: rapt in her romance with the Divine, able to endure any hardship on earth for her Lover in heaven. The image was easily accessible to one type of Catholic imagination, for which the nun, in her consecrate virginity, was the only vessel in which femaleness could safely be contained without the contamination of sexuality. What hope could a tainted vessel have in testifying against a pure one?

My own experience with nuns left me dissatisfied with the heavy-handed burlesque of Geraldine McEwan's performance as Sister Bridget. I would have been more chilled if she had seemed less psychotic, more calmly sure in her role as handmaiden of the Lord. An obvious crazy is easier to deal with and then dismiss than a hyper-rational ice princess: an obvious crazy allows you to believe in the possibility that she may be wrong. The cool rationalist leaves you nowhere to turn, except against yourself. Sister Bridget's giving Harriet, the straight-haired, simple-minded girl (brilliantly played by a newcomer, Eileen Walsh), the name Crispina, which is Irish for curly-headed, and the girl's forced laughter at her own humiliation, was more horrifying to me than the scene in which the nun cruelly stabs at the eyes of another girl as she shears her victim's hair with her punishing scissors. Sister Bridget's cool insults, delivered with a hyper-genteel precision, striking at the girls' notions that they are of any value under the sun, seemed more parching to the soul than beatings or starvation rations. And there is almost no one who went through Catholic school who has not had at least one experience of the nun's special brand of styptic words and looks.

There is a cruel irony in choosing Magdalene as the patroness of the laundries' punishing enterprise. Jesus' dealings with Mary Magdalene are saturated with forgiveness; there is no hint of punishment. Magdalene, the prostitute, pours perfume over Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair. He gives her a place of honor — it is Judas who objects, and it is after the incident with Magdalene that he decides to betray Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Magdalene is the first to see Jesus after the Resurrection.

But no such reward has been given to modern Magdalenes by the Catholic Church or the State of Ireland. Because of this, Peter Mullan's movie sheds an essential light, however occasionally overheated, on this shameful transaction.

Mary Gordon is at work on a novel set in Ireland.