This week, I did some more concentrated wandering into another piece of Ireland’s complicated history. I toured the Magdalene Laundries with the survivors. I really recommend clicking on the link to the article if you have time. It contains interviews and stories of Laundry survivors.
In Joyce’s “Clay” we meet Maria, a woman who works in a laundry. She is only employed by the laundry though, which means that she gets permission to go out. This is an interesting dynamic given that the laundries were often cruel places to be for women and children that were brought in. Women in Magdalene Laundries were often abused and were definitely used as slaves. The women who qualified for such treatment were unwed mothers, prostitutes, women who had sex outside of marriage, or other female undesirables. They were often put on bread and water diets. They had to endure having their heads shaved, floggings, isolation, enforced silence, and close surveillance of visitations and correspondence. According to the interviews in the article above, the children in the care of the laundries did not fare much better than the women sent into them for rehabilitation.
The laundries operated until the late 20th century, with the last one closing in 1996. The discovery of a mass grave of 155 unnamed and unknown women prompted the closures, as stories of abuse were exposed. The fallout was immense; however, the Irish Government did not acknowledge its complicity in the running of these laundries until 2013 when it issued an apology.
The article and the interview made me tear up a little though. The patriarchal nature of Ireland’s religious community made it very hard for these women to have the crimes against them acknowledged. Most of the women in these institutions committed no crime other than to have indulged in something that religion frowned upon or even something as small as being considered burdens on their families.
In “Clay” we don’t hear about these atrocities because they were committed behind closed doors. We know that women were often not allowed out, presumably to facilitate rehabilitation, but mostly because they were working for “their keep”. Maria may not feel privileged as a woman faced with poverty and no prospect of marriage, but just by being allowed out of the laundry is a sign of the privilege that she has as a free woman and not an inmate.