Thursday, February 21, 2013

Magdalene - a loaded brand and false signifier

Insomnia provokes this particular blog post. Specifically, a mind racing with our Taoiseach ('Prime Minister') Enda Kenny’s emotionally charged apology to the women of the Magdalene Laundries, and also with the broader concept of the female ‘penitent’. The Taoiseach’s speech was impressive in its genuine acknowledgement of the suffering and humiliation endured by the faceless women of the laundries. I believe his words were heartfelt. Crucially, Ireland and its institutions lacked the ‘quality of mercy’. Coming to terms with the darker chapters of our history, and taking responsibility for injustices perpetrated in the past, are welcome signs of a country attaining a new level of maturity and insight. No nation on earth has a spotless history and, while the plight of the magdalene women was utterly appalling, Kenny's speech signals that our government is taking the right steps to amend past wrongs. What continues to perplex me tonight, however, are the perversions committed in the name of Christianity, and the warped ways in which the Christian message was construed on our small island throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The very concept of the ‘magdalene laundry’ calls to mind a tv documentary I once watched which questioned the identity of the real Mary Magdalene, as opposed to the legend. I remember being startled by the fact that the Catholic Church only chose to reveal, as late as the 1960s, that it had erroneously cast Mary Magdalene as a penitential prostitute for well over 1400 years. This was primarily because the iconic image of the remorseful ‘fallen woman’ was such a potent counterpoint to the purity of the Virgin Mary; it was a useful didactic symbol the Church moulded for its flock. Also, within a highly patriarchal institution, the Magdalene illusion of the weeping woman conveniently collapsed the power and complexity of the real Mary Magdalene – a highly significant disciple of Jesus Christ and, if we are to believe the gnostic gospels, a principal leader of the early christian movement.

Allegedly, the confusion surrounding Mary Magdalene’s character initially arose because of the preponderance of ‘Marys’ in the Bible and much got 'lost in translation'! Pope Gregory I identified Mary Magdalene as being the same person as Mary of Bethany, who really was a remorseful prostitute. (Excuse my lack of citations here - unscholarly, I know, but it's late at night and I am working from memory and gazing, bleary-eyed, into my screen). This misinterpretation altered Mary Magdalene’s image for successive centuries and it was not corrected until relatively late in the day. The weeping prostitute suited the Church’s purposes in providing a kind of template for the remorseful sinner who could attain forgiveness, and even the ultimate endorsement: sainthood! The horrible stigma of ‘penitent’ which was attached to the women of the Magdalene laundries was, therefore, not least inhumane and devoid of compassion, but also tautological and flawed from the outset.

The Catholic Church has become an easy target, however, and I have no wish to join the legions of lazy thinkers who will readily bash the institution on the slimmest of pretexts, or without substantial evidence to support their shibboleths. I know many wonderful men and women who minister as part of the Catholic church and who effect positive change in society through their selfless dedication and pursuit of Christian values. I do not believe they would, or ever could, inflict suffering on another human being. Similarly, the Marist nuns who educated me in Carrick-on-Shannon were kind and gentle women. Indeed, writers and artists as diverse as Jean Rhys, Mira Nair and Germaine Greer attest to the positive influence of the nuns who educated them so broadly; independent women who encouraged them to think for themselves. I digress here, however, so will return to the subject which spawned this spiral of insomnia: the provenance of the Magdalene laundry concept. Plenty more food for thought here for the next few sleepless hours methinks…


  1. Patricia Burke Brogan is one person who has done so much to present the scandal to a wider audience with her play 'Eclipse' - long before it became a fashionable subject.
    My friend Una led me to the little cemetery behind the Convent up Forster Street/College Road.The women were buried several to a grave - even in death they had little dignity given to them.So much of what happened was also the fault of society in general, not solely the religious orders.
    And I have to mention, in fairness, that the Sisters of Notre Dame taught me from 5 to 18, (plus all the females in our family,) mostly with kindness and patience -it was the lay teachers who were unpleasant.

  2. So true Pat. Thank you for this. I hope there will be many future productions of Eclipsed as it is a play I have always wanted to see. Very sad about the graves of the magdalene 'penitents' and the lack of dignity afforded them. I hope Patricia won't mind if I share her poem 'Make Visible the Tree' here. It was read into the Dáil record earlier this week by Dara Calleary and deserves as wide an audience as possible.

    Make Visible the Tree

    Make Visible the Tree
    This is the Place of Betrayal.

    ... Roll back the stone
    behind madonna blue walls.

    Make visible the tree.
    Above percussion of engines

    from gloom of catacombs
    through a glaze of prayer,

    scumble of chanting,
    make visible the tree,

    its branches ragged
    with washed-out linens

    of a bleached shroud.
    In this shattered landscape,

    sharpened tongues
    of sulphur-yellow bulldozers

    slice through wombs
    of blood-soaked generations.

    This is the place
    where Veronica,

    forsaken, stares and stares
    at a blank towel.

    From Decollage (2008) © Patricia Burke Brogan