A Magdalene Rose: Perennial Struggles

In his latest Podcast, Frank reflects on victims and survivors against the backdrop of the Redress Bill

Frank considers the way government treats Victims and Survivors and looks toward the creation of a National Survivors Assembly

Hello there and welcome to my latest Podcast, it’s good to have you tuning in. 

As I started the year, I looked back at 2022, thinking about all that I had achieved in trying to bring my Dad’s and Grandmother’s story alive. The year had started with my finishing their story and preparing it for submission to prospective publishers 

But the year was also embroiled in the political struggle to bring Justice to the many thousands of men and women who had endured the Mother and Baby Home system. For many of the victims and survivors, their stories didn’t end there. Some ended up in Industrial Schools or disposed of through illegal Adoptions or of being Boarded-out. Some children never survived and lay buried in the grounds of these Institutions under questionable circumstances. Many women were cast out, separated from their children, condemned to a life of shame, often resulting in emigration and a lifelong repulsion of their country. Many also found themselves confined within the Magdalen Laundry system, some for their entire lifetimes. And all of this occurred under the watchful eye of the Irish Constitution, the lack of a proper legal due process and the Social Justice ideology of the Catholic Church. 

I also had the privilege of meeting many survivors, hearing their heart-breaking and shocking stories. But those meetings delivered stories of defiance and survival, but coupled with that, it’s also a story of separation amongst survivors themselves. 

But the year ended just as it had started, through the constant battle of dealing with the obfuscation strategy from Irish Government Institutions and the Religious Orders themselves. 

It was a rich tapestry of experiences that I never imagined I would experience when I first started to look for my Father’s Birth Certificate back in 2010! 

So 2022 started when I finished the book I have written about my Dad’s and Grandmother’s experiences and lives, not forgetting also my Grandfather, who was always in danger in being lost in the entirety of this story. I worked through the editing of the book twice and then began the heart-in-your-hand process of submitting the manuscript to a publisher. I had decided at the beginning of 2022 to focus on publishing the book in Ireland. I started to submit my manuscript to publishers in Ireland, navigating the different methodologies and expectations of those publishers. As you make those first tentative steps, you begin to dream. I dreamed, like many other authors I suspect, of the day when I could hold the book in my hand and give a reading at some launch event. In my mind’s eye, I thought the ideal place for any launch would be in the wonderful meandering Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway City, because the City has a central place in their stories. But dreams are dreams and if you’re not careful, you can get carried away with yourself. 

If you make submissions to publishers, you have to be patient and prepared for the long-wait. Initial feedback I was received from the first publishers was kind, positive and engaged, but it was clear that because of post-pandemic pressures, some had substantially reduced their output and in one case, they were taking an early retirement. Toward the end of the year I decided that I should also make submissions to the Literary Agent Community. One Agent very kindly provided some very valuable feedback, along with a brief plan of what to do next; it is that guidance that has started off my 2023 in earnest and boy, do I see what they mean! When I look at the changes I’ve made to the manuscript already, the lives and the voices of my Dad, Mary and Patrick have started to leap from the pages, and that’s what I want to achieve. I want the reader to feel their desperation, pain, and loss. I am their voice and though it’s a personal struggle to do justice to their voices from across the now many decades, their voices and struggles will stretch across the decades, bringing new generations with them, who will carry forward their words from 2023 and beyond. 

2022 also began with increased activity amongst Campaigners, struggling to keep up with the fast pace of a government work-program that was at best ambitious, at worst failing to take the time to adequately consider the issues nor indeed the voices of the Survivor community. We worked hard to deliver text and opinion on the Birth Information & Tracing Bill and the Burials Bill and toward the end of the year, the proposals for Redress. The former was supposed to be designed to correct the deficit of how people access their own information and history, failing perhaps to recognise the already extensive rights accorded by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Burials Bill was an exercise in reinventing the wheel to try and bring as they saw it, order in the potential to have mass excavations and exhumations on the sites of the former Mother and Baby Home Institutions. I say reinventing the wheel, because there are already laws in existence that could have delivered the same result; all that was needed was a consolidating Bill, directing parties to take actions through pre-existing legislation and facilitation on the costs associated with these issues. 

Individually and collectively, I worked to produce text to make arguments on the difficulties and exclusions on the draft laws presented. For example, some categories of relatives were prevented from accessing data through the draft Bill or were required to undergo an interview process before being allowed to access data; in all, the flaws in the Bill provided for exclusion and future difficulties for the Survivor community. On the Burials Bill, there were many gaps in what was required, but the most troublesome aspect of the Bill was the power to be allotted to a Minister to prevent sites from being excavated and simply provide a memorialisation process to the site. This had vast implications because clearly they saw Tuam as being the site they cannot escape, but any other notion of a similar process being deployed at any other site would not likely be tolerated. It suggested a downward pressure or a containment on the expectations of the Survivor community whatever about the many evident beaches of Constitutional & Human Rights suffered by Irish Citizens. 

Toward the end of 2022, the proposals for Redress were laid before the Oireachtas and it was clear that the Irish government had retreated into its cocoon, had ignored the earlier Consultation and delivered a very wide exclusion and discrimination, to me it had the whiff of cost-containment about it. 

Lobbying was on all these issues was done through the submission of documents, argument and broadcast e mails. Social Media became a tool in highlighting the detriment suffered by many and meetings with Irish TD’s and Senators, revealed a deficit in government benchers engagement. But that’s not the point; the point is that you are speaking, advocating, never giving up, making new connections. 

As the year progressed, it became clear that the Minister became a parody of the character who always stated, “the computer says, no”, and so it was with amendments and the government was able to tick off on its checklist that it had taken action and Bills were passed without any recognition of the many voices who simply wanted change and justice. 

As I was writing this Podcast, the Redress Bill came once again before the Oireachtas. Again, the Minister sat and shook his head to any change, and this was set against the backdrop of a government refusing an FOI request to provide the decision-making papers for the scheme, partially on the basis that its revelations would upset the Survivors! The valiant members of the Oireachtas spoke with passion and with some fatigue, whilst Survivors sat in the gallery above them watched the government below them sit with indifference to their plight; the principle of cost-containment must be preserved at all costs. 

As I wrote, “The Dáil decisions taken today will not silence the voices of those made invisible. The Irish Governments decision not to publish the decision papers of the Redress scheme for Mother and Baby Homes will not remain the last word on that subject matter. All I hear are determined voices”. 

In essence, the Government has kicked the can down the road for future politicians instead of embracing courage and taking a real step toward true and transparent Transitional Justice, recognising all, including all those who died before the State Apology on 13/1/21. 

As all of these activities were taking place, my connection to direct survivors also came into focus. I describe them as direct survivors because of their close proximity to the very Institutions that changed their lives, whereas I describe myself as a next-generationer, because I am a witness to the effects upon a direct survivor and of the lives of those who have gone before me, through documentation received and on rare occasions, of people who knew them. 

We have to remember, that the women and children of this Magdalen system, were deposited and incarcerated within these Institutions, often without any due legal process, no recognition of their Constitutional Rights and at the Institutional and personal whims of the Religious Orders through doctrine contained within the catechism and the catch-phrase of Social Justice. 

Even though I had heard stories about individual lives in these Institutions, last year brought into focus the nature of those lives and I believe, a demonstration of the human spirit in captivity. That spirit arose from a deep prejudice towards their very being, their very existence. Examination of survivors documentation and that of my family’s reveal clues as to attitudes, what had happened to them and prejudice through written statements that women had ‘deserted’ their children, or that they were block recorded as ‘illiterate’, ‘a bold cranky child’, having received a ‘vaccine’, or suffered with illnesses such as ‘anaemia’. The Statements you read are dehumanising and shameful; it is little wonder that Church and State are unwilling to part with documentation. 

When we think about the human spirit, we sometimes hear about this quality in dreadful cases of wrongful conviction or wrongful imprisonment whether it’s here in the UK or in some other country. We celebrate those people who have endured so much, who will always be scarred by that experience, but somehow revealing their humanity through messages to the outside world or their resilience in either surviving the rigours of captivity or through some daring escape or diplomatic release. 

Why then are the stories of the Magdalene Women and Children not worthy of the same consideration? 

On getting that message to the outside world, I became aware of a silent economy within the High Park Laundry in Dublin. Favours were exchanged for favours received, requested or offered by both some religious members or internal or external employed workers. To give you an example, my Grandmother, Mary, would repair clothing for the workers in exchange for cards and postage stamps. In her captivity she sent card messages to her family in Galway which sadly fell on deaf ears, but that’s not the point; it’s about a woman who didn’t give up – she hoped for redemption or quite simply, liberty. Her spirit was alive and well – she was not invisible – but a pricking conscience to individuals and a Church and State who had failed her. 

Elsewhere, others told me about how escape routes were created, with some women escaping in the back of laundry delivery vans, buried in the laundry baskets within.

In another Institution, I heard of how the strategy of short hunger strikes and ‘industrial action’, through to refusing to wear the Laundry uniforms, brought chaos to that Institution. Attempts were made to cure the problem by moving the perceived troublemakers elsewhere, only to restart again when the new inmates arrived. But there were even those outside the Institution walls, not connected in any way with the Magdalen system who also helped organise the escape and onward journeys of the liberated women, best illustrated through the posthumous award given in 2022 by Galway City Council to the late Ena McEntee

Some of the most harrowing stories came through listening to the children (now adults), who spoke of the cold, hunger, disease, abuse and the need to help other children because no adults were about to help them. But as I spoke to many of these adults, I realised there was a greater insult to their precious lives and that was the damage done to them psychologically, leaving behind indelible stains for those who became close to them, to witness and silently endure. But the survivors became more than their experiences, with many developing lives, careers and families that were or are the envy of many. It is those families, like my own, that I discovered in this past year, who have started to raise questions about the lives of their loved ones and the separated lives they had endured. The Children of the Scaradh are here and they are coming for answers and accountability. 

As I engaged with people throughout the island of Ireland in the past year, I came to the realisation that the victim and survivor cohort was sadly a fractured campaign. I spoke with individual Survivors who told me that nothing would cause them to return to a collective campaign because of the personal hurts that they had endured from others. Within the overall campaign there are some remarkable people that have fought and devoted their time to challenging the law, collecting data, presenting the Human Rights deficits and making the political case. Equally, there are many more through their communities who have developed micro-hotspots of information and support, bringing forth and keeping alive the Victim and Survivor message; some also bringing those experiences to the very doors of politicians. For some patronage is all important, for others, that patronage extends to giving the Catholic Church the benefit of the doubt. Within this patchwork of activities, the ever-present curse of political campaigning is evident, with harsh words, disrespect or jealousy, causing many to fail to network with others or solid knowledge bases or those knowledge bases understandably choosing to move on with their distinct objectives. I can see this in two ways: we are all human and when we are hurt, we retreat and perhaps decide to no longer engage, or, some retreat and seek other solutions toward action and advocacy. Whatever the human reaction, it presents fractures, a community sometimes working at cross purposes, diluting the possibilities and giving government politicians a free-pass. It also creates a difficulty for opposition politicians (and I have witnessed this in other campaigning areas), who are often time-pressured, having to deal with the day-to-day demands of their constituencies, to have to make the decision of how far they engage or not engage with an individual or collective, for fear that they too will become embroiled within the ‘politics’ that sometimes accompany these engagements. All of this was truly sad to discover, because through the belief that wrongs have been committed, the real issues are masked, whilst the melting pot of Inisherin is plain for all to see. If ever there was a time for an annual National Survivors Assembly, that time is now! 

As 2022 came to a close, I watched the political landscape morph into some semi-triumphalism in having ticked off most of their tasks without due regard to the voices of the Victims and Survivors. It was also clear that we were witnessing a Catholic Church resistant and to an extent perhaps being confident that the very notion that their actions within the Mother and Baby Homes were actionable, never mind compensatable, was simply not going to happen. 

I realised that for many years, successive Irish governments and the Religious Institutions have been at the centre, and were responsible either directly or as agents, of the Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools, Illegal Adoptions, Adoptions, Boarding-out, Magdalen Laundries, forced repatriations back to the Republic of Ireland, punishment regimes, racial discrimination and indifference, discrimination and indifference to indigenous peoples, medical trials, the dealing of human body parts, human trafficking, manifestly inappropriate exhumations or burials, often without notification of or consent of the families, the retention of records and evidence, the failure of Constitutional Rights and the obligations within Canon Law & Social Justice, with all the attendant consequences of these structures on the lives of ordinary Irish Citizens who were hidden in plain sight. 

The question is; how do you prepare and galvanise a victim and survivor community for the battles ahead? As I looked back at all the issues I had encountered, and the people that I had met, I came to the view that we cannot resolve the fractures or misunderstandings or motives. Instead, we have to recognise that each individual activist or victim or survivor activist or group are autonomous and that should be respected. But the wider and political campaign needs their legitimacy. The only way I could imagine bringing these disparate campaigns together is through the creation of an annual Survivor Assembly, to meet and discuss potential objectives for the year ahead, which they could choose or not choose to act on. An Assembly would present a powerful visual message of the unity of these campaigns, whilst recognising their autonomous actions and the unity of purpose of the actions. It would also galvanise the Knowledge-base and Political communities and the depth of knowledge and gravitas they would bring to the table. The Assembly would facilitate the unity of those voices. 

As I entered 2023 I thought that perhaps autonomous actions, an annual Assembly, the confident support of Knowledge-bases and opposition politics could create the momentum toward real change, perhaps through the delivery of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in my long-standing opinion, has been long overdue; it will be interesting to see what the year of 2023 will bring? There is no doubt in my mind that all I hear are determined voices! 

Until the next time, take care

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