Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’, Reviewed

In her debut book of reportage, Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’, Caelainn Hogan traces the Magdalene laundries’ history, back to the establishment of the first laundry in 1767, combing through diocesan archives and gathering stories of those who found themselves inside the gates of Ireland’s institutions.

It’s a gripping, eye-opening and challenging read. Hogan gives just the right amount of context, conveys a sense of the mothers’ and children’s lives within the institutions, and considers the clergy members’ involvement, so that the reader can engage with different points of view and sentiments.

Most of us have some knowledge about the Magdalene laundries. Their punitive function. The misery they inflicted upon unmarried pregnant women and unmarried mothers, driven by the twin cultures of shame and silence that our nation’s oppressive Catholic leaders sharpened into ideological weapons.

Systems of self-surveillance and moral prurience have long been active in Ireland. In some ways, a dark culture of informing stretches into the present, as with today’s social-welfare system – where informants get rewarded with small sums of money to inform on those experiencing income poverty and trying to earn top-ups from odd jobs.

In earlier years, if the Catholic Rescue Society discovered that a woman was trying to make her way to the United Kingdom, where from 1968 on abortion was legal, she would be brought to a mother-and-baby institution.

One can barely imagine how it must have felt to be hunted down and frog-marched into a mother-and-baby institution. Hogan, fittingly, devastatingly, helps us to understand what it meant for those caught, through the personal stories of women who spent time in the homes.

Take, for example, Mary Gaffney, who was born in the St Patrick’s home on the Navan Road in 1945. “I never met my mother,” Hogan quotes her as saying. “I wasn’t allowed to see her.”

Gaffney was sent briefly to school, where she wasn’t taught to read or write properly, before the Sisters sent her back to the mother-and-baby home. There, “she was put to work minding babies in the ward. She scrubbed floors and endlessly cleaned,” writes Hogan.

Afterwards, she and a few other girls were sent to Peacock Lane in Cork, where Gaffney said she was “slaved”. From 8am each morning ,they worked in the laundry – washing, scrubbing, cleaning into the evening.

“God, they were nasty enough, girl. I didn’t care for them when I was working with them. Hard work, girl,” Gaffney tells Hogan.

The fates of children in the homes varied. Hogan explains how some were considered “unadoptable” because of, say, a cleft palate. Children with disabilities, meanwhile, were labelled “congenital idiots”.

These were “shame-industrial complexes”, writes Hogan, several times.

Stories about abuse by male priests and the Christian Brothers have circulated for years. But, in recent history, it is arguably the Tuam scandal that has driven home the extent of the cruelty perpetuated by the women who ran and managed these institutions.

Lest we forget, Hogan stresses that it was the Irish state that facilitated and funded the growth of these mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries.

“It viewed illegitimacy and sexual activity out of wedlock as grave social problems, and it outsourced the job of dealing with them to the religious orders … One in every three illegitimate children born alive was dying within a year of birth,” she writes.

A charismatic Ann O’Gorman lost her first born, Evelyn, after four weeks, in the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in 1971. She still does not know where Evelyn is buried. Her anxiety because of this withheld information keeps her up at night.

Later, O’Gorman became pregnant a second time. “After she gave birth to her son she decided she would escape with him. She sneaked into the nursery and grabbed her son. Then she just walked and walked, out through the gates and all the way to the train station with the baby in her arms, praying no one would stop her.” They didn’t.

O’Gorman wasn’t the only one to escape from the mother-and-baby homes. Nor is she the only woman to plead that she deserves to know where her child is buried.

“We can’t move forward until we find out where these children are buried. We need to recognise them in their death. We don’t even know how they died. This is wrong,” says Catherine Coffey, who ran away from Bessborough in 1986, as a teenager.

Hogan says that it is, as yet an “untold story” why the nuns acted the way they did, overseeing a regime of babies taken from their mothers, neglected, many of them dying of malnutrition and buried secretly in a septic tank.

The mother-and-baby homes were not an aberration, but a part of the fabric of our society, woven from traditions that stretched way back into our history, to before the Famine – to foundling hospitals, workhouses, and the like.

In the years before the foundation of the Free State, Hogan notes, the number of mother-and-baby homes rose sharply. And then the Ireland of the Free State, and later the Republic, was a patriarchal society in the grip of an ideological fervour of Catholic shame and guilt, overseen by an unaccountable kleptocracy of privileged men.

The story has not ended yet, either. As Hogan discussed with Father Ger Nash, there are still institutional abuses happening across Ireland.

There are echoes of the mother-and-baby homes in the direct-provision system, which keeps many asylum seekers in a state of enforced poverty. They are socially policed, infantilised – and, in many cases, kept far away from the rest of our society.

Much opposition to direct-provision centres – and to institutions such as family hubs or homeless hostels – seems driven not by genuine concern for the well-being of those who have to live in them, but by prejudice and bigotry and a failure of compassion. Plus ça change, we learn.

Hogan recounts how in 1937, a mother-and-baby home called St Patrick’s Guild opened on Herbert Avenue in the wealthy Dublin suburb of Merrion. Residents complained that “had they been allowed a say they would have ‘instantly protested’ against an ‘unwanted intrusion’ on their area”.

They proclaimed that “the absence of decent concealment … has produced … a conviction … that the neighbourhood has lost its former character of desirability”.

In Republic of Shame, Hogan sheds light on the darkest corners of our recent history in Ireland, but also holds up a mirror to today. It is a horrifying indictment of not only the Catholic Church but of the silence and inaction of too many in the face of the cruelty of inhumane institutions.

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Christine O'Donnell: Christine O'Donnell is a charity worker and musician living in Dublin.

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