Shaming and Unshaming

The women of the Magdalene Laundries have given us who live in this time and this community in Ireland, a gift that would be ungrateful to disregard.

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On Sunday’s the family would attend Mass, where women who fell pregnant outside marriage were named and shamed by the priest on the altar during his sermon.

Quote from Alison O’Reilly’s book, My Name is Bridget.

Anyone over a certain age can feel the power of that quote, can feel the fear because if they were ever in a relationship before marriage they may have come close to being named and shamed. When you belong in a tight-knit team, in work, in a community, in a family, in a church, there are strong self-protection urges to continue being part of your team. To belong. Naming and shaming will lead to ostracisation, you will no longer belong in the team. Everyone of a certain age knew one way to bring shame on yourself and get evicted from the team was to get pregnant before marriage.

It wasn’t the only way. It isn’t the only way.

Shame is one of those words that we don’t talk about much… in relation to ourselves. To talk about our shame would be to bring up those old feelings and old hurts that conceived our shame. That’s just too painful. And worse it might lead to extra shame if the person we’re talking to reacts judgementally or even worse, sympathetically. Poor you! How awful for you, never mind forget about it now. Brené Brown defines shame as,

 …the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging –  something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

Whether you were passed over for a job or you think you’re not clever enough or not pretty enough or even too pretty or perhaps the experience of someone being inappropriate towards you making you think it was your fault… perhaps it’s as normal as failing an exam. The list of things you might feel shame for is endless and talking about it leads to pain. It’s even painful to think about the shaming of others like the women from the Magdalene Laundries… but what if thinking, talking, supporting others was a way through our shame?

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You may or may not have read first hand stories from the women of the Magdalene Laundries, on the internet or in newspapers. If you have you will notice that each story, while there are similarities, is different. One thing you will notice is that not every woman sent to a Laundry was pregnant. In a place and time where shaming was rife you (YOU reading this) could well be sent to a Magdalene Laundry. (If you were a boy it would be an industrial school.)

Once upon a time we all lived in a tight-knit community in a place called Ireland. Everyone knew each other and they helped us out. No one had much but that didn’t matter, we had enough and we got by. We all went to mass on Sundays and we went to confession once a month. Our children went to the local school and played in the fields in the summer months and made friends for life. We all followed the local GAA team. We all grew up and married within the community. For those who followed the rules life was grand. (Note: some could break the rules once they kept it secret and had money or power to cover their tracks.) The rules were very clear. Attend mass every week. Don’t stand out. Don’t get involved with people in the other community, Don’t marry them. Don’t visit their churches. Don’t play their sport. Don’t have sex before you are married.

The punishment for breaking the rules was banishment. The banishment could spread to the whole family of the rule breaker. It was very important for us to banish any rule breaker in our family before anyone found out, then we could continue to belong. Belonging is very important to humans and for us we were taught there was nothing outside of our tight-knit community. The other communities were going to hell, we didn’t want to go to hell…

There were other less clear rules: If you looked like you broke a rule, you would also be banished. How do you “look like” you broke a rule? The clothes we wore could mark us out – too short, to low, too colourful, too attractive.  If we got pregnant (even if it was due to rape) then it looked like we had sex before marriage and we would be banished. If we were over friendly with boys then it looked like we might be having sex or might be about to have sex, so we were banished. If we were flirty, spoke up for ourselves, showed anything deemed disrespectful to authority, we were banished.

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Banishment might not sound that bad, might be a blessing so to speak… but think about it, your life long friends will not speak to you or even acknowledge you. You will lose your job. You will be judged as lacking. You will have to move to another country not by choice but because you have no choice. You will have no support, financial or emotional and you will be in a vulnerable position. Unless you are very lucky you will have to fight to survive.

Fintan O Toole wrote in The Irish Times recently of how the “eloquent denunciation of the treatment of Ireland’s Magdalenes” by President Michael D. Higgins was an unshaming. The women of the Magdalene Laundries have given us who live in this time and this community in Ireland, a gift that would be ungrateful to disregard. They have given us the gift of truth. With this truth we may feel even more shame for being part of the shaming of others. With this truth we are aware of what humans can do to each other, what we have done to each other. This will happen again, in fact shaming happens every day in Ireland.

In honouring and remembering and supporting the woman of the Magdalene Laundries (and the other institutions in our tight-knit community) we have a responsibility to feel their pain and here’s the gift – an opportunity to unshame ourselves.

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