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Claire McGettrick: Spare a thought for those who suffered most for the sake of an idyllic image of Ireland

Published: Sunday, June 05, 2016

100 years after 1916, what do we have to celebrate? This is one of a number of blogs exploring what independence meant for the women of Ireland.

NWCI’s 1916 Feminist Reflections Blogs are part of the State’s official programme to commemorate the events of 1916 – the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme.

Over the course of this centenary year, the men and (hopefully) the women of the 1916 Rising will be remembered and celebrated. And rightly so, we should all take this time to remember our past, to honour the brave women and men who fought for our independence. There will be plays, re-enactments, songs, stories, conferences and countless books will be launched – it will be a great year for the whole country. Or will it?

I wonder what kind of year Grace is having? I wonder too about the residents of Bungalow 3 at Aras Attracta, those living in Direct Provision, the Traveller Community, the symphysiotomy survivors and countless others.

I cannot answer those questions, but I can tell you about the present-day reality for Magdalene survivors.

On 19th February, we marked the third anniversary of Enda Kenny's emotional apology to Magdalene survivors. On International Women’s Day, Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) took the opportunity to reflect on the past three years and how the government has seriously undermined Magdalene survivors’ trust, as it has cut corner after corner on the implementation of the ex gratia Scheme as recommended by Judge Quirke. Survivors are still awaiting the establishment of the Dedicated Unit which should have been put in place immediately to assist them in navigating the Scheme. Some women have difficulty in proving duration of stay because of the religious orders’ poor record keeping, yet the government affords greater weight to the orders’ contentions than survivor testimony. The healthcare provisions as outlined in the grossly inadequate five-page HSE Guide do not provide survivors with the same range of drugs and services made available to HAA cardholders. Women who signed up to the Scheme were required to waive their right to take additional legal action against the State and in return, they were led to expect that they would receive the full range of benefits and services recommended by Judge Quirke. Meanwhile, the government completely failed the Magdalene survivors living overseas, who are still awaiting the implementation of an ‘administrative process’ to facilitate their healthcare needs.

If survivors who are still alive have dropped off the agenda, unsurprisingly, the deceased do not feature at all. To-date, JFMR has recorded the details of 1,663 women who died in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. In some cases these graves are unmarked, in many others there are serious discrepancies. There are still other graves that have yet to be found and our work continues in tracing the final resting place of these women.

At the launch of the 1916 Commemorations, Taoiseach Enda Kenny proclaimed that the programme of events would be ‘measured and reflective’ and would be ‘informed by a full acknowledgement of the complexity of historical events and their legacy, of the multiple readings of history, and of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the Irish historical experience’.

Let us take a moment then, to reflect on the past hundred years from the point of view of our most vulnerable citizens.

In 1943, 27 years after the Rising, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera made a St Patrick’s Day address to the Irish Diaspora in which he shared his dream of an ideal Ireland. His vision for women and children described ‘happy maidens’ and ‘the romping of sturdy children’. However, de Valera made no mention of the fact that three weeks previously on 23rd February, 35 children and 1 lay employee died in a horrific fire at St Joseph's Orphanage in Cavan. The religious sisters all survived and had their industrial school licence renewed to rebuild the institution.

By 1963 de Valera was President, and when John F Kennedy addressed the Oireachtas during his visit, he lavished praise on Ireland for her transformation in the years since independence. It seems President Kennedy was unaware that the Limerick Lace presented to him had been made by women and girls incarcerated in the Good Shepherd laundry in Limerick, one of whom is known to us.

In our reflections during this centenary year, we need to spare a thought for those who suffered most for the sake of this idyllic image of Ireland.

In truth, there were no happy maidens and there was no romping of sturdy children. Instead, the bleak reality – which can be linked to de Valera’s own policies – is that women and children who did not fit the mould were suffering, and in many cases dying in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes and Industrial Schools, while other women were being treated as slaves in the Magdalene Laundries and County Homes. An estimated 100,000 Irish people were adopted or boarded out under Ireland’s closed, secret forced adoption system, which left their mothers with no other choice. Additionally, from the 1940s until the 1970s over 2,000 Irish children were sent to America for adoption.

In an effort to project a certain image of Ireland our most vulnerable citizens were hidden away and forgotten. Behind the optics, these women and children suffered unimaginably.

We have come a long way since de Valera’s time and thankfully women’s rights have improved somewhat, however we have not come nearly far enough. In 1993, the remains of 155 Magdalene women were exhumed, cremated and reinterred for the sake of a land sale and serious questions remain about the circumstances. The last Magdalene Laundry remained open until 1996 and today, over 100 former Magdalene women are still living in institutionalised settings run by the religious orders. Furthermore, adopted people – many of whom are daughters and sons of Magdalene women – are still denied automatic access to their birth certificates and files.

So by all means we should commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising, but while we celebrate and reflect, we also need to ask whether we are living up to the promise of the Proclamation. Are all Irish citizens equal?  Are all of the children of the nation cherished equally? Or, is the Irish State still attempting to project an image of an idyllic Ireland at the expense of its most vulnerable citizens?

In Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green you will find a bench bearing a plaque which was unveiled by former President Mary Robinson in 1995. The plaque reads: ‘To the women who worked in the Magdalene laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities — reflect here upon their lives’. We ask that you do just that, and then demand better for them and for all those who are silenced and hidden away.

Claire McGettrick is the co-founder of Justice for Magdalene Research, and the co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance. 

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