On the 19th February 2013, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Enda Kenny, apologized for the role of the Irish State in the Magdalene laundries, proved by the depositions of the women who worked there, and also by the McAleese report.
The Magdalene’s laundries were established in the 18th century, some of these institutions were run firstly by lay people and then, at their request, religious congregations assumed control of this “shelters”. At first, these establishments’ aim was to reduce the number of women that sold their bodies for money. The name “Magdalene” derives from the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, a reformed prostitute. As the years passed, the Magdalene asylum welcomed the so-called “fallen women”, girls that had a baby out of the wedlock, that have been raped or just that were put there by their family for various reasons. It became increasingly like a prison, and the convicts were coerced into endeavouring physical labour and they had to endure physical and psychological mistreatment. It is believed that up to 30,000 women lived in the Magdalene asylum in Ireland, some of them spent their whole life as inmates. The last one, in Waterford, Ireland, closed only in 1996.
They were completely dehumanised because they were sinners, and, as evildoers, they had to go through hell. They lived with a feeling of shame, sometimes during all their lifetime, and loneliness, as they could not speak to each other. They could not use painkillers and they weren’t allowed to use their real names; the nuns would give new ones to them. Moreover, they had to sign a consent form where they stated that they agreed to the adoption of their babies. These babies could be sold to Christian couples in the USA with the approval of the government of the Republic of Ireland.
The Magdalene’s laundries, their slavery and abuse committed by the nuns were not well-known until 1993 when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Dublin sold a part of their convent and a mass grave containing 155 corps of women working and living in the asylum was discovered. This lead former inmate to speak up about their experiences in these refuges for the first time.
Many of them did not tell their family what happened to them because of the feeling of shame. Since then, movies and books about the harassment and the living conditions of the women have been published and seen in the cinemas all over the world.
One of these movies is “Philomena”. In the Catholic Ireland of the 50s, an adolescent Philomena became pregnant and her father put her in Sean Ross Abbey, in Roscrea, Ireland. After the birth of Anthony, his son, in order to repay the kindness of the nuns that took her in, she had to work in the laundry for years. When Anthony was three years old, the nuns sold the child to an American couple and she never saw him again.
Anybody could understand if Philomena chose to live with a feeling of resentment and bitterness after all the offences she had to endure: she was imprisoned in a Magdalene laundry and they took away her son from her. Moreover, she told the nuns where to find her and that they never told her son, that also was looking for her, where he could find his biological mother.
Although it would be easy to live with a sense of bitterness and anger, Philomena has the power to shock us when we discover that she would rather forgive than to permit to her anger to influence her life. She thinks about the positive side of her situation. Her son, called now Michael, became chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee. A future that Philomena could have never given him as she would be a penniless single mother in an extremely Catholic state.
Her forgiveness comes from her heart, from the conviction that showing mercy is the right behaviour; the right way to live her life. She understands completely the word of the Bible when Jesus said “forgive as the Lord forgives you” and she endorses it. Also, in the Quran, it is written: “forgive others and Allah will forgive you”. It is very arduous to live by this commandment no matter the beliefs or faith; but, as Philomena taught us, it is better to leave all the hard feelings behind in order to experience a more desirable life without letting the bitterness devour your soul and destroy all the good moments. By Benedetta Cavagna