Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Famine and the Laundries

I had a long, long conversation with a good friend in Ireland yesterday about the Ireland we grew up in, the Ireland of shame, guilt and sorrow.

I can't have conversations like these except with "one of my own." One who was brought up with the almighty grip of the Catholic Church running the lives of all around us. A grip that despised women and hated their children even worse. Where sex was a filthy word and if you had a "flirtatious" personality and were incested by your father or uncle or brother or raped by the parish priest you could be committed to an institution that would work you from dawn to dusk. Slavery by another name. Tiny children imprisoned and working their fingers to the bone. The government was complicit in these incarcerations. No surprise at all. Fear was a constant companion. An innocent walk with a father would result in him pointing out some of these grim gray buildings with barred windows in the middle of the country where "bad" boys and girls, some as young as 5, could be thrown, never to see their families again.

My friends, you have no idea. I'm just giving you the very spit of it, a wee taste.

To read more of it go to Bock the Robber's blog today. He connects the Famine (a genocide actually) and the Laundries in a way I've thought of but could never articulate as well as he has. He does it beautifully. Savagely. And succintly.


Crushed. Demoralised. Three to four million native Irish speakers removed at a stroke. Its culture eviscerated by emigration, starvation and disease, thanks to a government in London that believed in tooth-and-claw laissez faire economics. A government whose only interest was the wealthy merchant classes, and the devil take the hindmost.

This is an Ireland far, far removed from those travel posters and paddywackery.

And the horror percolates downwards through all generations of my country.

Ask anyone there, ask me, what their families did to survive the famine and you will get a blank stare. We just don't know.

One of my family members ran one of those laundries.

And my highschool mini-choir would go to the institutions to sing for the unfortunates. But we were forbidden to speak to them and they to us.

And we knew our fate if we stepped out of line.

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Anonymous Grannymar said...

It is hard to credit the lives we lived and we were not in one of these horrendous institutions. At least you found encouragement in school, I found cruelty, sarcasm and no mercy. I walked out of my school on the last day swearing never to enter the building ever again or have any offspring (if I were to have them) educated an non religious environment.

Elly went to a State grammar school in Northern Ireland. religious knowledge was a subject but it covered a wide spectrum of faiths. She loved school and was involved in many activities and encouraged at every step.

Wed Feb 06, 02:52:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Twilight said...

Although I know of England's many past wrongs inflicted on Ireland, I didn't know of these extra added horrors piled on by the RC church.

Robert Burns' words:

Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

In this case it's also woman's inhumanity to woman ......

Wed Feb 06, 02:58:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

I was luckier than most whereas we had (mainly) a very high calibre of nuns teaching us, some with PHds. In my time we were some of the very few girls taught calculus in an age where Domestic Science was de rigeur and I was allowed to take Physics and Chemistry instead.

BUT there was the downside of ignorant cruel nuns who mocked the children of widowers whose uniforms weren't maintained or their hair was messy. Or school fees went unpaid. I've never forgotten that.

You and I were so lucky to escape outside of the country and look back and see the horrific atmosphere of our childhoods.


Wed Feb 06, 03:28:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

These nuns were twisted women, T. In my own relative's case she was a gifted piano teacher but because this was considered a "vanity" she had to sacrifice her hands in the laundry and offer up the absence of music to her bridegroom, Jesus Jones, in payment for all her sins.

That sure fixed her alright and the rest of her sisterly tribe who offered up who knows what to their polygamist husband.

It all sounds insane. And it is.
And continues today as I watch women of my acquaintance throw their money in the baskets of this evil institution.


Wed Feb 06, 03:33:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Anonymous Tessa said...

Bock's post is a salutary reminder that we Irish used to live under our very own Taliban. So easy to forget ...

Wed Feb 06, 03:33:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

Well said, Tessa. Very well said.

Were you around in the time of the mantillas ahem burqas?


Wed Feb 06, 03:39:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Anonymous nick said...

I can hardly imagine the sheer horror and misery of being locked away in one of the laundries. And the fact that the government was complicit in what was going on is appalling. A total absence of common humanity.

Wed Feb 06, 04:10:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Sabine said...

I wonder if future generations will see the day when the catholic church with all its cruelty will be considered what it is: cruel, hating women and so very far from compassion.

I am so sick of it all.

I realised some years ago that I worked opposite one of the laundries (Sean McDermot St, in Dublin) in the early 80s - we had no idea. Literally no idea.

Wed Feb 06, 04:33:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

I doubt if anyone can and I bet the Vatican stockpiled their cut of the slavery money.

AND the government has still to make an apology.

Not that that means anything. I suppose they're afraid of lawsuits.


Wed Feb 06, 07:06:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


Even when I was up close and personal with a lot of those girls I hadn't a clue either. Their "evil deeds" were shrouded. All we knew is that we were a hair's breadth away ourselves.

I still have enormous difficulty in comprehending all that went on around me, in every single institution built by this unquestioned, powerful monolith in a nation still traumatized by the devastating loss of genocide.


Wed Feb 06, 07:10:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Anonymous Jay at The Depp Effect said...

My goodness it all sounds barbaric. I shall go and read the blog you linked to, when I'm done here.

I've heard many tales of how the Catholic church ruled and the power they had over people, power which was often abused. Double standards, guilt, punishment, hardship because it was 'good for the soul', more guilt, more punishment, fear, and the threat of excommunication.

I've read a little about the injustices in Ireland, the Land Question, the absentee landlords, the middlemen, and finally the blight. I don't know how anyone survived.

Wed Feb 06, 07:51:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Molly said...

I came on here for a "quick look!" Ha! So much for that---after I started reading this post and following one link, which led to another, which led to know how that goes. I only copped on to the whole Magdalene thing a few years ago. But we had a Good Shepherd Convent near where I lived as a young child in Limerick. I had no idea (I was 3 or 4 at the time, then we moved) The Mt. St. Lawrence cemetery is where my parents are buried. I don't know if they had any idea what went on in those laundries.....I'm sure you've seen the movie....pretty horrifying that you could be locked up like that merely for innocent flirting----and often by your own family who'd been brainwashed by the church. Island of Saints and Scholars me arse!

Wed Feb 06, 09:32:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Hattie said...

Thank god (!) my Irish forebears got out before the famine. And my mother, although raised as a Catholic, did not burden us with religion. But even so, something about her was Irish anyway: he looks, especially, her way with words, her inability to show affection, things like that.

Thu Feb 07, 01:56:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Stan said...

The government's unwillingness to apologise plainly and sincerely to the women concerned speaks volumes for its moral cowardice. The shame and injustice continue.

Thu Feb 07, 06:08:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


But survive we did. A broken, traumatized people. Submitting mindlessly to the abusive treatment of religion.

You know a lot about Ireland, you've done your research!


Thu Feb 07, 10:52:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


No, never saints and if there were scholars there wasn't a critical thinker amongst them or they were "in" on the deal.

If we questioned these institutions at all growing up it was with the fear that any day we'd wind up in them for being "bad" or being "bold". We were terrorized. Taliban indeed as Tess said.


Thu Feb 07, 10:56:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


I put down the lack of physical affection in the homes then to "Jansenism" a form of extreme catholicism which affected many Irish. One example: a couple were not meant to touch each other anywhere in the act of copulation but limit it only to the obvious insertion and only then with clothes on. Seriously.
I remember my mother and her sisters discussing this seriously as an old PP had warned them of being too free while Jesus watched.

Thu Feb 07, 10:59:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

Terrified of lawsuits is my bet. Opening up the vault for healing and reconciliation? Ireland shows its true colours once again.

Thu Feb 07, 11:00:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger One Woman's Journey - a journal being written from Woodhaven - her cottage in the woods. said...

Oh my
I am so not aware of this.
How horrible.
To think I have at times
thought I had it bad.
Spared from much you shared.

Thu Feb 07, 07:11:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


Yes, the deep dark secrets of Ireland that are bobbing to the surface in the last twenty odd years. More and more all the time.

I'm sure there's far, far more as I know quite a few that didn't have the strength to talk about it.
Or suicided.


Fri Feb 08, 12:55:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Sabine said...

This here was (and still is) banned from national television in Ireland, a Channel 4 (UK TV) documentary from 1998:

It's hard to watch.

Fri Feb 08, 06:02:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

Thanks Sabine, I will watch later on, so many secrets that need to see the light of day and censorship (even of OPERA!!!) is nothing new to Ireland.


Fri Feb 08, 11:58:00 AM GMT-3:30  
Anonymous Rummuser said...

Now that the report is out and the national shame has been brought out of the cupboard, perhaps the reconciliation process, in a very different Ireland now than then, can now take place. I hope that it does.

Fri Feb 08, 12:11:00 PM GMT-3:30  
Blogger Wisewebwoman said...


Until they throw the Catholic church out or at least separate it from its influence on the state, it will never happen.

They are manning the ramparts already and producing heart warming stories of how good the nuns/brothers were to some of the children. I've no doubt there was some kindness but it was far too uncommon.

The evil stands alone and speaks far more volumes.


Fri Feb 08, 12:18:00 PM GMT-3:30  

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