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The Magdelene Laundriesby Joni Mitchell
I was an unmarried girl
I'd just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a jezebel
I knew I was not bound for Heaven
I'd be cast in shame
Into the Magdalene laundries *
Most girls come here pregnant
Some by their own fathers
Bridget got that belly
By her parish priest
We're trying to get things white as snow
All of us woe-begotten-daughters
In the steaming stains
Of the Magdalene laundries
Prostitutes and destitutes
And temptresses like me
Sentenced into dreamless drudgery
Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?
These bloodless brides of Jesus
If they had just once glimpsed their groom
Then they'd know and they'd drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries
They wilt the grass they walk upon
They leech the light out of a room
They'd like to drive us down the drain
At the Magdalene laundries
Peg O'Connell died today
She was a cheeky girl
They just stuffed her in a hole!
Surely to God you'd think at least some bells should ring!
One day I'm going to die here too
And they'll plant me in the dirt
Like some lame bulb
That never blooms come any spring
Not any spring
No, not any spring
Not any spring
© 1994; Crazy Crow Music
[The following is written and used by kind permission of Mari Steed]
Ireland has suffered a great many tragedies in her long history...there are those we hear of every day - the "Troubles," the great Famine - Irish sorrows and issues we are all familiar with. But hidden beneath the surface, lies a tragedy just as great, just as terrible and just as unimaginable. And it is only just beginning to break through to the light of truth.
It is the story of thousands of Ireland's women...judged "sinners" by the cruel Church-driven society of the 1800's through present day. Their crime? Bearing children out of wedlock...leaving abusive husbands or home situations. The punishment? A lifetime of "penitence" spent in the service of the Sisters of Charity or other orders, performing domestic chores...harsh, thankless chores such as laundering prison uniforms, cooking, cleaning and caring for elderly nuns or their aging peers, still trapped behind the walls of Ireland's numerous convent laundries, industrial schools and the like. They are "The Magdalens," ironically called after the converted prostitute, Mary the Magdalene, who served her Jesus loyally and was rewarded with his forgiveness and love.
No such rewards exist for these "penitents." They were told to forever hide their shame inside these walls, work under harsh, spartan conditions, driven unmercifully by the sisters and often abused by them as well. It is a story Ireland has every right to be ashamed of, which is perhaps why it has only come to light recently.
In the 1970's, church property held by the Sisters of Charity in Dublin which once served as a convent laundry was to be sold back to the Republic for public use. It was discovered at that time that some 133 graves existed, unmarked, in a cemetery on the convent grounds. The graves belonged to women who had worked in the services of the convent all their lives, buried without notification to possible family...unmarked, unremembered. When the discovery was made, a cry arose in the streets of Dublin...families came forth to identify and claim some of the women as their long-lost daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. Yet many remained unidentified. Finally, in the early 1990's, a memorial was established and the remaining, unclaimed bodies were reinterred in the Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, properly laid to rest with respectful homage and a sad memorial commemorating their plight.
Further allegations of on-going abuse within this convent system appeared in the press and other media. More outcry ensued and at last, the Catholic Church seemed to offer some recognition of its culpability in the cruel punishment of these women and their offspring. But full retribution remains to be made. In addition to graves gone unmarked, so too, living women go "unmarked," languishing still inside the convent walls - unclaimed by their respective families as many were given false names upon admittance, making their true identification enormously difficult.
My own mother may well be a Magdalen...but because the circumstances concerning my Irish birth remain sealed by Ireland's 1983 Privacy Act, I may never know the truth of her own circumstances. But as an orphan herself, raised through a series of convent homes, industrial schools, and the mother-baby home where I was born, little doubt exists she was likely a victim of this vicious system.
In a Church and society that seems to hold life as sacred and cherished, I cannot help but wonder what monstrous idealism could spurn fallen women and their fallen daughters for the "crime" of becoming pregnant or of being poor? And, in its basest form, has the system perpetuated itself? As a birthmother of a relinquished daughter, now a third generation "Magdalen," I feel compelled to find out. This demeaning treatment of women - of any human - should not be tolerated nor go unpunished itself.
"We are the ghosts of the children no more. We lay in the graveyard of the home for unwed mothers, next to the church with the beautiful rose window, underneath the disturbed soil of Ireland. Our mothers came here, sharing secrets, being quiet, toiling and attending Mass with each other, though they never shared their true names. There was a momentary sisterhood, it seemed, and we thought we might one day live here, and be happy. We each knew our mothers very well, and some of them talked to us every day, in their little rooms, alone. Sometimes there was anger, sometimes crying, but we were always with them, and felt close. In our whispers to each other, underneath the grass, we've shared how each of our mothers grew austerely silent as the day of our birth approached. Some of us withered from all the unhappiness, and left our mothers early, and here came to rest. Others traveled the birth canal, just like any of you living, but our mothers disappeared so suddenly, we died of fright. But we don't speak to frighten you. We call to you because you are our brethren. In each other, we have found comfort, but our ears are keen in the silent air, and we know many more of us lay, all over the earth, forgotten. We never lived to understand what was so important to your ways that made our growth, our awareness, so brief. And though we are now part of the trees, the light, and the air, our spirits stay sunken, unidentified. We understand we are bastards, and we know there are the living among our kind. You are our brethren and you can hear us in the night when you think about your own mysteries, and wonder. Every time you speak out for the bastards, you bless another one of us with a name, another with a face. Whenever you feel isolated, you can call to us and we will hear. Use your breath, your precious life, and change the world's ways for all of us. Know we were loved by at least one silent heart. Be strong, and love each other, and the world will surely change."
- Gavriela Maxime Ze'eva Person (Amy)
Born 1969, Died 1997
Adoptee, Celtic Sister Requiescat en Pace
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