Recorded live at Warner Bros. lot 1998
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Sometimes music artistes get the opportunity to go beyond just entertaining their audience and take on an exalted role of educator. They can be powerful spokespersons and can rally public opinion and action against injustice or for a cause. Joni Mitchell is one such artiste who never hesitated to bear open her soul and in the process treated her listeners to a glimpse of the human condition.
When I first heard the song “The Magdalene Laundries“, I knew nothing about the story behind it. The song inspired me to investigate further and to understand the tragedy of which it spoke.
The story begins with the establishment of asylums for “fallen women” in Victorian Britain. These asylums arose from the Protestant Rescue Movement which originally had the good intent of trying to rescue and rehabilitate prostitutes by providing them a shelter and alternative employment.
In Ireland, these were referred to as Magdalene Asylums, named after Mary Magdalene who was a prostitute but who became a friend and follower of Jesus Christ. The Magdalene movement in Ireland was quickly appropriated by the Catholic Church, and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. As time went on, the focus also shifted from rehabilitation to the performance of penitence through hard labour.
These institutions were required to be financially self sufficient and so they evolved into profit making laundries run by “fallen women” carrying out their penitence under the supervision of nuns. They ceased being refuges and became more like prisons. The “fallen women” now included not just prostitutes but women who had become pregnant out of wedlock and as the song says became pregnant, “some by their own fathers or parish priests”. The men suffered no consequences but the women were sent to the Laundries.
Women who had become “embarrassments” were sent by their family, their church or even the State to the Magdalene Laundries where they were treated as lower beings and suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuses, forgotten by society.
Public awareness of the injustices and inhumanities of the Magdalene Laundries really began in 1993 when in Dublin, nuns of a particular order sold part of their convent grounds to a real estate developer who exhumed 155 bodies of women who had died in the Laundries and were buried in unmarked graves.
Allegations about the conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates of the Irish asylums were made in the film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan.
I was surprised to learn that the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed as recently as the 25th of September 1996 or just 14 years ago this day. It is estimated that 30,000 women went through the Magdalene Laundries. May God grant them the peace and love that they never received from fellow humans.