Monday, 25 March 2013

The Magdalene Laundries and Irish history


The story of the Magdalene Landries, recently the subject of an apology by the Irish Prime Minister (above), is a painful one indeed. The Laundries were basically workhouses for girls and young women of all sorts who just happened to offend the Church or the more secular authorities in Ireland between the nineteenth century and the 1990s. They left a trail of pain and humiliation behind them - hidden bruises and quiet damages that have never really been addressed properly. Until now.

What is emerging there is just one part of a much wider story. I am very, very reluctant to write this, but the Republic of Ireland is being revealed as a partially failed state. Between its creation in the 1920s and its reformation (in a burst of Euro-enthusiasm) in the 1990s, the church was far too powerful; its political culture too insular; its elites too small. Children were abused; the powerful handed out jobs as they wished; taxpayers' and shareholders' money flowed through backroom deals and stitch-ups aplenty.

Northern Ireland didn't fare much better. For many decades 'a Protestant state for a Prostestant people', gerrymandering, intimidation and nakedly sectarian discrimination flourished. The province had its own Magdalene Laundries in Belfast, and arbitrary detention and forced labour were practiced there. This is not much discussed, even today, partly because of these institutions' much smaller scale, but they were there all right. The people of Ireland, north and south, are as extraordinary as they have ever been; their landscape stunning; their achievements astounding. But here's the reality: in the twentieth century, they were as badly governed as anyone in the developed world.

I used to be sceptical about the 'revisionism' that flourished in Irish history from the 1980s onwards, particularly after the publication of Irish historian Roy Foster's magisterial Modern Ireland in 1988. There Foster dissected the myth that Irish history moved in a nationalist direction; that it was her people's manifest destiny to rid themselves of the hated Brits; that the emergence of an Irish state for the Irish people was inevitable. History, of course, is always more complicated than that: and the grotesque reality now revealed in the Irish state structure itself, in the South just as much as in the North under exclusivist Unionist rule, has called into question the whole nature and desirability of Irish independence itself.

I didn't like hearing Foster's views, because I looked at what I thought was the steady growth of Irish 'national' feeling, protest, organisation and opposition to 'foreign' domination during the nineteenth century, and I scratched my head that this be seen as going in any other direction but statehood. But now I can see the nature of that statehood, I know that he was right. For the old nationalist stories depended on a teleology from 'past' to 'future', from 'domination' to 'freedom', and from 'bad' to 'good', that can no longer be supported from the vantage point of 2012. Freedom from what? Not freedom to be badly and corruptly governed, that's for sure.

At a time when the people of Northern Ireland face renewed threats from a tiny group of refuseniks dedicated to unachievable objectives and fantastical myths, I hope that's an important insight. Sometimes historians stand back; they're cool; they're detached. Not this time. For only when we have looked Irish history full in the face, and seen its iniquities for what they are - far removed from the sectarian stories and religion-upon-religion conflicts we have often imagined - can we push forwards towards the more hopeful future that Irish men and women of all faiths and beliefs deserve.

The present writer is proud of his Irish descent and name; and of his nationalist (and Nationalist) forebears. But what these histories of corruption and abuse really evoke is this: we need an entirely new Irish history, and it won't be one painted in Green and Orange any more.

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