Magdalen Laundries – Statement on the McAleese report

Statement on the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries

Dail Eireann on Wednesday, 27th March 2013

Deputy Dan Neville

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very delicate and important issue, the abuse of women for decades in the Magdalen laundries. I wish to be associated with the apology of the Taoiseach who expressed deep regret and apologised unreservedly to all the women concerned for the hurt done to them and any stigma they had suffered as a result of their time spent in the Magdalen laundries.

I welcome the McAleese report which has permitted us to see in great detail the wrongs done to innocent women and the merciless cruelty inflicted on them. It describes a judgmental society and those who ran the institutions. It showed how uncharitable they were and how degrading were their actions towards decent human beings whom they denied their human rights. We know that such cruelty deeply affects and creates psychological difficulties. The women concerned were not allowed to communicate with each other and it is obvious that they suffered from having no or low self-esteem and self-value which can seriously affect the human psyche. It was a time of high religious influence and dominance. The women believed they were worthless and sinful and were humiliated. The terrible unchristian label of “fallen women” was applied to them. Human contact was prevented, even though we all need interaction with fellow human beings. We want to feel valued for our personality, talents and potential contribution to fellow human beings. We want to be loved and have a future, but this was not permitted under fear of physical, psychological and spiritual punishment. Post-traumatic stress disorder is described as a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after any event which has caused psychological trauma. This trauma over a period of time must have caused severe traumatic distress disorder without an understanding of it.

For decades and centuries society used institutions such as the Magdalene laundries and industrial schools to deal with perceived problems. I also remind the House of how patients in mental institutions were treated. Many were incarcerated as a remedy for social problems rather than because of mental ill-health. The institutions were the solution to problems of homelessness and intellectual disability and to deal with those who did not conform to the strict norms dictated by society of acceptable behaviour. They were regarded as dangerous people, to be locked away behind high walls.

In the 1940s my mother was a psychiatric nurse. She told me about the inhuman conditions she encountered. She also told me about the many people – perhaps the majority – who had no illness but who had been sent there for social reasons. She became very close friends with many normal women and men who had been incarcerated in these places. They worked for no payment, the women in laundries and kitchens and the men on the farm which provided the food. Some lived for decades in these places where they died.

I shared a platform with Professor Ivor Browne at a seminar organised last November by the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland which was chaired by Gay Mitchell, MEP, entitled, Sense and Suicide. Professor Browne visited St. Brendan’s Hospital, Grangegorman, in the 1950s when he observed there was no meaningful relationship between the doctors and patients in the overcrowded and insanitary conditions. He recalled visiting the women’s section:

Many of the wards had more than 100 people in them, with crowds of patients jostling each other. Some of the women had their dresses pulled over their heads. Here and there, a nurse was struggling among the chaos. There was a cacophony of sound. I felt as though I was lost in some type of hell. I remember passing a little old lady who was quite sane and conscious, sitting in bed shaking with terror. This was the 1950s.

Persons of unsound mind could be detained indefinitely. Many were there for social reasons as a matter of convenience. In fact, a person could be committed for life with the signatures of two peace commissioners. Many families perceived that problems were solved by a committal for life. It was a sentence of incarceration behind high walls. The pejorative term “simpleton” referred to people who were regarded as not having their full faculties. Of course, they had them, but in their own way. They were decent, honest, hard-working people when given the opportunity to work. They were locked in behind high walls because they were regarded as dangerous people. It was a life sentence, out of sight, in order to solve society’s problem. It was a life sentence of unpaid labour. Perhaps at some time in the future the cruelty inflicted on this most vulnerable group will be documented, but most of them are dead now.

St. Brendan’s Hospital is officially due to close tomorrow and the patients who remain there will be moved to a new unit. In the 1960s there were 2,700 patients in the hospital. The new unit will only be required to house 54 patients. What were 2,700 people doing in St. Brendan’s in the 1960s? I appreciate that there would have been a need for more than 54 places at that time because methods of psychiatric treatment were not as developed as they are now. I do not know why, however, 2,700 people were kept in this facility in the 1960s. During that period there were 20,000 patients in all our mental hospitals. At present, there are fewer than 3,000.

My mother informed me about the difficulties experienced at the time to which I refer. We must compliment the female nurses and male attendants who worked in institutions such as St. Brendan’s and who were kind and generous to and understood the people for whom they were caring. It must be remembered that the training of nurses for psychiatry was only introduced by regulation in 1935. Prior to that date, one did not have to be trained in order to work as a psychiatric nurse but many were. My mother informed me about the horrors of electroconvulsive treatment and indicated that this was regularly used to deal with difficult patients. She told me that straitjackets were often used to contain people. The institutions, which were enormous, became overcrowded and the system was obliged to concentrate on their day to day management rather than on treating patients. There was no one to represent the individuals to whom I refer. When people are not wanted by society, their voice is not heard. No one listens to them and no one speaks on their behalf. The approach during the period in question was to lock people up behind high walls. I hope that fact will one day be recognised.