Thanks Leo Kavanagh
Dr Frances Finnegan, author of Do Penance Or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland
You might recall a post from February of last year, following the publication of the McAleese Report, entitled A Question Of Sex, Class And Gender.
It was a transcript of a discussion on Tonight With Vincent Browne, involving Dr Finnegan – who gave evidence to the Inter-Departmental Committee, chaired by former Senator Martin McAleese, and which published the McAleese Report.
During the discussion, Dr Finnegan told of her struggle to get her book published.
It took her 21 years to write, she published the first edition of it herself in 2001 and then, in 2004, Oxford University Press published it and continues to do so.
Dr Finnegan was also the historical consultant for Steve Humphries’ documentary Sex In A Cold Climate, which was broadcast on Channel 4 in March, 1998.
RTÉ never broadcast the documentary until April 7 of last year – 15 years after it was originally aired.
After it was aired on Channel 4 in 1998, the Irish Times ran a piece by Dr Niall McElwee, who was then Course Director in Applied Social Studies at the Waterford Institute of Technology.
Dr McElwee is the co author of a 1997 book called Prostitution in Waterford City, part funded by the Good Shepherd Sisters.
“The programme, Witness: Sex in a Cold Climate, facilitated the process of speaking out about injustices inflicted on them for four women who were obviously extremely hurt and traumatised by their experiences. There is no doubt they were profoundly let down by all concerned – by their families first and foremost, then by the State and by members of the religious communities supposed to be providing care and who instead betrayed their calling. Balance, however was missing. In this programme the nuns’ side of the story was not given.”
Following publication Dr Finnegan contacted the paper and was told the paper would print a right of reply if sent in within a certain period of time and if it was under a certain word limit.
She says she duly obliged.
She received a note from the duty editor stating:
“Due to pressure of space at the present time we would be unable to use it.”
This is her reply that went unpublished.
“It would be comforting to believe that nothing could have prepared an unsuspecting Irish public for the shocking revelations exposed in the Documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, shown on Channel 4 almost two weeks ago. However, this can hardly have been the case. Documentaries such as Dear Daughter, together with the growing number of recently published autobiographical accounts of brutality and neglect in Irish Industrial Schools must have softened this latest blow. Equally important, there can be few people over the age of 40 in this country who were wholly unaware of the existence and purpose of those vast institutions which, until the nineteen-nineties, housed the remnants of Ireland’s “Magdalen” class.
The original purpose of these Female Penitentiaries dating from the early nineteenth century, was the reform and restoration to society of penitent prostitutes and other “fallen” women. During the 1840s and 50s, however, nuns like the Good Shepherd Sisters from France took over the institutions, and Irish “Rescue Work” underwent a change. Short-term refuges became long-term Magdalen Asylums, whose inmates were discouraged from leaving and were frequently detained for life. Vast numbers of women were kept at work in laundries attached to the institutions, and subjected to penance, harsh discipline, silence and prayer. Completely cut off from the world and assigned new names, an alarming anonymity prevailed; and as prostitute numbers dwindled, other “fallen” women were targeted, including unmarried mothers, wayward girls and victims of incest or rape.
As “voluntary” institutions (without state support) Magdalen Asylums were completely unregulated for much of their existence. Attempts to bring Convent laundries within the protection of Factory and Workshop legislation were for many years successfully resisted, and their workers continued as virtual slaves. Untouched by Trade Unionism, the Female Liberation Movement, reformist legislation and a change in our attitude to sex, many of the inmates remained in the institutions until well after domestic washing machines brought the system to an end.
In December 1978 I was first given access to the Good Shepherd records, including the Penitents’ Registers of their Magdalen Asylums in Limerick, Waterford, New Ross and Cork. Although, of course, no instances of brutality or abuse (such as those recounted in the Channel 4 Documentary) emerged, it was immediately apparent that the system itself was appalling; and the fact that it continued, apparently un-regarded, into the late twentieth century, was a matter of further concern.
Also disturbing were recent indications that a concerted attempt was being made to whitewash or deny the whole shameful episode. Magdalen Asylums (until last week) were increasingly referred to, even in print, and by those who ran them, as orphanages, or shelters for homeless women. The fact that they were initially set up for prostitutes, and infinitely more horrific than the hated workhouse, was indignantly denied. Sex in a Cold Climate has ensured that the subject cannot now be quietly buried – unlike the hundreds of women who died in the institutions, and were placed in communal Penitent graves.
The Magdalen Movement, though ignoring men’s contribution to “sin”, cannot be attributed to the Victorian double standard in sexual morality, since most of its victims were casualties, not of the nineteenth century but the post-Victorian age. It seems more likely to have resulted from a continuing fear of female sexuality. But whatever its cause, it was an appalling injustice towards women, and particularly those of the poor.
To “move on” from what has yet to be properly revealed, under the pretext that history cannot be judged by the standards of today – would be a more shocking injustice than the episode itself. Perhaps this aspect of our heritage, as much as the Civil War, the Famine or the ’98 Rebellion might profitably in the future be taught in our schools.
The Documentary has been criticised for being unbalanced and ignoring the nuns’ side of the story – an extraordinary reaction to such a harrowing film. However, having worked with a huge variety of sources on the subject over a very long period, I can confirm that for more than a century, the women who ran these grim institutions have been given a very good press. A glance at any local newspaper item on the institutions, or any publication devoted to the Homes (or appealing for funds) will reveal that until fairly recently the nuns were regarded almost as saints – in contrast to the “evil sinners” they controlled. The purpose of the film, of course, was to capture the experience of the victims of the system – those people who have always been voiceless in the past. To the credit of the Documentary makers, the women found the courage to tell their stories, which were handled with such sensitivity and care.
The fact that certain nuns are still involving themselves in the area of prostitution, far from indicating change, confirms that a Community like the Good Shepherd sisters – founded for the sole purpose of “reforming” “fallen” women – has not yet relinquished this role. Let it do so now, since it is as inappropriate as it is distasteful, that an Order of celibate custodians, so long preoccupied with penance and sin, should still be concerning itself with the sexuality of others. The State has been charged with indifference and inactivity in the past – a naïve interpretation of the history of Magdalenism in this country, but one not wholly without foundation. Let it act now, to ensure that a proper inquiry into allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in the institutions (to say nothing of illegal detention) takes place immediately, so that wrong-doers are punished and restitution to those who have suffered, is made.
Previously: A Question Of Sex, Gender And Class
From the letters page in today’s Irish Times.
Previously: Lookin’ For Bubble
[John Waters (top and Patsy McGarry]
Further to Pantigate, etc., etc.
Seán O’Rourke played a (pre-recorded) interview with John Waters on RTE Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke this morning.
Grab a tay.
Sean O’Rourke: “Now the past three months have been a time of upheaval in the life of journalist and author, John Waters. It began in January when he was described as a homophobe on RTÉ’s television’s Saturday Night Show. The station apologised and paid him €40,000 in defamation damages, unleashing a torrent of criticism of RTE, of John Waters himself, and of the Iona Institute, whose members were also compensated. More recently, John Waters resigned as a columnist with the Irish Times, saying that the highly toxic of illiberal antagonism towards particular viewpoints exists at the heart of the paper’s editorial operation. That’s what he wrote in a long article in the current issue of Village magazine. So when he came into studio, I first asked John Waters if he’d any regrets at all about threatening to sue RTE and then taking the money?”
John Waters: “No, I don’t because all I did was I sent, I got my solicitor to send a letter requesting an apology, a clarification for what had happened. And there was a lot of prevarication which followed on that. And, because of that, we lost the first opportunity for an apology which is the most critical moment, the week afterwards. So things escalated from then and this society offers as a means of recompensing somebody who’s being defamed, just two things. One of them is an apology done in the quickest possible time and the other is damages. And therefore the process which requires, which arose, occurred because of the prevarication of RTÉ. This could have been sorted out on day one with an apology and a minimal cost, a donation to charity, to St Vincent De Paul, that’s all that was asked for. So I’ve no regrets about that. And I never will have regrets about defending my reputation because it’s vitally important for a commentator, of any kind, to preserve the one thing they have, which is their reputation, their credibility in the public sphere.”
O’Rourke: “And you’re emphatic that if RTÉ had been prepared to include the following, which you quote in your, or which you reproduced in your article in Village magazine this month. There would have been no more about it. “We accept that it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues, without characterisations of malice, hatred or bad faith”.”
Waters: “Absolutely right. I mean, it’s vitally important that it be seen that I’d intervene, my job was to intervene in public debate and have controversial views and have robust views and if you can be portrayed and presented as being motivated by malice or hatred in what you say, then you’re entirely disabled as a commentator. And, so for that reason, it’s vitally important that I preserve my, the sense that I have, that I actually contribute intellectually debates, on the basis of my understanding of the issues, not because I hate particular individuals or because I hate any particular kind of individual, that’s indispensable to my role as a public commentator.”
O’Rourke: “But, at the same time though, as I said earlier in the introduction, a torrent of criticism, of RTÉ in the first instance, for caving in to what was seen as pressure from yourself, and the Iona Institute and others, and not standing up for robust debate.”
Waters: “Well you see I think, this word debates keeps coming up. But there’s no right to defame as part of debate. I’ve been writing columns for the Irish Times for 24 years. If I defame somebody I’ll be sued. And if we lose a case, I’ll probably have got fired. But there’s no right, there’s no free speech right to defame someone, just steal somebody’s reputation because how can you answer this kind of charge?”
O’Rourke: “Well, right of reply the following week, you were offered that…”
Waters: “A right of reply can work, if there’s an allegation put forward of a factual nature which you can respond to ad seriatum. This was not that kind of allegation, it was simply part of a smear. It wasn’t, and interestingly it wasn’t the first time it happened. This arose a couple of years ago during the Presidential election campaign when, if you recall Seán, there was a controversy about [Senator and former Presidential candidate] David Norris and an interview he had given to Magill magazine. At the time, which, back in 2002, when I was the consultant editor, and I became embroiled in that, defending Helen Lucy Burke’s position because she was attacked that time. And I was called a homophobe on a programme on TV3. Now I raised this issue with the programme in question, I asked for an apology and the apology was given immediately, so there was no money changed hands, there was no question of money. I didn’t even ask for my lawyers fees. So the same could have happened this time if RTÉ had acted with alacrity and with a degree of gravity with regard to what had actually happened.”
O’Rourke: “You wrote as well that, in the aftermath of this, or at the height of it maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s still going on, it became unsafe for you to walk down the street. Really?”
Waters: “Yes, I felt that, whether that was objectively true in the sense that, obviously a lot of this can occur in one’s mind but, at the same time, there were a number of incidents which were disquieting, you know people would come on..Mostly, I would have to say, they kind of, a dominant note of these was the cowardice of the individuals concerned because they almost invariably came up to me on bicycles and start roaring ‘homophobe’ at me, or ‘f-ing homophone’ or whatever and then scooting off. And this kind of thing happened several times so gradually it got to me, I didn’t really want to go into certain places. I didn’t want to go into Dublin, I don’t have a great time in Dublin anyway, to be honest but I did feel in myself that I was becoming changed and that worried me as well because the nature of my job is I have to be able to look people in the eye, to actually stand up and defend my positions and if I find myself under this kind of barrage of assault, then I have to consider my own position and my position as a public commentator.”
O’Rourke: “We’ll come back in a few minutes to what happened in the Irish Times itself but, apart from what went on there and the abuse that would have been hurled at you occasionally in the street, what else did you have to deal with? And you mentioned Twitter?”
Waters: “Well I outlined in the, I gave some flavour in the Village article about the kinds of emails I was getting and these were absolutely vile, you know, very short, always a certain pattern: short, very often in capitals, you know expletives, splenetic language, the word homophobe always there, terrible personal commentary about my family life perhaps, or about my appearance, all that kind of stuff. And there was like hundreds of these and I began to notice a pattern in this which was really astonishing. That, even though in the public domain in the Dáil, this came up in the Dáil and the Seanad, it came up in RTÉ, it came up in lots of places and it was being talked about for, particularly for about a week or two all the time and yet I noticed in that period, there was a certain pattern. That the one day – on a Wednesday, say – I would get 20 or 30 of these emails, and I would think, this would go on, then on Thursday, there would be none. And I’d think: it’s finished. But then Friday morning, I’d get another one and then on Friday, I’d get 20 or 30 more, so it seemed to me there was a certain orchestration about this whole thing that was actually, that there were people actually working hard to send these messages to me.”
O’Rourke: “Well you were criticised as well by the Minister for Communication, as well as his other responsibilities, Pat Rabbitte. Basically saying, look if you’re in the public square having a debate, you gotta be able to take it as well as give it.
Waters: “I’ve said it before, you know, Pat Rabbitte is entitled to express his opinion, just as anybody else is but I think Pat Rabbitte might be better off looking after his job as Minister for Communication. This was nothing to do with his job as Minister for Communications.”
O’Rourke: “Well, except for the national broadcaster, for which he has responsibility, shelled out over €85,000 in compensation.”
Waters: “That’s a legal matter and is entirely a matter for the people in charge of the national broadcaster and it’s contingent on the legal peculiarities. It is not a political question.”
O’Rourke: “Coming to the Irish Times, now you’ve identified, by my count, five people who were critical of you. Either openly, in print or tweeting openly, or using a nom de plume or maybe by what might be called a passing innuendo in various pieces they wrote. Now we don’t have time to go into every detail but you wrote a letter of resignation after a fellow columnist, Fintan O’Toole, had a go at you, which you say was utterly cowardly and disgraceful. Why would you use it, why would you speak in those terms? Why would it prompt you to resign?”
Waters: “Because it was part of a sustained campaign, it goes back actually to something that had happened earlier on. Because remembered the accusation was made that I was a homophobe, now on RTÉ, and it would say that I had been campaigning on the issue of gay marriage and that I had been more or less, it was insinuated that I’d been on TV and radio every day of the week. Now anybody in RTÉ can simply, by, within 30 seconds can ascertain how often I’ve been on radio and television, talking about gay marriage because the answer is I’ve never been on, I’ve never been on any programme. Many times I’ve turned down invitations to appear on Prime Time, the Frontline, all these programmes, who’ve asked me to go, because they assume they know my position on gay marriage and I can assure you, they don’t. But there was one time where I did outline my full position on gay marriage in an email to a colleague in the Irish Times, Una Mulally, who actually about five days before the Rory O’Neill interview on The Saturday Night Show, asked me, because she said she was writing a book, and I sat down and I wrote, even though this woman had attacked me numerous times, I sat down, I wrote her a 2,000-word email, outlining in full my position on gay marriage. In which I said, inter alia, that I actually don’t think I am against gay marriage per se. That I have a question because I have campaigned for many years on the question of the relationship between fathers and children and the rights and the lack of rights pertaining to those relationships and I’ve been asking why is this, this situation not being fixed when all these other issues are being dealt with and so I said my problems relate to this problem, this issue. I also said that I got no support from Catholic organisation, from Catholic bishops or priests or popes or anybody like that…” Continue reading
Jane McCormick writes:
I have been waiting for the right moment to send in this illustration and today might just be the day, having just read former Irish Times journalist Don Buckley’s excellent letter in response to the Irish Times/Martyn Turner cartoon debacle. I made this image in response to the involvement of Cardinal Seán Brady in the Fr Brendan Smyth child abuse cover-up in Cavan in the 1970s.
Previously: Cardinal Brady: Accused
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin voiced his grievances about a cartoon which appeared in the Irish Times on Wednesday, during a Holy Thursday Mass in the Dublin’s Pro Cathedral yesterday morning.
It appeared in the paper a day after retired parish priest Fr Gearoid O Donnchu told Chris O’Donoghue on Newstalk that he will not break the seal of confession under any circumstance.
The cartoon – a comment on the Children First Bill which provides for the mandatory reporting of child abuse and the Catholic Church’s seal of the confessional – no longer appears on the Irish Times website.
Previously: Too Toon?
Thanks Joan O’Connell