DUBLIN, Ireland On paper, Martina Keogh's life reads like a tragedy but don't tell her that. When you meet her in person it's hard to reconcile the facts of her early life, which included her quasi-legal incarceration in one of Ireland's notorious Magdalene laundries, with the warm and funny grandmother she is today. I met Martina on a recent trip to Ireland, when she agreed to talk to me about her experiences in one of the slave-labor workhouses operated by the Catholic Church with an as-yet-unknown degree of government complicity from 1765 to 1996.
The Magdalene asylums, as they were formally known, weren't unique to Ireland. They existed in other European countries and there were a few in North America, but Ireland had the largest number and kept them operating longest. The mission of these institutions was ostensibly to rehabilitate women the church deemed morally compromised, like prostitutes and unwed mothers. But that mission, such as it was, was lost in the Irish facilities, which were run as commercial laundries staffed by unpaid inmates and generating profits for the church.
Many of the women in the laundries were transferred from other church institutions without state involvement. I wanted to talk to Martina because hers was one of a small number of cases in which law enforcement played a direct role in her incarceration. Her two years in a church-sponsored workhouse began in a Dublin courtroom in 1968. The 16-year-old was rounded up with two older girls who had gotten into a fight. Martina wasn't involved, but she was talking to the girls when the cops showed up and hauled them all off to jail.
Somehow, the court used the fact that she was underage as justification to sentence her to two years' service in a Magdalene asylum. All these years later, Martina doesn't understand on what grounds she was sent there. She told me that at her hearing, she and her mother were instructed not to speak.
"Because my mother was poor and couldn't afford a (lawyer), she couldn't get up to speak," she said. "So more or less I was a nobody. We couldn't say anything to defend ourselves. We were made to shut our mouths. I got two years; the other two got off. I was to be educated."
Martina's "education" consisted of workdays that stretched to 10 hours if you include mandatory daily Mass, operating heavy machinery like industrial presses which could and did seriously injure untrained or inattentive workers. Their diet was inadequate for such hard labor, and they had to ask permission to use the bathroom or get a drink, although the laundry's sweltering heat left workers dehydrated.
Throughout the day they had to maintain silence. Even whispering to your neighbor would result in an instance of the physical abuse Martina said was routine. She says the women were beaten with bamboo sticks, large rings of keys and leather straps, for infractions ranging from talking back to failing to give way in the hall when a nun passed by. The beatings took place against a background of psychological torment that Martina said caused far more damage.
"The nuns were always telling us we were no good and that's why we were there, and that we would never get out. Even after coming out, the women lived in fear. Because they'd say to you, 'When you've left here, we'll know where you are, and if you step out of line we'll have you back in here.' Brutal, cruel, verbally and physically, and verbal can hurt a lot."
After her release, Martina was so convinced the nuns were monitoring her that she wouldn't settle at a fixed address or tell anyone, even her mother, where she was staying. It wasn't until she had a baby that she made a permanent home and began to put her incarceration in perspective. She realized the church no longer controlled her, and was able to move on and build a happy life. But she's never forgotten the injustice, nor has she stopped questioning the murky role the government played.
Cases like Martina's have given advocacy organizations such as Justice for Magdalenes the leverage needed to pressure the Irish government to take responsibility. After decades of denial, Magdalene advocates amassed sufficient evidence to take their case to the United Nations. The Committee Against Torture agreed there was evidence of government involvement, prompting an apology from Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny in February.
This was the first official acknowledgment of the state's involvement with the laundries, but Martina says the government must do more to make amends. Until then she says, "I don't believe the apology, and I don't accept the false tears or false words. They hid it so long. They knew it was going on."
Thanks to the work of advocates, the world now knows what went on in the laundries, and the government is finally responding to mounting calls for justice. Last week officials quietly announced a plan for reparation payments to the several hundred Magdalene laundry survivors. The compensation package totals $75 million, which isn't much when you consider the suffering of the roughly 10,000 women incarcerated since the Irish state was established in 1922. But it is, at long last, a concrete step toward atonement.
Camille Hayes, a Sacramento writer, is a domestic violence advocate who works for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The views expressed here do not represent those of the partnership or its member agencies. Read her blog, Lady Troubles, about politics and women's issues, at www.ladytroubles.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.