There has been a lot of talk about journeys in Ireland over the past few months.
But none will have been as traumatic and as poignant as that real journey that was made into Ireland this week by the hundreds of women who were forced to work in the Magdalene Laundries, as if the very act of cleansing would play some part in some sort of savage moral wash.
Ireland has hurt a lot in recent weeks. Not just the division caused by the referendum, but the series of tragic deaths of young people, the fallout from the cervical cancer checks. At times like this, we need a healing hand, to reach out, hold a candle to those who walk in darkness. We need a face that transcends state and power, but which still speaks for all of us. That face and healing hand has belonged to the office of the President, who has gone to people’s homes and sat and talked to them and held their hands and made them feel valued and loved, and not discarded and mistreated.
This week, President and Mrs Higgins opened their own doors, a symbolic welcoming for those women whose lives were ripped apart, who have known nothing but dealing with this trauma for generations. Some of whom are still understandably reluctant to share publicly that they were part of it. Their flight from Ireland has brought them to vastly different lives across the globe, lives that were undoubtedly shaped by the horror of what they experienced and what they witnessed.
It was an experience that rightly made this distrust the State and the organs which played ahand in their incarceration. They must be forgiven too for mistrusting the rest of soceity who enabled this to happen. Those women who gathered in Dublin over the past few days shared a bond that while never formally recognised, was obvious as they looked into each other’s eyes in Aras an Uachtarain and in the Mansion House, as Official Ireland hung its head in shame at how they had been treated.
The 230 women are just a small percentage of the 11,000 who worked in Magdalene Laundries, as many have passed on, or have been unable to partake, but their determination to be part of this process, to tell their stories shows they hope that this will never be repeated, that welfare will be at the centre of every interaction the State has with its citizens — and those who wish to be its citizens.
We are all old some day and not as able to fend for ourselves as well as we may have in our youth, and so it is now for them. The years when they should have been at their strongest were those when they were degraded and humilliated and made to feel less than whole, not just by those who placed them or kept them there, but by a society that was unforgiving and inflexible in its attitude to those who did not tread a chosen path.
A country is never totally innocent of mistreating its citizens and those who are vulnerable in our shores. I fear for the revelations that will come out in years to come when we will look back at the real story behind direct provision in this country — how we are forcing families to live in forced conditions in totally inappropriate settings. I fear too for the thousands of children who will grow up only knowing a hotel bedroom for a home; without having space to play, to bring friends around, to chill out.
Everyday we are forcing indignities on vulnerable people in this country. Maybe some day, there will be none, maybe some day everyone will feel equally cherished and valued. Maybe one day Ireland will deliver for all its children, old and young.
The more shame and disgust we feel at how we treated the Magdalene workers, the sooner that day will come.