Saturday, October 10, 2009

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: The Magdalene Laundries

The Chieftains (with Joni Mitchell): The Magdalene Laundries


“Today, if you walk into the centre of Stephen's Green, just to the right of where a magnolia is stretching in full blossom sits a new wooden bench. On it is a metal plaque enscribed with small faceless heads and the words: ‘To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities - reflect here upon their lives.' “ - Meadbh Gallagher

There can, perhaps, be no greater violation than when an institution whose ostensible purpose is to protect victims is itself the source of abuse. In Ireland, starting in the early 1800s, institutions were set up by the Catholic church to house “fallen women”, those who had bourn children out of wedlock. Some of these were victims of rape or incest, but all were considered sinners who needed their souls saved. They were put to work in what came to be known as the Magdalene Laundries, and the women came to be known as Magdalens. Of course, Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who was forgiven by Christ. So this all sounds noble, if misguided.

But, in the mid 1970s, part of the High Park Convent in Dublin was sold by its owners, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, to developers. At that time, 133 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds. Denied forgiveness or a Christian burial, this had been the fate of the Magdalens there. An investigation, which eventually involved 250 state supported institutions run by the church, and most of which housed children, was launched. Survivors began to come forward and tell their stories. It turned out that boys in orphanages had been raped. The girls and women, including the Magdalens, were beaten and emotionally abused. One victim reported that the nuns’ weapon of choice for beatings was wooden rosary beads. Another told of punishments that awaited any girl who failed to get her period on schedule. And there is much more.

Although the story began to break 30 years ago, resistance from both the church and the government slowed the flow of information. A commission was finally established, and, nine years later, in May of this year, it issued its final report. In the mean time, laws were passed that shield the perpetrators from punishment for their crimes.

Joni Mitchell caught up with this story in 1994, and wrote The Magdalene Laundries. At that time, the full extent of the abuse was not known. But Mitchell had enough information to create one of her most heartbreaking portraits. The Chieftans had been collaborating with artists from the world of popular music for some time. It is only natural, this being an Irish story, that Mitchell’s song would resonate with them. As a bonus, I have included Joni Mitchell’s original version of the song for comparison.

Joni Mitchell: The Magdalene Laundries


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