Let’s be honest, the days of beneficial Nuns, all rosy cheeks, toothy smiles, dressed in their habits, usually in black, like banshees, wailing and roaming the Irish countryside, begging for pennies for the poor black babies of foreign lands and scooping up stray laments of children, this stereotyping, of kind and gentle Nuns, might be ok for The Sound of Music, but more often, (another stereotyping), they were seen as ugly, frightful unattractive, middle-aged hags or childless, prissy, and repressed, old spinsters, rightfully both of these images are long dead, but sadly it was not always the case. When several Nuns all in black appear at once, in any town or village in the heartlands of Ireland, in days of old, it usually indicated a convent or laundry building was about to be built or acquired. Fear and anxiety would grip the local poor community, for the villagers knew that the good nuns would require local, unpaid slaves, women, girls and children to run their convent and laundry, and docile boys and men to run their farm and gardens, all unpaid. Soon a girl school house would appear to teach the paying local girls that could afford the education, and order would be established. As for the boys, they would usually have the benefit of a stern, masculine society of frustrated virginal Christian Brothers, a fraternity of sexually repressed bachelors, their whole world would be dominated by lonely old men, addled young men and isolated pubescent boys, in a male school environment opposite. The demisexual Christian Brothers serious and unrelenting, especially in the assertion of their authority and exercise of their brutal discipline. This was the malignant growth of an aggressive cancer, blood-sucking religious leeches operated in Ireland for about 200 years, which is now slowly been ripped out and put to its timely demise.
Survivors and researchers usually present the Magdalene Laundries as the ultimate example of a total institution or prison. The terror so zealously applied by the Nuns in the Magdalene Laundries was indeed meticulously planned by the leaders of the Irish Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the idea that all terror was systematically organised is somewhat misleading. Magdalene Laundries rules certainly gave the Nuns, the authority to arbitrarily punish the women and their children. The Nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries officially had the right to use violence on the women and their children in their care. Despite these rules and regulations, the Magdalene Laundry Nuns viciously assaulting the women and their children, the Nuns carried out their daily tasks brutally and bloodily. There was a considerable gap between rules and practice as set out in the Magdalene Laundries code of practice, some of the Nuns were notorious among the women for their extreme violence. And sadly a few Nuns were notorious for hitting the women and their children, even kicking fallen women almost to death. The Nuns frequently supervised the women performing their tasks, we must conclude that beating the women and their children was a way of compensating for their own incompetence, and of imposing a certain ‘authority’. Physical violence allowed the Nuns to get the upper hand, to cut a path for herself, literally and brutally, by striking blows with her hands and feet. Using violence was a way of showing that she, the Nun, was in charge. As a demonstration of power, violence was addressed first of all to the victim.
In all the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, the Nuns hit the women harder and more frequently, a few Nuns for more control used sticks and leather straps to beat both the women and their children, many of the women and their children sustained broken limbs and bruises as a result of their brutal beatings. The other weapons the Nuns used also caused humiliation and permanent damage to both mental and physical injuries. Kicking the women or their children took the degradation of the victims to a new level. It is a greater act of contempt than striking the face because it emphasises the asymmetry between the torturer and her victim. The victim lies prostrate on the ground, at the Nun’s feet. The impact of a blow is much greater if administered with the foot. Some Nuns aimed carefully and targeted the most sensitive parts of the body, like the stomach, lower abdomen and back.
The Nuns who had been relatively restrained at other convents became very aggressive at the enclosed slave prisons, known as Magdalene Laundries, which radicalised the incoming young Nuns with good intentions and their normal beliefs and behaviour, were to be corrupted by what they saw in these enclosed prisons, functioning as Magdalene Laundries. In the Magdalene Laundries basic sanitary conditions were so primitive and directly affecting many of the new Nuns. Many of the wretched, slave women and their children were in a dreadful physical state, for the Nuns the working conditions in some of the Magdalene Laundries had drastically deteriorated. Some of the Magdalene Laundries were in total chaos with overcrowding and understaffed, in fairness to some of the Nuns it wasn’t what they signed up for, in fact many of the Nuns were forced into becoming Nuns by their own families. We should not underestimate the discomforts of the Nuns, whether real, or not, separation from their families, harsh climate and working conditions, poor accommodation, as basic as their charges. All this produced feelings of deracination, frustration, fear of contamination and violent disgust for the slave women and their children, which contributed to a radicalisation of their behaviour against the women and their children. Relations between the Nuns were often fraught, and conflicts also arose openly between the older Nuns, and the younger Nuns. Also the Nuns themselves were untrained for their task at hand, all they had as a guidance was the moral compass which got lost on the way. The exercise of power is crucial for understanding of the Magdalene Laundries and how the Laundries worked, perspectively, power only ‘exists only when it is put into action’
But as this exercise of power depends on a degree of consent between the slave workers, the women and their children and the overseers, the Nuns. For these are not the result of a power relation but of a dissymmetrical relationship, where the Nuns has complete power over the women and their children. I prefer the term ‘overwhelming dominance’ to describe a relationship of power characterised by a total dissymmetry between the torturer, the Nuns, on one side, and the victims of their extreme violence, the vulnerable slave women and their children on the other. Power does not proceed from a single instance of central power but that the exercise of power sets in play relations between individuals or groups. The daily perpetration of violence against the vulnerable women and their children of all backgrounds did not only serve to dominate, break and destroy the women and their children. Acts of immediate violence also served to negotiate power relations within the Nuns personnel. Violence enabled the ‘moral’ codification of relationships. ‘Showing what one was capable of’ was a way of asserting oneself, of negotiating one’s status within the Nuns community. There was no great difference between male and female , as in say, The Christian Brothers and the Religious Nuns in terms of the number and frequency of acts of physical violence perpetrated. But a dynamic that could be qualified as ‘gendered’ was established at all Industrials Schools and Magdalene Laundries. In reality male and female, people in the Religious Orders systematically accelerated and intensified their violent acts in the presence of a new colleague. It was a matter of ‘impressing’ and/or ‘shocking’ one’s colleagues and superiors by specific acts of mindless violence, and of ‘proving’ one’s ‘authority’ and ‘skill’ to one’s colleagues. It hard to believe but many of the Nuns had no empathy, no scruples, and no emotions. Cruel, stupid, random and mindless violence against the slave women and their children was for the enjoyment of a few knuckle-dragging Nuns, many becoming so nasty in their cruel treatment of both the women and their children. The Nuns, like their counterparts the Christian Brothers were "out of control" acting as judge, jury and executioner, keeping us, the holy Irish People safe against the virus scum of the evil, the unwed women and their spawns.
Something else the exercise of power over others, can never be definitive. It must continually be renewed, asserted, negotiated, against the vulnerable women and their children in their charge. This association implies both a relation of overwhelming dominance of Nuns or other Religious Orders personnel vis-à-vis their detainees, but also a complex web of dependencies and interdependencies in the dynamics of power. To act outside or beyond was impossible; nobody could escape the mesh of these complex power relations. Even when Nuns remained passive, or tried to ignore each other, they could not avoid seeing or meeting their fellow Nuns and react to them. The extreme use of physical violence at the Magdalene Laundries and all the other Religious Run Institutions can largely be explained by the social relations inside these secretive Institutions. Let’s slice through the Irish Catholic Church’s sanctimonious cant, the Nuns and the Religious Orders had to reassert their authority every day, and demonstrate it – to their charges but also to their colleagues and superiors in the hierarchy. By using physical violence, the Nuns exercised brutal power over perpetration of violence against the vulnerable women and their children and more importantly over their own colleagues. Physical domination was indeed the proof of what they were ‘capable of’. Simultaneously it expressed a real thirst for power. Torturing the bodies and minds of the vulnerable women and their children or perpetration of violence against them day after day enabled the Nuns to assert their place in the Magdalene Laundries. The Nuns had also won over the confidence of the Bishops, Archbishops and even the Cardinals of the Irish Catholic Church as chief overseers, of these church run Institutions.
To be fair to some of the Nuns that worked in the Magdalene Laundries, they didn’t all behave badly or with violence. But the question I put is did that make them, the decent Nuns less violent ? Some of the Nuns were seen as ‘good’, ‘humane’ and ‘decent’ Nuns, for their small acts of kindness, some of the Nuns even excused the women and their children from work and maybe didn’t strike the women or their children like the other brutal Nuns. The absence of daily beatings certainly eased the daily lives of the starving and overworked women and their children, despite this apparent non-violence, there were clearly other forms of domination and humiliation used by those good Nuns. Let’s take for example the good Nun or Nuns, forcing the slave women or their children to sing or dance, for their amusement or cutting and shaving off all their hair, to shame them publicly, or sexually abusing them. This kind of behaviour shows a form of coercion, an abuse of power by the Nuns, which goes unnoticed in relation to the extreme violence used by the other Nuns. This cruel behaviour while seemingly harmless, is an act of domination, the good Nun compels the woman or her child to sing or dance to a particular song. You see in most cases the convent mass graves were behind the convent laundry walls or the laundry building was directly opposite the burial pits. The song might or could be a favourite of the unwed mother or her surviving child, and the women or child would know what is buried in the mass pits, a few feet away, that particular song or dance routine may be a favourite of either the unwed mother or her surviving child, now forced to sing or dance on top of the mass pit. The Laundries in the Convents were at the heart of the secret mass burial sites of the overworked women and their children, most of the surviving women and children would know this, as did the heartless Nuns. Many of the slave women took work, in silent and were passive. The good Nuns, with good intentions by not acting, like refusing to see, amounts to silent approval of what the other brutal Nuns were doing. In brutal reality to understand the excesses of violence, it is crucial to consider the role of the passive bystanders who also generated violence. As the social psychologist Harald Welzer argues that the “active dimension of observing acts of violence’ is underestimated: ‘Through the simple fact of being present and not interfering, spectators endorse rather than challenge the frame of reference chosen by the actors” At the same time, brutal colleagues serve as ‘negative figures of reference’. They allow the spectators to see themselves as ‘normal’, even, by contrast, humane and compassionate.
Many Nuns today feel good about themselves, completely humane. Yet they contributed just as much to the radicalisation of behaviour. And as the French anthropologist Véronique Nahoum-Grappe has shown, someone who is excessively violent, even cruel, can only exist in a situation where she feels authorised to carry out degrading and humiliating acts of violence. This context of impunity and social acceptance is an essential, but not a determining, condition of monstrous behaviour. The more one accepts, the worse one accepts. Such a field-of-force created by the passive Nun permitted and regulated the actions of the violent ones.
Owen Felix O’Neill
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017