Audrey Rousseau hopes her short film In Loving Memories can be used as an educational tool for people to learn about what happened in the Magdalene Laundries.
“I hope to compel the public to engage with the ongoing struggle of the survivors of those laundries, many of whom feel the full truth about what happened to them has still not been acknowledged,” she said, over the phone from Canada, where she lives.
Through the film, Rousseau — who is a sociology PhD student — gathers the accounts of seven female scholars and activists, all of whom were involved in shedding light on the stories of the Magdalene Laundries or the mother-and-baby homes.
Despite the high-profile state apology to women incarcerated in laundries issued by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2013, Rousseau says many survivors, and most of their advocates, are not satisfied with the state investigation into the Magdalene Laundries by former Senator Martin McAleese.
“The United Nations Commission against Torture has twice called for a fully independent and impartial investigation, and several of the key criticisms of the McAleese Report are outlined in the film,” says Rousseau.
The simple, low-budget film lasts just 38 minutes, and consists mainly of clips from the seven interviews. But despite its brevity, it covers some ground, placing the laundries in their historical context and examining the religious and social conditions that made their existence possible.
In Loving Memories adds context and analysis to the moving narrative accounts of the laundry survivors captured in previous films – most recently in the 2009 film, The Forgotten Maggies, by Steven O’Riordan.
Religion and Nationalism
The interviewees argue persuasively for the need for a new and independent investigation, and for the promises made to Magdalene survivors to be fulfilled. These criticisms have been aired in the media before. This is the first time they have been collected in a documentary.
The film starts with shots of impressive buildings, and UCD history lecturer Lindsey Earner-Byrne paints a picture of Ireland in the early twentieth century. It is a fanatical society where “immorality is contagious, you can catch it like a cold or a flu”, she says.
In the 1930s, the pope warned against having any compassion for those he regarded as sinful, she says. “If you have compassion for someone who is immoral, that compassion is false – and that compassion breeds sin!”
Katherine O’Donnell, a senior philosophy lecturer at UCD, and an advisory-committee member for Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), explains in the film how, in addition to religion, a particular form of nationalist ideology played a part.
“We had a nationalist revolution here … and there were ideas about national purity, so any women who didn’t subscribe to or fit into the ideals of what a chaste and pure Irish girl and woman and mother was were not only not women, but not Irish … they lost all of their rights as citizens,” she said.
In Loving Memories is primarily a feminist film, explaining how patriarchal structures gave rise to these institutions. But it also examines the role of social class in the history of the laundries, presenting a tale of economic exploitation as well as controlling the morality of women.
“This is the harder part of the story to tell, this is the class story,” says Earner-Byrne. “The idea that these women and children worked as free labour and earned money both for the institutions they worked in, and provided cheap products for other institutions – that is the part of the story that has been hidden.”
How much money was made off the labour of the women is disputed. Religious institutions have refused to release records that might show.
Rousseau says that middle-class women were certainly incarcerated in institutions along with those from disadvantaged backgrounds; there are accounts of cases where wealthier families actually paid for their daughters stay.
“In those instances, the woman would benefit from being assigned easier work, being given better food, and probably also being released sooner,” she said.
Rousseau also thinks it is likely that women from wealthier backgrounds would have found it easier to hide their pregnancy, thereby avoiding the homes or laundries altogether.
Much of the film also focuses on the role of the state, and its responsibility towards those who ended up trapped in Magdalene Laundries.
The state broke its obligations under national and international law by allowing the Magdelene Laundries to exploit people and referring others on to them, says barrister Maeve O’Rourke, in the film. “These laws required the state to prevent, suppress and not engage in, slavery, servitude and forced labour.”
Others point to shortcomings in the state’s response in more recent times. The McAleese Report “silences and stigmatises the women” by refusing to believe their accounts of what happened, argues Jennifer Yeager, a lecturer in psychology at Waterford Institute of Technology. (The institute is based in a building that used to be a Magdalene Laundry.)
Speaking in the film, Yeager says: “That report states continually, ‘We don’t have access to the records of the religious institutions therefore we don’t know.’ Well we have access to the women that were actually here!”
Others question the McAleese report finding that the average length of stay in a Magdalene Laundry was eight months – arguing that it was closer to five years – and the suggestion that only a small number of women died in these institutions. The Justice for Magdelenes Research group says otherwise.
(The Department of Justice has defended the report from criticism, arguing that Justice for Magdalenes Research’s submissions have not been sufficiently substantiated.)
Still Awaiting Redress
On Monday, barrister O’Rourke said that three and a half years since the McAleese report, many strands of the redress scheme have not been implemented in full.
“While the state has apologised, on the one hand, it continues to deny the seriousness of what happened on the other,” she said, by phone. Women have been given money as gifts, rather than compensation, so that the state avoids taking responsibility for what happened to them.
She added that JFMR want to see the old Magdalene Laundry at Donnybrook preserved as a museum, as a testament to both the survivors, and those who died there. A museum was promised to the women but which has yet to be delivered on. “Survivors of Magdalene Laundries need to be consulted in relation to Donnybrook,” O’Rourke says.
Rousseau also feels that the religious institutions are getting off too lightly. As part of her research, she read the oral histories provided by survivors of the laundry and collected by O’Donnell.
“What really struck me when reading the oral histories – which are really descriptive – was the role of the nuns and the religious orders were so central,” she said. “The nuns, it seems to me, were never held to account or made to be responsible.”
In Loving Memories achieves a lot with few resources. Rousseau has collected powerful statements, presented to remind us that the injustice of the Magdalene Laundries is far from resolved.
In Loving Memories will be screened in Filmbase, Curved Street, Temple Bar on Tuesday 25 October at 7pm.