In 2008, James Smith received a phone call from a woman who had just read his book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, which describes the history of the Roman Catholic Church’s institutions for “fallen women” throughout Irish history.
Recognizing her own story in the text, the woman asked Smith, an associate professor of English and Irish Studies at BC, “What are we going to do about this?”
“So suddenly, an academic intellectual project took on a different character, [a] more advocacy and activism role,” Smith said. “At each turn, as the five of us began working to try and effect justice, and to bring about redress and an apology.”
On Thursday, Nov. 4, Boston College’s Irish Studies department hosted a virtual book launch for Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice, a new book co-authored by Smith.
This book, according to Smith, is a record of the campaign that a group of academic activists fought on behalf of women—an estimated 30,000—who endured human rights violations while housed in the infamous Magdalene institutions.
Speculation about the laundries began in 1993, when 155 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of one of the secretive institutions. The laundries were said to house “fallen women,” a term that included prostitutes, women who had sex outside of marriage, and pregnant, unmarried women, among others.
Ireland issued a formal state apology 20 years later, in February of 2013.
“Part of [Ireland’s] history is a history of institutionalizing particularly women and children, vulnerable people, as a way to maintain social control … around issues of perceived morality,” Smith said.
The daily routine of the laundries, which were run by Catholic nuns, encompassed silence, prayer, and work without compensation, according to Smith.
“So they use the term ‘slavery’ in bringing a case against the Irish state, first of all, to Ireland’s Human Rights Commission in 2010, and then to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2011,” Smith said. “So these are the human rights violations, arbitrary detention, forced and compulsory labor, and cruel and unusual treatment.”
Though some survivors received lump-sum payments from the Irish government after the United Nations urged redress for survivors, the effects of these institutions are still present and need to be addressed further, according to Moynagh Sullivan, a visiting professor in the Irish Studies program and the moderator of the event.
“Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries continue to disturb contemporary society precisely because this history has not yet been fully acknowledged and integrated, nor has a meaningful restorative justice and redress been fully implemented,” she said.
Attendees at the virtual book launch on Thursday morning discussed the significance of studying the laundries and how Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice supports the advocacy of victims and survivors.
“This book makes a critical contribution to our understanding of contemporary Irish history,” said Robert Savage, Irish historian and director of the Irish Studies program at BC. “It will be essential reading for anyone coming to terms with the social, political, and cultural history of 20th century Ireland.”
Savage introduced several other speakers during the launch, including Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, and Smith, all of whom collaborated on the Magdalene research, according to Savage.
Sullivan said the book is a meticulous history that begins with the Justice for Magdalenes Research’s social justice campaigns that were started by survivors in 2003.
“Justice for Magdalene Research is an advocacy organization that successfully campaigned for a state apology in 2013 and restorative survivors in Ireland’s laundries,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also said that the book is dedicated to the collective memory of those referred to as Josie Bassett, Martina Keogh, Mary Newsome, Kathleen R., Catherine Whelan, Beth, and all the survivors of and those who died in Ireland’s laundries.
Smith explained how books on the laundries have personally affected those impacted by the institutions, especially Whelan, who died in 2016.
“She had read my book, my first book on the laundries, and she started that phone call by asking how [I knew] her story.” Smith said. “That was her first response, because nobody knew. At that stage, Catherine was in her mid-70s and she hadn’t come across a reference to Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries in the 40-plus years that she had spent here in the United States.”
Sullivan said the book emphasizes the resilience of the survivors.
“‘I’m still there,’” Sullivan said. “These words spoken by Charlotte, a survivor of Ireland’s laundries, were referring to her continued institutionalization. This book meets that powerful, ‘I’m still there’ with the also powerful ‘I’m still here,’ platforming the continued insistence by survivors that their experiences’ need to shape national histories, appear in museums, and [become] grounded in national memorials.”
Courtesy of Bryan Meade