The Good Irish Shepherds

I worked in silence in the steam,
purifying surplices, God's own labour.
Pretty as a picture I was, dragged
from our front gate, ma and da
praying for my soul, urging penitence
because the priest had called me dirty.
Under a lash of leather, driven

to confession, soiled by the sperm
of Untermenschen wed to chastity,
I wept. Behind barbed wire and bars,
my baby torn from my bursting breasts,
I was beaten, shaved and shamed.
Outside, the boys were merrily bombing
the Black North's prods to freedom,

Americans were tracing Irish roots.
In the Belgian Congo the Army were killing blacks
fed through terror of the Sisters of Mercy;
while in the Magdalene archipelago
we wept for years that were lost to us,
and wished that there were even more
we did not understand.


Notes on the poem:

Throughout the twentieth century, until as late as 1996, a total of about 30,000 Irish girls were locked up for years in so-called "Magdalene Asylums". Their crime was to have had an illegitimate baby or to have been in 'moral danger' (for example, because of being very pretty). They had to labour in silence - totally unpaid - 52 weeks a year, in laundries where they cleaned the clothes of priests and nuns, symbolically washing away their sins. They had their heads shaved, were forced to wear rough smocks and bind their breasts, were regularly humiliated and beaten, and were sometimes sexually abused; their babies were taken from them forcibly and farmed out for adoption. The girls became an early example of the "disappeared", often with the connivance of their own families. While other arms of the Church were extracting money from the Irish poor to feed the world's "little black babies", politicians turned their backs on home-grown abuses of civil rights. James Joyce's "old sow" was again eating her own farrow. There was a 'Good Shepherds' laundry on the Armagh Road in Newry while I was growing up there; it did not feature in the TV documentary below.

Channel 4 Notes on their TV documentary about the Magdalene Asylums

Monday 16 March 21.00 WITNESS: SEX IN A COLD CLIMATE. I do not endorse any comments made in this programme since I have no first-hand knowledge of the subject.

Channel 4's award winning documentary strand returns for a new six-part series, tackling some of the more controversial moral and ethical issues of the day. Regularly the subject of critical acclaim, Witness reaffirms Channel 4's continued and unique commitment to reporting issues of religious and ethical significance on peak-time television.

Sex in a Cold Climate presents a harrowing picture of sexual intolerance in 20th Century Ireland. Using rare archive film and photographs, it tells for the first time the tragic experiences of the young women sent away to Ireland's Magdalene Asylums for their supposed sexual impropriety. This is the story of four Irish Catholic women who were condemned as teenagers to a brutal institutional life where they were cruelly punished by nuns.

In Ireland, in a time before sex education, it fell to the Church to teach young women that chastity in thought and deed was the only protection from the sin of sex. Contraception was banned and sex before marriage was a mortal sin. Most young women were sexually ignorant and the consequences for them of any sexual activity could be horrific. If they became pregnant before marriage, or even if there was a suspicion that their chastity had been violated, they could be sent to one of Ireland's ten Magdalene asylums as punishment. Named after Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who repented and was forgiven by Jesus, the aim of these asylums was to chastise and correct Ireland's 'fallen women'.

Cast out by her family when she fell pregnant and forced to seek refuge in an institution run by nuns CHRISTINA MULCAHY gave birth to a baby boy in 1940. She was hoping to marry the father - but recalls that the nuns stopped all communication between them. However, nothing could prepare her for when the nuns removed her ten-month-old baby son for adoption without any warning. A tearful Christina remembers how she wasn't even allowed to say goodbye to him. "I was breast feeding him. It upset me so much I nearly went mad." As a single mother, Christina was again rejected by her family. Her punishment was to be sent to a Magdalene asylum in Galway where she remained for three years before escaping. She had to wait 55 years before she was reunited with her son.

MARTHA COONEY was sent away to a Magdalene asylum in Dublin when she was just 14 - after being indecently assaulted by a cousin. Like all girls, her head was shaved, her clothes confiscated and she was forced to work in the Magdalene laundry for no pay, from morning till night, 52 weeks a year. The labour was deeply symbolic - the purging of sin by the washing of dirty linen. "We were caged and we were powerless to do anything about it," she says. Martha was released in 1945 after four years in the asylum.

PHYLLIS VALENTINE spent eight years in Galway's Magdalene Asylum between 1956 and 1964. "The nuns were very brutal, they made you work all day," she remembers. "Then I started to rebel, I thought I'm 21, I'm going to be here forever, I want out." Phyllis was released after she went on a hunger strike and became violent towards the nuns.

BRIGID YOUNG grew up in an orphanage attached to the Limerick Magdalene asylum. She remembers "the nuns used to make us strip naked and they would be laughing and criticising us". Brigid remembers being viciously assaulted by a nun with a belt and scissors after daring to speak to a Magdalene girl. She was later sexually assaulted several times by a visiting priest. But she was unable to confide in any of the nuns for fear of retribution.

Facing life in the outside world after being locked away for so many years was an awesome challenge for these women, all of whom were emotionally scarred by the experience. The last remnants of the Magdalene asylums were closed in 1996 and although the church has kept the records secret, it is estimated that as many as 30,000 Irish women passed through the asylums this century. Some never got out.

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