Magdalene Laundries: The Waning of a Culture of Control

4 02 2013

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This intriguing post, by the always wonderful Sibling of Daedalus prompted a quick response ahead of the release of Martin McAleese‘s report on state involvement the Magdalene Laundries. Mr. McAleese announced yesterday that he intends to step down from the Seanad, leading to understandable speculation as to the contents of the report, which is due to be unveiled tomorrow.

What is beyond question is that, both before and after independence, a combination of church (both Catholic and Protestant) and state power operated to confine and control “problem” populations: women who fell pregnant out of wedlock, illegitimate children, the poor and the mentally ill.

The human cost of this regime is hard to imagine, with many women spending years essentially working as slaves, with customers of the laundries including the Department for Defence, Áras an Uachtarán (the Preident’s residence), other emanations of the State, and pillars of the establishment. There is  something distinctly unnerving about this description, from 1939, of the Laundries as “spiritual lifeboats”.

The exhumation of a mass grave at a Dublin institution in 1993, containing the remains of 155 women, many of whose deaths went unregistered, brought the issue to public attention as never before. The last Magdalene Laundry closing its doors in 1996, but the stories of the women who lived and suffered in these institutions are still only beginning to be told.

Leading criminologist Ian O’Donnell and sociologist Eoin O’Sullivan have worked to bring this system into focus and understand its context. While it’s often taken as a truism in criminological circles that the latter half of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in punitiveness and a nascent culture of control, O’Donnell and O’Sullivan show that, for Ireland, the opposite is true.

While there was undoubtedly an expansion of the formal criminal justice system, with its associated politico-juridicial discourses, checks and balances, a separate and regime, based on religious discourse, for the disciplining other forms of perceived “deviance” was on the wane. It’s a shocking fact that in 1951, a full 1% of the Irish population was in some kind of coercive confinement, more than the rate of imprisonment in the US at the peak of mass incarceration.

O’Donnell and O’Sullivan’s meticulous efforts cast light on the harsh and often conveniently neglected world of prisioners, prisoners and penitents, and its place in the technologies of social control prevalent in 20th century Ireland, and the extent of both elite and public knowledge, acquiescence and acceptance of these practices (review here, via Differential Association).

While there’s some comfort to be had in the fact that Ireland is beginning to come to terms with this inglorious history, many of the victims of this regime are still suffering, not least because their slave labour wasn’t sufficient to earn them a state pension.  I can only hope that the release of Mr. McAleese’s report will be the next step towards justice for the Magdalene victims, and towards Ireland’s finally coming to terms with the authoritarian cruelty in our past.

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