Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reflect Here

"To the women who worked in the Magdalen Laundry Institutions and to the children born to some of the members of those communities ~ reflect here upon their lives"

The above paragraph is taken from a plaque that's mounted at a convent in Ireland. Many of you know of the Magdalen laundries but unfortunately too many people have no idea these places existed. For the estimated 30,000 women and children who passed through those convents in the 150 year history of the laundries, their stories should be told.... and told.

I worked in my studio all weekend and I think I've finally finished this piece. It's in memory of the Magdalens. As you know I'm working on a series of paintings about adoption and in the course of my research I learned about the laundries. When I learned of this the first thing that came to mind was -it's just a matter of geography.

It's simply a matter of geography that I didn't end up in one of those laundries. I was raised Catholic. So were these girls in Ireland. I was pregnant without being married. So were the girls in Ireland. The last of these laundries didn't close until 1996, my daughter was born in 1980. The girls who were there because they were pregnant had their children taken from them at birth. The same happened to me. What the geography did save me from is the physical abuse - the long hours of servitude and the beatings. For that I'm thankful.

It wasn't that long ago that women and children were being treated as slaves, and in some countries, it's still happening. Why were they treated this way? For the simple reason that they were human, they were female and they were not allowed to experience that which is perfectly natural. If she did, and if she carried the evidence of her actions for all to see, she must be hidden and punished. Some became prisoners because they were deemed too pretty - how dare they, they might attract the attention of some poor boy who can't be trusted to control his urges. We must save him from himself by punishing the girls. Some were forced to work as servants because they were raped. Again, where was the boy's responsibility in this. It was all her fault so she was to be locked up until she was purified of her sin, or until a male relative came to get her released. For some, the day of their release never came. They lived their entire lives there in the convents and there they died. They lived their lives being abused by the very people who proclaimed to live for God's love and were supposed to be expressing God's love. I included the image of a pope's mitre in the painting because as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church he is the head of state of Vatican City and as such the crimes of the Magdalen Laundries are on his head and the heads of the popes before him.

Today, as I was on my way home from the store, I passed a church sign that said "Flee from sexual immorality". Flee? I found that kind of humorous. Are we to run screaming in the opposite direction? And what exactly are we to flee from, who's definition of sexual immorality? Who gets to decide what is moral behavior and what isn't? We are sexual beings, it's just a fact of biology. We express our love for each other in a physical way. Can't we decide for ourselves what is sexually healthy? Can't we base those decisions on our own judgements and not take the word of another human who may or may not have their own hang ups about it? I think our inner compass is perfectly capable of figuring out what's right and wrong without blindly following the dogma set down by the men of centuries past.

Some of you may be familiar with Stephen Fry, the actor and comedian. Last year he spoke eloquently at a debate about whether or not the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world. In part of his talk he was referencing the church's teachings on homosexuality, AIDS and the use of condoms but I thought what he said was also relevant here.

"It's the strange thing about this church, it's obsessed with sex, absolutely obsessed. They will say we with our permissive society and rude jokes are obsessed. No, we have a healthy attitude. We like it, it's fun, it's jolly. Because it's a primary impulse it can be dangerous and dark and difficult. It's a bit like food in that respect only even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese and that in erotic terms is the Catholic Church in a nutshell."

The tragedy of the laundries is a result of a cruel society and a harsh, judgemental church. When will people move beyond this? When will churches stop shaming people for simply being human?


  1. I doubt they ever stop. After all, you can't control a person who is enlightened enough to know that God, in all the forms that God is worshipped, is not interested in their sex lives...after all, we were created as sexual beings.

    Factually, the church did not enforce celebacy for men (nuns yes, priests no) until the church realized that the priests and brothers had sons that were inheriting property. This property was something that the church could use to fatten the already fat coffers.

    Women, sadly, have always been more easily managed than men and therefore they were more easily manipulated. Who else would allow their bodies to become something that is unhealthy for them?

    Sigh...churches, the moral compasses of the world, the most sinful of all institutions...

  2. Sadly you're right Lori. As long as there's a way to control people, the people in power won't change. The bit about celebacy is true. Just like other aspects of religion, it's history has nothing to do with their god. The essence of what could be good about religion - not just the catholic - is unfortunately lost to the corruption.

  3. Not raised Catholic, and naive that I was about religion in general, when I first heard about the Magdalen Laundries I was stunned that the Catholic church, or any church (love your neighbor, forgive sin and all that), could possibly be involved with such crimes of persecution. But then again, look at history, persecution is almost the middle name of many prominent denominations. Rather funny, isn't it, that some churches claim to be persecuted themselves.

    Once again though, this is not just churches, but a reflection of society in general. Just one more example of how a culture singles out a group (frequently women and children, to this day) to control, to punish and use as an example for others to beware of falliing into the same "evil."

    In reality, many times it is all about money. (See Lori's comment about property) Follow the money and you find where the evil lives. And it's not the money that's evil, but the greed.

  4. Thanks for posting this. However, one slight correction: the plaque you mention in your first paragraph ('Reflect here upon their lives...') is actually on a bench in Stephen's Green, Dublin, not at a convent. It is affixed to the Magdalene memorial bench, installed by the Magdalene Memorial Committee at a ceremony held in 1996. To date, no convents/religious orders have apologised for the abuse and enslavement of women in their care, nor have they memorialised them in any way.

    Mari Steed
    Justice for Magdalenes

  5. Thanks for the correction Mari. I remember that it was mounted on a bench but I thought the bench was at one of the convents. I appreciate your commenting. I'll add the correction to the post.