Violence begets violence. Control is the name of the game. Ireland's experience is like many others around the world today.
On Easter Monday, 1916, hundreds of Irishmen across the country rebelled against British control, most notably in Dublin. Years of simmering discontent boiled over as a band of citizen soldiers took the General Post Office and proclaimed the Irish Republic.
The rebellion saw thousands killed, 90 eventually sentenced to death, and the leaders soon executed by firing squad. Their names sound through Dublin streets to this day:
Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas J. Clarke …
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Britain starved Ireland for centuries, and regularly tamped down Ireland's rising call for freedom. Some of Ireland's great voices complained that the Catholic church -- code for the poor and the middle class -- brought a new oppression. In some ways they were correct.
But seven men signed the proclamation and with their confreres died at Dublin's Kilmainham jail.
Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly …
The Catholic church in 19th century Ireland oversaw a different oppression, also imported from England. Various homes for "wayward" women dotted the country -- from Cork to Dublin to Galway to Waterford to Wexford -- and by the 1840s, institutes of women religious began to manage them. The sisters built newer, bigger "Magdalene asylums," eventually housing thousands of women and, often, their children.
On the one hand, the sisters built magnificent buildings, some with world-class architecture. On the other hand, they seem guided by prevailing attitudes toward sex and unwed motherhood. To complicate matters, some families began bringing young girls with mental or physical disabilities to permanent residence in the asylums.
No doubt they all yearned for freedom, but not exactly the same freedoms the rebels sought.
Michael O'Hanrahan, John MacBride, Eamonn Ceannt …
Joseph Plunkett's notebook on display at the National Library records what happened in what today is called the Easter Rising: "GPO occupied in the name of the Republic shortly after noon (about 12:15 pm). Republic proclaimed. About one hour later a detachment of enemy lancers attempted to rush O'Connell Street. They were opposed at the Parnell Statue."
As the rebellion ran its course, the women stayed locked in their penitentiaries, some well-treated, others not. Many, but not all, eventually left of their own accord.
It seems things got worse before they ended.
Michael Mallin, Sean Heuston, Conn Colbert …
The Irish Republic, proclaimed that Easter Monday in 1916, did not settle its own affairs until the 26 counties of the Irish Free State joined together in 1922. Six counties in the north remained British. It got a new constitution in 1937, as the world headed toward another war.
Ireland itself remained mostly rural, mostly poor. Meanwhile, society looked askance at the women inside those laundry walls, no matter why or how they got there. The dirty laundry often came from the government, and from the church.
The laundries worked and worked. It wasn't just Ireland. Australia, Canada, and the United States had their share of Magdalene asylums -- mostly laundries, not necessarily controlled by nuns -- that took in teenaged girls of all descriptions. The prevailing attitude was that young girls and women who either fell or earned their livings by the "sins of the flesh" needed to be incarcerated and reformed and rid of venereal diseases.
There does not seem to be much discussion of how they "fell" or with whom, or who in society wanted to eradicate venereal disease, especially among the women likely to go back to work on the streets.
James Connolly, Sean MacDermott.
Both church and state supported the Irish Magdalene laundries. Post-war poverty brought more girls (and their babies) to the nuns' care. Another industry arose, as richer Americans adopted children born in the homes.
The American movie "Philomena" is a heartbreaking window into the ways some religious reacted to the girls and their children, and to the eventual searches of children for parents and parents for children. There are many books and documentaries, some better researched than others. Most overlook the fact that caring for discarded persons is a work of mercy. The wounds of the past remain raw today.
Ireland's politics are no less settled. Contention boils and erupts from time to time.
But secular Ireland is also walking, ever so slowly, away from the church and its mores. In 1996, the last Magdalene asylum -- on Sean MacDermott Street -- closed in Dublin. There is a Magdalene Survivors group. The Irish government has formally apologized and set aside funds for women deprived of freedom for so long.
Resurrection often takes some time, but it always comes.
[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and has recently completed a Fulbright Specialist trip to Ireland. She will speak May 6, 2016, at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto and Sept. 24, 2016, at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Her books include Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority and In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female.]
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