Themes of transitional justice and holding government accountable pervaded the Tuesday book launch of Redress, Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice, a collection of essays chronicling the history of Ireland’s treatment toward women who suffered in Magdalene Laundries, woman and baby homes, and more.
“There’s a feeling that the state [of Ireland] wanted to bury this past, and yet the past came back in waves,” said Guy Beiner, the Sullivan Chair of Irish Studies at Boston College.
BC’s Irish Studies program and Center for Human Rights and International Justice sponsored the event, which involved a panel of the editors who helped compile the books’ several essays and testimonies from survivors and other sources.
The book focuses on first-hand accounts, journalistic articles, legal scholarship, and other sources to reveal abuses in asylums, reformatory schools, and adoption services within Ireland during the 19th and 20th centuries—particularly those aimed at women and children.
“We said let’s bring these principles of accountability, truth-telling, guarantees of non-recurring harm, and restorative justice and think about how these principles and values can guide an academic, intellectual investigation led by the survivors,” said Katherine O’Donnell, co-editor of Redress and an associate professor at the University College Dublin School of Philosophy.
James Smith, co-editor of the book and an associate professor of English and Irish Studies at BC, emphasized the significance of the term “redress,” which means to remedy or set something right. He also spoke about the critical role of the survivors in compiling this account of systematic abuse within Ireland’s highest institutions.
“Women are the foundation upon which we redress our institutions with transitional justice,” Smith said. “Survivor participation was central to this book and instrumental to discussion.”
The idea of “transitional justice” was a central theme of the book and the panel. It describes working toward receiving accountability from the Irish government through educating the public on the abuses that occurred throughout the country. According to the editors of Redress, the book does this by including voices of survivors and other perspectives that were previously suppressed.
“Ultimately, we’re shown that transitional justice is not just about making amends,” Beiner said. “What it’s really about is something beyond that. It is also about empowerment for those who have become victims, and that it means that it goes beyond traditional scholarship. It’s driven by advocacy and it’s aimed at policymaking, so beyond what one might call ‘armchair academia.’”
This activist approach to evaluating parts of Ireland’s dark history, however, involves questioning the reality of the state’s core democratic principles that it claims to have, according to Maeve O’Rourke, co-editor of the book, an assistant professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a barrister.
“One question that the book addresses is the concept of conditional justice and how it related to settled or established democracies, where it is generally understood that the rule of law already functions and our constitutional and human rights are accessible,” O’Rourke said. “We suggest that Ireland is not a settled democracy and we question whether it is ever possible for a democracy to be fully settled.”
According to O’Donnell, the vision for this book came from a conference held at BC in November of 2018 that examined the institutional abuses that occurred in Ireland and how scholars, survivors, and others could move toward transitional justice.
“We dreamt of this conference because we wanted to set an agenda for 21st century Irish Studies—not a medium ambition, but a large ambition,” O’Donnell said. “The ambition was to think of Irish Studies as island-wide and diverse.”
Smith concluded the panel by encouraging this type of “activist” scholarship that contributes to understanding the injustices of the past.
“We are trying to signal the importance and model the best practice for how academics and researchers moving forward must necessarily engage with survivors and their life experiences and testimony constituting a form of knowledge in and of itself,” Smith said.