Bruce Arnold

Chief Critic of the Irish Independent, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

McAleese Report flies in the face of painful evidence of laundry victims

The burden of historical truth, in respect of the Magdalene Laundries, is huge. It also was in respect of the industrial schools. It has not been fully confronted in regard to either of these monstrous blemishes on the State. The grim reality of this faces Enda Kenny as he tackles a history of events made more confused by the report presented to the Government by Martin McAleese. History cannot be confined to the period since 1922. What the State took over from the British and how it then changed it has also to be part of the picture.

If we go back well before the State's foundation, to the census of 1901, the material that bears on the present question of the Magdalene Laundries emerges more clearly in historical terms and, though painful, sets the context of how the system worked then and later under state control.

The Dublin Sisters of Charity had 16 convents run by 341 nuns. Their most notable property was St Vincent's Hospital, then in St Stephen's Green, "a most remunerative institution, judging by the vast sums of money it received, and by its continuous absorption of expensive private houses to accommodate the ever-increasing number of paying patients".

Least-known was the Donnybrook Magdalene Penitentiary, in the charge of 19 nuns who directed the "free" labour of 100 penitents. "The bedroom doors are locked at night and they are bound to stay in that penitentiary at the hard work of laundry for the best years of their lives; and should they ever leave it, they find themselves in a world in which they are more helpless than they were on the day of their birth."

An outside observer wrote of the Magdalenes in chapel: "They were dressed as outcasts, and they looked outcasts. And a more melancholy existence I could not imagine than theirs; changing from the soap suds in the steam laundry to the confession box, or the chapel, the only recreation they get. Far indeed would it seem to have been from the thoughts of Our Saviour to have condemned the original Magdalene to such a life as the poor galley slaves in these penitentiaries lead."

Rudimentary clothing, indifferent food, no freedom, no money, no education, no future – that was their life-long fate. This record, 20 years before the foundation of the State, has been airbrushed out of existence, as have many other historical circumstances.

There were 93 Dublin convents run by different orders, enjoying government endowments, deathbed legacies, charity sermon subscriptions, alms and earnings from laundries. The congregations were spread across the city, a collective community of 1,649 professed nuns who, together with novices, postulants and the like came to 3,000 souls.

These nuns dominated the world of "care" for penitential girls and miscreant boys and girls, in a large agglomeration of laundries and industrial schools, the true history of which has yet to be confronted.

Escape clauses aligned the State with the religious, denying the rights of those interned. The truth has never been properly addressed. It is too shameful. Governments have covered up, and we are in danger of further deliberate obfuscation over the State's responsibilities in order to make Mr Kenny's apology "safe".

In clearing up the embarrassment of the industrial schools, the State eliminated all those who failed to sign the waiver and the oath of secrecy, reducing the abused to 15,000. The legal side cost us a fortune, while the recompense to victims was more modest. Those outside the fence, who even the Christian Brothers thought should receive payments, have been excluded by the State and erased from history.

The McAleese Report, discussing available records, encounters (or fails to encounter because they are not there) 27,000 personal files "missing" from Department of Education archives. They are said to have been "thrown out in a 'general clear out'". What an absurd piece of nonsense! These are legal documents, seen by others, not by inmates who are still living.

The Magdalene Laundries girls were different. They did not generally merit personal files. They did not merit their own names and identities.

It is a historical truism that official reports, media coverage and government statements can create the impression we have all relevant evidence. This view then enters the history books as established historical fact.

The McAleese Report plays down the question of beatings in the laundries, contradicting what the former inmates say. This flies in the face of the curatorial reality in such institutions which were excessively punitive physically, as in the industrial schools.

An Artane inmate, complaining of violence and interviewed in the presence of his assailants by a bishop, recanted his complaint. As soon as the bishop had left the premises, the assailants took their revenge on the wretched complainant.

If the Taoiseach seeks the whole truth, he must start from a platform of great scepticism.