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Entries in Irish History (3)


Absolute power corrupts absolutely

I just finished reading Proved Innocent. It is the autobiographical account of the unjust incarceration for 15 years of Gerry Conlon and four others who were accused of bombing a pub in Guildford, England, in 1974. The bombings hastened the passing of The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave law enforcement officials extended powers in the arrest of potential terrorists. Conlon's father and other family members were also falsely accused and convicted. Conlon's father, who was already ill, having had one lung removed, died in prison.

I had seen the movie In the Name of the Father, but of course, the book was different. The account of what the prosecution suppressed is more detailed in the book than in the movie. And the cruelty and violence Conlon and the others received was graphic at times. In the movie, law enforcement officials coerce Conlon into confessing by threatening to kill his father. In reality, they threatened to kill Conlon's mother and sisters. While being questioned, Conlon was never allowed to sleep in his cell. If he did fall asleep, guards would create noise, telling him he could not sleep. The other three members of what became known as "The Guildford Four" had similar treatment. After his release, Conlon's life was not free from grief and struggle. He struggled emotionally until he died in 2014.

This is what happens when governments are given extensive powers and when those powers reside alongside public hysteria. Absolute power is always a bad thing when given to men and women. People may have good intentions and may be really convicted that there is threat which needs to be squashed, but fear and a sinful heart make for a very bad combination. Fear can be a deadly thing.

This book made me think of the reality of sin. It is pervasive. And it is not just "them" who struggle with sin. Christians are not immune. Why are we surprised when Christians sin? Perfection is not going to happen in this lifetime. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can have victory from sin, but our natures have not changed. We see daily Christians behaving badly.

I don't remember what I was reading, but something over the weekend made me stop and wonder if those who believe in Calvinistic doctrine actually believe in Total Depravity. Do we take our own sin seriously? We often underestimate ourselves. We may think we know how we will behave in a certain situation, but we don't have foreknowledge. Surely I am not the only Christian who has done something and thought, "Why on earth did I do that?" 

We need to be aware of being too self-satisfied; too sure. We need to stop expressing shock when sin happens. And we need to stop looking at others and saying, "How on earth that so-and-so do this or that?" It could just as easily be us doing that shocking thing. There is a reason by the Lord's Prayer includes petitions for forgiveness and freedom from temptation. Practicing virtue and holy character is crucial, but it also must live alongside exhortations to flee from sin. 


Hold the whiskey, and thank an Irishman

If you like reading, thank an Irishman. Although in its original form St. Patrick's Day was not really about celebrating the Irish culture, that seems to be what it has become. I'm not sure how or if they celebrate it in the Republic or in Northern Ireland, but in North America, it has morphed into drunken celebrations.

One of the things I love about Irish history (and I love a lot about it) is what happened when Rome was sacked and the barbarians took over the Roman Empire. On a little island west of Britain, intellectual life survived. That is the subject of How the Irish Saved Civilization. For anyone who likes to read and appreciates classic literature, you'll enjoy this book. I wrote about this a few years ago. 

A lot of Irish history is not very happy if you happen to be Irish. Famous men like Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill didn't have very charitable attitudes toward the Irish. And it is a country whose history is filled with strife. That is generally what happens in a country which has been conquered. A couple of Fridays ago, my husband and I re-watched the movie In the Name of the Father, which is the story of Gerry Conlon, who was wrongfully convicted for the Guildford Pub bombing. Conlon's aging and ailing father, who had nothing to do with the bombing, was also convicted, and languished and eventually died in prison. The movie drew my interst when it first came out because I enjoy Irish history and because Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favourite actors. Conlon, after 15 years in prison, struggled despite producing his book, Proved Innocent, on which the movie was based. That book is in the queue for my reading list. Conlon died in 2014.

One of the comments made in the movie by Conlon's lawyer, Gareth Pierce (played by Emma Thompson), when the verdict was finally overturned was that the arrest and conviction of the four young people happened not because of overwhelming evidence, but because they were "well, bloody Irish." I don't know if that comment is part of the court transcript; I'd like to know. Part of Irish history is the bigotry they experienced, at the hands of the English and later, as they emigrated to North America.

I love Irish history and the pictures show scenery that I hope some day to photograph myself. Until then, I enjoy books like How the Irish Saved Civilization. And I'm thankful for books about St. Patrick, for whom this day is really about. If you're interested in Patrick, check out Michael Haykin's great little volume.


Women victimizing women

Recently, I watched a movie called The Magdalene Sisters. It was a compelling story. My curiosity piqued, after seeing the movie, I read a book called Ireland's Magdalen Laundries, which exposed how these laundries functioned as part of an attitude that wished to confine and contain elements of society deemed unfit, i.e., people on the margins of society.

The Magdalene Laundries

The Magdelene Laundries were run by four different female religious orders in Ireland. They were founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a refuge for prostitutes, but ultimately became a place where women from the fringes of society were placed. Some women had given birth to illegitimate children, were orphans, had been raped, or were viewed as "mentally defective." Some of them were put in those institutions by their own families, because they were viewed as being at risk for having sex outside of marriage. As one survivor said, other than having a baby outside of wedlock, the worst sin in Ireland was to have sex outside of marriage.

The Magdelene laundries were private institutions, which meant that officially there was no state intervention or accountability. The nuns in the laundries had free labour, but were really not responsible to any outside governing body. There was no recourse for the women in the laundires except the Catholic Church.

A Brutal Life

Life there was, in a word, brutal. These were not coin-operated, Maytag laudromats; these were industrial laundries, utilizing equipment that girls as young as 12 should not have had to use. The girls received no financial remuneration, nor were they given any education. Some girls were told they were being sent to the laundry to learn life skills, but the laundry prepared them for nothing but more of the same hard, demanding work. Having been in a Magdalen laundry was a mark of shame that no girl wanted to admit. Many never told others of where they had been. They were told they were not prisoners, yet they could not leave. And ultimately, with no education and no one to advocate for them, what was the benefit of leaving? They were not allowed to talk to each other while they worked or even in bed at night. There was physical abuse. Their names were changed. Their hair was cut off. They were told they were doing "penance" for sins they didn't understand. Some became so institutionalized that they found it difficult to function outside of the laundry once they did leave. 

While the book Ireland's Magdalen Laundries provided analysis of this situation, the book Whispering Hope shared personal accounts of five women who were in a Magdalen Laundry. I couldn't put it down. It was both riveting and disturbing. In one of the accounts, the survivor noted with bitter irony that the order she was placed with, The Sisters of the Mercy, had nothing merciful about it. One woman recounts how she watched one of the other girls, recently having been forced to give up her baby for adoption, try to escape one night by tying sheets together to climb out of a sixth story window. She ended up falling, breaking her neck, and dying. There was no mention of the girl again, and no funeral. 

The saddest story came from a woman named Nancy, who was an orphan. She tried to run away on a couple of occasions, but because she had nowhere to go, she ended up returning to the laundry, facing even harsher treatment. When she was about 16, the nuns sent her to work on a farm with a man who beat her brutally, and who at one point, hung her dog in the barn (where she slept) as a punishment. This woman eventually ran away, and was able to find work as a housekeeper and nanny. She remained with this family long after the children grew and moved away. She was never able to form any kind of relationship with a man, or most people, for that matter. 

Theology in Action

As I have read and thought about this matter, I am reminded that theology is evident in our conduct. The nuns had a particular view of God, sin, and humanity, and it is reflected in how they treated the girls. There was an overly punitive, harsh attitude toward them, despite the fact that not one of them had done anything to warrant being incarcerated. The nuns seemed to believe the premise that by making the girls suffer physical and emotional abuse, they were helping them do penance. The nuns clearly did not have a biblical understanding of sin or atonement or else they would not have presumed to dole out brutality in the name of penance. If a girl was born out of wedlock, it was cast upon her as her own sin and she was made to pay, and pay frequently. Anyone who has read the Bible recognizes that as an unbiblical attitude. The nuns were not kind. That says something about their belief regarding being made in God's image and loving others as we love ourselves. They reminded me of the Pharisees who were were preoccupied with washings and rituals, but were hard and unmerciful.

I don't know what kind of religious education nuns in Ireland were given, but from the way they treated the girls in the Magdalen laundries, it bares little resemblance to Jesus's attitude toward their namesake, Mary Magdalen, who was indeed shown mercy. I think it is an irony that the laundries bear her name despite clearly being such a harsh place. Part of me is a little shocked at women victimizing other women. It just goes to show that sin is in the heart of us all, and given the right circumstances, it can really run amok.


In 2013, Enda Kenny, the then Irish Taoiseach apologized to the victims of Magdalen laundries. There is a group for survivors, and as their stories are being told, more seem to come forward with their own stories. It is such a sad story, and yet some of the women are so admirable, pressing on and surviving in the midst of something I cannot fathom.