Revolutionary France abolished it in 1794, pre-Victorian Britain abolished it in 1833, while a Civil War-torn United States finally got rid of it in 1865.

We're talking about the somewhat outdated practice of slavery. Surely good old revolutionary Ireland, mindful of the noble aims of the 1916 Proclamation, never tolerated such a barbaric concept?

Well...a glance at the investigation report into State involvement in the incarceration of women in the notorious Magdalene Laundries will show you that the relevant dates are 1922-1996. That era covers our glorious winning of independence right up to the pre-dawn of the Celtic Tiger.

God but aren't we the great little independent Republic altogether?

We go to the trouble of winning freedom from perfidious Albion. And what did this freedom give to the new power elite in our glorious society?

Well, from what we have learned previously from the Ryan and Murphy reports, the freedom to tolerate institutions designed to incarcerate and torture children, and the freedom to let clergy outside these institutions sexually abuse children.

These were but two manifestations our newly-independent oligarchy's dispensation to let the Catholic Church interfere, often in the most prurient and cruel ways imaginable, in almost every aspect of our lives and to dictate State policy, including in the area of women's reproductive health.

And to add insult to injury, our glorious era of freedom ultimately resulted in us recently sacrificing our economic liberty on the altar of mammon, thanks to the last Government colluding with rapacious and irresponsible banks.

And now, this week we view with horror another dimension to the sad history of our self-serving, 'squinting windows' statlet.

An Inter-Departmental Commission headed by Dr Martin McAleese has shed some welcome light on the Magdalene scandal, whereby women and girls were incarcerated in laundries run by religious orders, often not knowing why they were put in there or when they would get out, and forced to do gruelling unpaid work, often while suffering psychological abuse from ruthless regimes.

The words 'charity' and 'mercy' feature in the names of three of the orders involved in the Magdalene scandal. No irony intended, apparently.

The fact that the findings of the McAleese report, unlike those of the Ryan and Murphy reports, found no evidence of sexual abuse in the laundries, may provide a tiny crumb of comfort for our consciences, but not for long. The report's claim that there was no physical abuse in the laundries is being disputed in some quarters.

The finding that some of the women in the laundries only spent short periods there is of no consolation either.

Any system that puts vulnerable and innocent people into forced labour camps, for whatever length of time, is morally bankrupt.

The fact remains that the Magdalene laundries enslaved innocent girls and women, often with the complicity of the State. There are no ifs or buts here, there are no mitigating factors. As with the other abuse scandals, what happened was wrong.

Makes you proud to be Irish. Basically we won our freedom 90 years ago so that we could turn our back on any ideals of tolerance, equality, humanity, or even Christian kindness, and descend into a moral abyss, resulting in our glorious country becoming a mammoth prison camp for the poor and vulnerable.

This litany of horror was at best tolerated, and at worst aided and abetted by the Irish State.

It was helped too by hypocritical people with a 'hear no evil, see no evil' attitude who were only too happy to collect their laundry without questioning too much where it came from.

Many of the same 'great and the good' would also have suspected and shuddered at what might be happening to children and adults behind the walls of religious-run reformatories, industrial schools or laundries, but mostly they simply trotted along to mass and kept their mouths shut.

Some people went further than this and altruistically decided to place members of their own family in the laundries, sometimes for the 'crime' of being physically or mentally ill, for having a baby outside marriage or for simply being 'bold'.

As a society, we tolerated and sometimes utilised a system that kept 'wayward' poor children and adults out of sight and out of mind behind the walls of institutions that in many cases seemed not too far removed from concentration camps.

For 'wayward' read: 'did not conform to our skewed and self-satisfied social, moral and economic norms'.

But we cannot blame bishops, priests and politicians alone for the wrongs of a society. It takes a certain degree of consensus to keep the status quo going when it suits us economically and socially.

Saying 'sure nobody knew about these things at the time' is not only a bare-faced lie, it is also like the soldier saying he was 'only obeying orders' following the latest war atrocity.

Often, we get the ruling elites we deserve.

Yes, the Magdalene report once more shows us it's the sorry history of a smug group of 'haves' in our malfunctioning little statelet basically grinding the 'have-nots' (and let's face it, it's usually poor people who are the victims of these scandals) into the dirt.

The Magdalene scandal had added the new ingredient of an economic imperative to State-sponsored cruelty.

One paragraph in the Magdalene report neatly typifies what a broken little country we were, and perhaps still are.

It states that it is likely that a desire to protect ratepayers from the cost of paying for public assistance for repeated pregnancies outside marriage may have played a part in some referrals of women to the Magdalene Laundries.

But let's rid ourselves of the notion that the Magdalene and similar scandals were a product of the 'less enlightened days' of the 1920s to 1950s.

Quite apart from the fact that such 'retrospective absolution' is morally bogus, we shouldn't forget that State-sponsored slavery, abuse and maltreatment in various forms continued right up until the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To pluck just one from a myriad of examples, the fundamentalist butchery of women by symphysiotomy continued in one hospital right up until until the mid-1980s.

The Magdalene report's statistics stretch to 1996, when a certain Enda Kenny, who is this week offering his (qualified) condemnation, apologies and concerns to Magdalene victims, was Minister for Tourism in the then government.

So, as with the previous abuse reports, we cannot gain consolation that the Magdalene findings are from the dusty pages of history. They are born of political and societal attitudes that existed until fairly recently, and worryingly, may still be prevalent to to a certain extent.

It is depressing to note that when the horrific consequences of these attitudes and policies were revealed in recent years, the response of the State when called upon to do something has often been been to prevaricate and obfuscate, hide behind legalities, play down the significance of the issues involved, reach craven settlements with those responsible, or simply stick its head in the sand and pretend these things never happened.

Judging by the Government's response so far to the Magdalene report, it appears things aren't changing very much.

The Taoiseach stopped short of a full apology to the Magdalene victims and of instituting a proper redress system. Surprise surprise.

Mr Kenny said he was sorry about the way the 10,000 residents of the Magdalene laundries were treated, acknowledged the role of the State in the scandal, and regretted that the stigma attached to the victims had not been removed before now.

"I'm sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment," he said. It's akin to glancing at a headline about an earthquake in Turkey and then flicking over to the sports pages.

Old Government habits apparently die hard.

The Government should stop issuing carefully-worded semi-apologies and step up and do the right thing for the victims of this scandal.

State had major role in Magdalene scandal


 


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