Dublin City Councillors at their meeting on Thursday (13th September) voted by huge majority not to sell the former Magdalene Laundry building in Seán McDermott Street in the city centre. Deputy City Manager Brendan Kenny had earlier announced the possibility of the Council selling the building at an expected price of €14.5 million to a Japanese company that planned and hotel and supermarket on the site.
A campaign group called Separate Church & State had lobbied for the building to become a memorial to the suffering of the inmates of the Magdalene Laundries. The group called people to support an event outside City Hall to coincide with a motion being put forward to prevent the sale of the building. A range of people attended, seeming mostly Left social and political activists independent of any party and a sprinkling of People Before Profit activists.
The motion was propose by Gary Gannon, a Councilor of a very small political party (with only one member on the Council), the Social Democrats. However the motion was supported by the overwhelming majority of a Independent councillors (i.e of no party) and those belonging to a number of other parties and was passed with 37 voting in favour, eight against and two abstentions.
The successful motion called on the Council not to sell the building and land and that instead those who suffered abuse there should be commemorated with a memorial. Other than preventing the sale, exactly how the memorialising might be put into effect remains to be outlined and agreed. There is talk of the State taking it over but whether by donation of the Council or sale has not been clarified. There are very few memorials to the Magdalene Laundry victims and all but one of them are small.
The Sean McDermott building appears to have been the last of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and was closed in 1996. It is also the last of those buildings in the possession of Dublin City Council.
The significance of the victory is greater than that of elected representatives versus unelected City Managers, the former being more responsive to public pressure than to the demands of high-ranking officials who seem happy to hand over much of the city centre to property speculators, shopping centres, hotels and large student accommodation complexes.
The terms in which the issue was raised are an attack on the legacy of the Catholic Church’s grip on secular society and its relationship with the State. The campaigners clearly see the Council vote as a victory, though a moral one, against that legacy. And they are planning to press ahead with the offensive in the terms indicated by the title of their campaign, indicating further targets such as the national health and education services, along with legislation to follow on the national referendum’s rejection of Amendment 8 of the Constitution outlawing abortion.
The Magdalene Laundries – some brief background
The Magdalene Laundries were a major institution of the Irish Catholic Church from the 18th to the late 20th Century. There were some Protestant parallels too in the Six Counties (“Northern Ireland”) run by the Anglican and Presbyterian churches but the vast majority of the Irish population were of the Catholic faith. The Laundries took in and accommodated women who were considered “fallen women” which at first meant sex workers but later included unmarried women who had a child or children or even women whose behaviour was considered immoral or flirtatious (or even whose beauty attracted male attention) and they were put to work in the laundries for no pay. Ostensibly at first a charitable initiative, their title drew on the New Testament story of Mary Magdalene who, from being a “morally loose” woman, after meeting him became one of the most ardent supporters of Testament’s Jesus.
But if the name was associated with the alleged mercy and lack of judgementalism of the Christ, it also implied moral sin and judgement. In the extremely conservative Catholic Church that it became after the Great Hunger, the main element was likely to be punishment and, when allied to an also socially reactionary political class, the Laundries became an institution of social control of the Catholic Church in Ireland and of the new Irish State.
The Magdalene laundries soon became known to their inmates as places of hard work and ill-treatment, mostly of a psychological nature but also physical. If women left them without permission, they were pursued by the police and brought back. Continuous escapes could lead to jail sentences.
During their time in operation an estimated 30,000 Irish women were kept in these institutions in Ireland, approximately 11,000 after the State was created in 1922.
The horrors of these “charitable institutions” began to be revealed to the public during the last decade of the 20th Century, notably in 1993 after a mass grave of 155 corpses was uncovered in the north Dublin convent grounds which housed one of the laundries and the last Laundry was finally closed down in 1996. The Church never accepted any financial responsibility for reparations.
The Irish State set aside a sum of up to €58 million (about half of which has been paid out – see Links) but the religious institutes concerned, the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd and Sisters of Charity refused demands from the Irish Government, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee against Torture, along with other groups in Irish society, to contribute to the compensation fund for the the surviving victims, an estimated 600 of whom were still alive in March 2014 (see Wikipedia in Links).
The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish State apologised publicly and emotionally in the Dáil (Parliament) in February 2013 but the State never accepted any legal responsibility, its representatives saying that they did not control the Church. When they were reminded that the victims had washed not only clothes and vestments of priests and nuns but had also done laundry service for such state institutions as Aer Lingus, the Irish Army, the Gárdai, the State’s representatives declared that the Laundries were like any other contractor in that regard and that the State could could not accept responsibility for how contractors treated their “employees”. But it is known that State courts sent a number of women to the Magdalene Laundries. And it was the State that allowed the Catholic Church to dominate social care, health care and education, areas which are usually considered the responsibility of the State.
The general story of the Laundries is fairly well-known in Ireland now through media coverage and the testimonies of victims and even abroad in some countries through the 1992 Peter Mullan film Magdalene Sisters (see Links) and a number of documentaries for TV. Mary Coughlan sang a fierce attack on them too the same year as the film, composed by J.Mulhern (see Links for a Youtube video).
There are very few monuments to the suffering of the victims of the Magdalene Laundries and they are all of a small size except the statue in Ennis which aroused some local controversy.
Despite the duration of their existence and numbers involved and the international coverage, the Pope claimed when tackled by some survivors on his recent visit to Dublin that he had no knowledge of the existence of the institutions.
Sale of Council buildings and land – the legal position and some background
Due to a legislative change some years ago, Dublin Council Executives such as the City Manager and Senior Planning Officer can make major decisions without consulting elected Councillors and even against their expressed wishes. In this way, for example, the planning permission for the Shopping Centre Plan over the Moore Street Battleground and Market quarter was firstly agreed and secondly, even after the High Court judgement that it is a national monument, was renewed in 2016 by the Chief Planning officer of the time, Jim Keogan.
Many feel and have felt since such decisions that this is an unhealthy state of affairs, with no democratic controls and leaving key officials open to suspicion of bribery from developers influencing their decisions.
Fortunately however when it comes to the disposal of Council assets, the Councillors must agree by majority. This prevented the “land swap” proposed in 2014 by Joe O’Reilly of buildings in Moore Street, which if successful would have enabled his company to demolish half the 1916 Terrace: responding to campaigners and interested elected Councillors, the Council voted the proposal down against senior officials’ recommendations in November of that year.
Separate Church & State campaign group: https://www.facebook.com/separatechurchandstate/
Short article on the Dublin Council lobby and vote in Look Left: https://www.lookleftonline.org/2018/09/dcc-votes-not-to-sell-off-ex-magdalene-laundry-site/
Closing of the Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/last-days-of-a-laundry-1.89388
Proposed sale of the Sean McDermott Street building: http://www.thejournal.ie/sean-mcdermott-magdalene-laundry-3941031-Apr2018/
The Magdalene Laundries on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalene_Laundries_in_Ireland
The Pope “had no knowledge”: https://www.buzz.ie/latest/pope-magdalene-laundries-297205
Film The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan (1992): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magdalene_Sisters
Song Magdalene Laundry by Mulhern and sung by Mary Coughlan (Sentimental Killer album (1992)): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHWsLYtxzz0