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The Magdalene Laundries - Emmylou Harris

Denise, Jane, Amelia, Maria, Gloria, Magnolia, Annie, Sarah, Oonagh, Patricia, Siobhan, Olivia, Anna, Catherine, Imogen, Harriet, Rowena, Andrea, Bridget, Joanna, Jennifer and on and on, a list of forgotten names, over 30,000 the years from 1765 when the first one was opened to 1996 when the last closed, the Magdalene Laundries were the repository for Irish women who were deemed of "ill repute" or "fallen women". There many of them were to spend the rest of their lives as unpaid, imprisoned laundry workers presided over by the nuns who ran these establishments. Over the years the definitions of "ill repute" and "fallen" broadened so that no young high-spirited girl who did not conform to the strictures of the small-town mentality of Irish life was safe from possible internment without trial in one of these institutions. Irish courts also sent women convicted of petty crimes to the laundries.

Besides the fact that these were run with the blessing of the Irish Roman Catholic Church, the shocking thing is that they received contracts from the Irish Government itself, even as late as the 1940's.

The inmates lived in Spartan conditions, often having long periods of daily silence and physical and mental punishment imposed on them for petty misdemeanours by the nuns.

Emmylou Harris's heartbreaking version of Joni Mitchell's angry condemnation of the laundries is the saddest song I know.

Perhaps the most telling verse refers to the presiding nuns,

"These bloodless brides of Jesus

if they just once glimpsed their groom

then they'd know, and they'd drop the stones

concealed behind their rosaries....."

On 19th February 2013, the Irish government issued a formal apology and for the abuse suffered by the victims of the laundry system, as well as compensation for surviving victims, although no such response has come from the religious institutions who ran them themselves.

Frances Finnegan, author of "Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland", wrote: "Possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes."

Joni Mitchell's words demand to be set out in full:

"I was an unmarried girl - I'd just turned twenty-seven

when they sent me to the sisters

for the way men looked at me,

branded as a Jezebel

I knew I was not bound for heaven –

I'd be cast in shame

into the Magdalene laundries

Most girls come here pregnant

- some by their own fathers –

Bridget got that belly by her parish priest;

we're trying to get things white as snow,

all of us woe-begotten-daughters

in the streaming stains

of the Magdalene laundries

Prostitutes and destitutes

and temptresses like me,

fallen women sentenced

into dreamless drudgery

why do they call this heartless place

our Lady of Charity?

oh charity, sweet charity,

These bloodless brides of Jesus

if they just once glimpsed their groom

then they'd know, and they'd drop the stones

concealed behind their rosaries;

they wilt the grass they walk upon

- they leech the light out of a room –

they'd like to drive us down the drain

at the Magdalene laundries

Peg O'Connell died today she was a cheeky girl

- a flirt they just stuffed her in a hole -

surely to God you'd think at least some bells should ring.

One day I'm going to die here too

and they'll plant me in the dirt like some lame bulb that never blooms,

come any spring

oh, come any spring

no, not any spring

not any spring."

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