Apology to Magdalene Women

Apology to Magdalene Women February 20, 2013

In an extremely emotional speech, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny apologized to the generations of women who were kept as slaves in laundries run by religious orders. These women knew only cruelty, suffering, and torment, supposedly in the service of God. This was the rotten fruit of a Jansenist culture. The speech is worth watching in full. Kenny breaks down at the end.

The full text is here. Here are some highlights:

“Yes by any standards it was a cruel, pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy. That much is clear, both from the ages of the report, and from the stories of the women I met.

“As I sat with these women, as they told their stories, it was clear that while every woman’s story was different, each of them shared a particular experience of a particular Ireland – judgemental, intolerant, petty and prim.

“In the laundries themselves some women spent weeks, others months, more of them years. But the thread that ran through their many stories was a palpable sense of suffocation, not just physical in that they were incarcerated, but psychological, spiritual, social.


The Magdalen Women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong, or a sin, but we know now, and to our shame they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow.

Today, just as the State accepts its direct involvement in the Magdalen Laundries, society too has its responsibility.

I believe I speak for millions of Irish people all over the world when I say we put away these women because for too many years we put away our conscience.

We swapped our personal scruples for a solid public apparatus that kept us in tune and in step with a sense of what was ‘proper behaviour’ or the ‘appropriate view’ according to a sort of moral code that was fostered at the time particularly in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same and interchangeable.

Is it this mindset then, this moral subservience that gave us the social mores the required and exclusive ‘values’ of the time that welcomed the compliant, obedient and lucky ‘US’ and banished the more problematic, spirited or unlucky ‘THEM’?

And to our nation’s shame it must be said that if these women had managed to scale the high walls of the laundries they’d have had their work cut out for them to negotiate the height and the depth of the barricades around society’s ‘proper’ heart. For we saw difference as something to be feared and hidden rather than embraced and celebrated.

But were these our ‘values’? Because we can ask ourselves for a State, least of all a republic. What is the ‘value’ of the tacit and unchallenged decree that saw society humiliate and degrade these girls and women? What is the ‘value’ of the ignorance and arrogance that saw us publicly call them ‘Penitents’ for their ‘crime’ of being poor or abused or just plain unlucky enough to be already the inmate of a reformatory, or an industrial school or a psychiatric institution?

We can ask ourselves as the families we were then what was worthy, what was good, about that great euphemism of ‘putting away’ our daughters, our sisters, our aunties ?

Those ‘values’, those failures, those wrongs characterised Magdalen Ireland. Today we live in a very different Ireland with a very a different consciousness awareness.

An Ireland where we have more compassion, empathy, insight, heart. We do because at last we are learning those terrible lessons. We do because at last, we are giving up our secrets

We do because in naming and addressing the wrong, as is happening here today, we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future.”

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  • Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    It is a start.

  • Reblogged this on The Lonely Disciple and commented:
    Just watch it… more sadness from Ireland.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Important historical question: How in the world are you connecting this with a “Jansenist” anything?? I am NOT saying this as any kind of partisan of a Jansenist view on any matter. Just that as an historical matter, what you said makes no sense whatsoever.

    What you meant to say, but perhaps pulled back from was this: “The rotten fruit of Catholic Tridentine Counter-Reformation culture.” Period.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I am just guessing what MM meant, but I suspect that he is referring to the belief, shared by at least some scholars, that Irish Catholicism has a Jansenist streak. Historically, many Irish priests were trained in French seminaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, where they picked up Jansenist ideas. These were transported back to France and found fertile soil in the particular conditions of the Irish Church. I don’t know enough about the Irish Church to have an opinion, but at least superficially it does seem to explain a lot.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        I grew up in an Archdiocese that had a lot of imported Irish priests, and I literally heard the outlines of that theory since I was a child. Of course, not referencing Jansenism per se, but simply the idea the Irish had imported overly strict notions of Catholicism, and that this separated them from U.S. Americans, or Latin Americans in Miami.

        Later, when I got to CUA I heard the more detailed form of this idea, involving Jansenism. My sense is that since then this explanation has become the go-to Deus ex Machina to bring in to save the RC Church from acknowledging that the problem is…..just them. Not some foreign heresy.
        At least part.

        Here’s the backstory. And the only reason I speak with any confidence on this matter is that I did a heap of research on this very topic for a paper that I wrote a while back and will be published this year. In the end, much of that research I did not end up employing in my argument, because after looking into the matter carefully, I found that things didn’t line up as I thought they would at the outset. It all ended up as one paragraph and one endnote.

        Anyways, the trouble with their theory is that all the little pious sisters who were the real actors or agents in the Jansenist matter, first in Paris and then in Port Royal, were very far in attitude from the ideas that were imputed to them by later critics. This is not an interpretative opinion, as it is is right there in all standard sources on the matter. In fact the pious nuns attitude was simply that the actual behavior of themselves and others in the Church should be put before God as important. It was a search for holiness.

        Through a complicated series of events this pious desire got admixed with a number of theoretical notions from Jansen. But what is clear is that the Church authorities mostly disliked the very notion of this because it called the actual behavior of clerics something that was important. It does not seem fair, by any history I have read, to impute to them the weird perfectionism and predestinatory metaphysics that goes a long with, to the real agents of “jansenism” — those pious ladies.

        So if there was ANY real lasting theoretical notion to come out of it, it was that behavior of religious and clergy should be examined out of a search for holiness. Not something the RC Church has historically ever liked. (see Hus at Constance) Lastly, the great irony of this is that the very attitude which finally laid bare this tragedy in the laundries, and in the abuse crisis, is if anything closer to the attittude of those pious ladies. I wouldn’t impute to Mark more than just perhaps seizing on a trendy trope in the RC Church and trying to use it to explain a horrible situation. But the strange thing is that it was that “Jansenist” atittude that revealed this matter. Not the other way around. Blame the victim is a trope that surfaces in myriad ways in human history.

  • Jordan

    I appreciate that the Taoiseach has made an apology. His gesture at least provides the needed reassurance to the Irish people that their government repents for their negligence or even malfeasance.

    The scandal of the Magdalene women, as well as the Ryan report, begs the question of how the Catholic Church has retained its pseudo-establishment as an arm of the Irish Republic. I understand that Catholicism was not only the religion of the majority of the Irish under British repression but also a common cultural and later nationalistic bond in their struggle for independence. However, this fact does not necessarily imply a permanent presence of the culturally established religion in an independent and nominally secular government. Catholicism held together Quebecois culture and religious identity under British rule and later Anglo dominance. Like the Irish clergy, the Quebecois clergy became corrupt and ignored systemic human abuse within Church institutions. The Quebecois decided to overthrow the Church in favor of laicite socialism. I don’t know which way the Irish people will decide to go politically, but the time is now for them to decide whether or not Ireland is truly secular and non-sectarian.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    What said more to me? Enda Kenny’s speech was eloquent — the half empty chamber he presented it to was even more eloquent — speech writers are ten to a penny these days.

  • Brendan Kelleher SVD.

    Peter Paul Fuchs needs to study “Catholic Tridentine Counter-Reformation Culture”, a rather amorphous, polyvalent term that few historians would find acceptable – see writings of John O’Malley SJ among others.
    I studied at the Pontifical University of Ireland (Maynooth College) back in the 1970’s. Our Church History Professor, the recently deceased Msgr Partrick Corish, acknowledged as one of the finest Church Historians of his generation, was clear in his mind that “Jansenism” was the prevailing ethos in Ireland during the pre-Vatican II era, and that residues of it affected Ireland’s ability to fully receceive the Council.
    I have also met and talked with Sisters whose communities ran “Magdalen Laundries” and they had not problems in naming “Jansenism” as marking the spiritualities of their communities in the pre-Conciliar era.
    Brendan Kelleher SVD, Missionary Priest in Japan since 1976, Graduated from Maynooth 1975.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      Well, I think I know far too much about that culture than a realistically need to for a happy life, so I will take your challenge with the grain of salt it richly deserves. I have little doubt that apologists for the mammoth contortions of Irish Catholicism would like to, an have tired, to “blame it on the Jansenists.” Nice try. But more sober thinkers are not impressed. If you think there is not an ethos of “Catholic Tridentine Counter-Reformation Culture” then you have been buried in the expansive and uncritical post-Vatican II Church apologetics for too long. You have not been keeping up with art history and history generally for the last few decades. Those disciplines make decisively clear the background for all the nastiness of the laundries and the sexual abuse culture. It is not them (the Jansenists…the “other”) ….it is you….the established Counter-Reformation church which never dealth with its contradictions. Stop deluding yourself. It is sad. And it certainly has zero to do with serious scholarship. It only has to do with a tired and predictable desire to “save the appearances”

  • I’m actually in agreement with Peter Paul Fuchs on this point (it was bound to happen eventually), allowing for some minor qualifications. The only way in which Jansenism could possibly be the main root here is if the primary factor were anticlericalism. Jansenism was a popular movement, one that often in its later years tended toward anti-clericalism. In the nineteenth century, Jansenism tended to spread out from France into areas that either had a weak local hierarchy or a despised one; Jansenist culture could only be to blame if it contributed to making it impossible for bishops to investigate matters by weakening the episcopal position still further, and thus by resulting in the bishops having less power. That’s conceivable, but I’ve seen no one actually argue that.

    People often misunderstand what the real issues with Jansenism were. The earlier Church responses to Jansenism were quite mild and cautious, since the only problem with the Jansenists was that priests involved in the movement were taking some things Augustine said a little too strictly. What did the Jansenists in France in, and through them Jansenists elsewhere was less their theology than (1) the anti-Jesuit vehemence of some of their theologians and (2) the tendency of the movement at large to claim Jansenist miracles as unequivocal divine sanction of Jansenist ideas (with the obvious implications for anyone who disagreed with them). So whenever someone says that this or that traces back to Jansenist, it genuinely is important to ask, “Well, what, exactly, was Jansenist about that particular point?” And this seems to be a question that just doesn’t get asked when problems like this come up, which is worrisome, since it massively increases the danger of misdiagnosing the problem.

    • Jordan

      Brandon Watson [February 23, 2013 12:21 pm]: People often misunderstand what the real issues with Jansenism were.

      I agree with Brandon on this phrase and his entire paragraph in particular. There’s another point that’s not getting due attention, though.

      The main tenets of Calvinism can be remembered by the mnemonic TULIP (wikipedia for a refresher). The “IP” refer to two concepts: “irresistible grace” and “perseverance of the saints”. In the first phrase, the “elect” (those persons preordained before the creation of the cosmos to share in the beatific vision) cannot resist the call to live in God’s grace. Grace and justification are not received freely from the sacraments and available to any person who is properly disposed for the sacraments (orthodox Catholicism) but rather constitutional for the elect. An elect person will display his or her election by living a virtuous life with “perseverance”. The sworn enemy of many Jansenists, the Jesuits, weren’t lax when they preached both frequent confession and frequent communion. In orthodox Catholicism, fallen humanity always receives abundant and unconditionally given grace through the sacraments. The Jesuit (and very orthodox) notion that the sacraments should be offered abundantly for humanity to cooperate in divine grace is diametrically opposed to IP.

      I cannot say for certain that the Magdalene laundries were a direct result of Jansenism. However, I see great influences of “irresistible grace” and “perseverance”. One underlying assumption of the imprisonment and torture of the Magdalene women is that the women were intrinsically fallen because of conceiving a child out of wedlock. Seen another way, a woman who had children within marriage displayed intrinsic grace and reverencer. The orthodox Catholic position would be to care compassionately for the spiritual and practical needs of women who have conceived out of wedlock (provide the sacraments, provide practical counseling, find homes for the infants, etc.) The laundries’ perhaps wished to prove to a degree that these women were “redeemable” through hard labor, whereas orthodox Catholicism teaches that the cross and the Mass are unconditional mercy and grace. It is for these reasons that I am convinced that Jansenistic influences display a part (but certainly not the entirety) of the Magdalene phenomenon.

      It’s important for all Catholics today to remember that Jansenism is a heresy but not past tense. I struggle with Jansenism myself to a great degree. I’ve often thought that catechesis in the postconciliar Church is very poor, and that people should want to learn more about their faith. However, at no time has our faith taught that education, or anything but the desire to cooperate with and live in God’s grace, is a prerequisite to the reception of the sacraments. The Magdalene scandal, if it is Jansenism, demonstrates that for election and reprobation to exist, electors often must subjugate others, not infrequently in abuse.

      • Kerberos

        If I may:

        ” Grace and justification are not received freely from the sacraments and available to any person who is properly disposed for the sacraments (orthodox Catholicism) but rather constitutional for the elect. ”

        ## Why is it not possible for the Calvinist account (as quoted) to fit with the Catholic dogma ? A doctrine taught by one body, may be intended to exclude that taught by another; it does not follow that there will be a real, rather than a verbal or conceptual, contradiction. Contradictions can be of many kinds, after all – and as doctrines are taught, not by timeless bodies, but by bodies set amid historical change, doctrines that had one context when originally set out, so as to be false in that historical context, can become expressions of true doctrine in a different historical context. Conversely, what used to be true, can acquire a context that falsifies it. (IMHO, this may be a way forward to break the log-jam over V2.)

        If the elect who do receive grace (= the Calvinist doctrinal setting) are the same group as those who receive the sacraments fruitfully (= the Catholic doctrinal setting), is there (at least on that point) any more than a verbal disagreement ?

        As for irresistible grace – that Catholics (for example) receive grace, despite opposing it (by being in mortal sin, say), is an excellent illustration of irresistible grace. Neither side is wrong – both are right, each as far as it goes.

        The two groups are – AFAICS – like two men seeing different parts of a donkey, and insisting that only the parts visible to them are really parts of it. To see the mane & the ears, does not contradict seeing the ears: only if the ears are identified as ears & mane is there a problem. STM the two competing bodies of doctrine are like parts of a jigsaw, of which side has some pieces – & it is not at all clear that the current Catholic dogmata (& other Catholic doctrines) are the whole of what can be truthfully said on the subject. ISTM that Calvinism misses things the CC sees, but sees well many things we do very little justice to, if any. And conversely.

  • dominic1955

    What to make of the McAleese report then? I call crocodile tear BS on the Irish PM. Since their brief day in the economic sun, the Irish have found it fashionable to blame their cultural Catholicism for not being accepted into the rest of the currently fashionable secularist EU world. Join the chorus of blame towards the Church. Its like listening to all those people who are wholly ignorant of the Faith demonize it on the “authority” of having slept through 12 years of crap “Catholic” school in the 1970s.

    As to this “Irish Jansenism”, I completely agree with PPF and Brandon. “Jansenism” is a “dirty word” of somewhat in-the-know Catholics, comparable to “communist” or “fascist”. Some parts of the Irish Church were rigorous, but rigorism does not a Jansenist make. Considering a Low Mass w/ two servers the height of liturgical prowess is not very “Jansenistic” either. Actually, if Jansenism actually was an issue in Ireland, Vatican II (or at least that gawdawful ‘Spirit’) would have been welcome with open arms in Ireland. The Pistoian Jansenists, anybody? Jube and all the other Frenchies screwing around with the local liturgies? Pooh-poohing Marian devotion, hating the cult of the Sacred Heart? All this, not to mention the finer theological points, really puts the lie to the whole “Irish Jansenism” bit.

  • Melody

    An interesting discussion about whether or not Jansenism might have contributed to the Irish church being involved in the Madgdalene scandal. I wonder, however, if there is another factor which hasn’t been mentioned. One doesn’t have to go back that far, 100 years or less, to find a history of work houses and poor-farms, even in our own country. These passed for a really poor imitation of a social safety net. I suppose they might have been better than starvation and homelessness, but the description of some of them makes sleeping under a railroad trestle seem attractive. Abuse and corruption in the administration of the work houses and poor farms was rampant. Not even the most vocal advocates of “welfare reform” favor a return to that system. The Magdalene houses sound like a vestige of this system. They were for women only, but work houses nearly always practiced separation of the sexes, and even separation of parents from children. The whole system was brutal. The Magdalenes housed “fallen women” but were not limited to that. Sometimes it was just women who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Certainly they were a tragedy, but I feel that part of the context is missing. Certainly the fact that the Church was involved was a failure to observe the Great Commandment.

    • Jordan

      re: Melody [March 4, 2013]: Melody, were work houses or poor farms a form of peonage or were these institutions intended as employment for persons who were unable or unwilling to find stable employment?

      • Melody

        Jordan, I can’t speak for Europe or the UK, but in the US they were intended as employment for the indigent, also as a means of maintaining the destitute elderly or sick. I am mainly familiar with the history of such institutions in the area where I grew up, which was western Nebraska. The county would contract with someone to operate the poor farm. They may have been given a sum of money to work with, but were expected to make at least part of the money for their support and the expenses of the poor farm from supervising the raising of crops and livestock. Of course the inmates were the unpaid and available work force. Some of the operators of the poor farms were ethical. A lot of them weren’t. If you were really unfortunate, you might have been a denizen of a place such as this one: http://www.poorhousestory.com/NEB_YOST_BookReview.htm
        For the most part the days of the poor farms were over by the 1930’s. Ironically it became more economically feasible for the counties to assist the needy directly. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and ’60’s a barren tract of land east of the cemetery near my hometown was still referred to as “the poor farm” even though the county had sold the land years ago and it was no longer in operation. So I guess I am surprised that people are so surprised that there were the types of institutions such as the Magdalene laundries in existence. They may have lingered a little longer in Ireland than they did here, but we in the US certainly don’t have a spotless record of the way we took care of the unfortunate in the past. Though the misogyny associated with the Magdalenes doesn’t seem to have been such a characteristic here.