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A "primitive" Catholic state? Ireland, disciplinary power and the Magdalenes

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Our primitive Catholic, pseudo-Gaelic State laid foundations for Magdalenes

Many of my sociology of crime and deviance students have been discussing or writing this term on which was most important - church, state or economy - in determining, maintaining and sustaining the distinctly authoritarian and cold form of Catholicism embedded in Irish institutions and forms of general consciousness still today. The Kevin Myers article published in the Irish Independent in late February, and linked in above, speaks sharply and pointedly to exactly this issue. He argues that Bill McCormack's book Dublin 1916 sums it up in a way that explains the Laundries. The argument is that the "revolutionaries" of 1916 achieved what they set out to do: establish "a virulent and nationalistic form of Catholicism which had emerged in France in the late 19th century" [Myers, 26 February 2013]. Arguably, claims Myers, no other democratic country in the world has handed over so many key functions to religious orders, giving unquestioned "authority over both education and health". The Taliban will be listening, I'm sure.

In this way, the Magdalene Laundries placed "authority above mercy", "power above charity", "submission above freedom" and "consensus above individuality", argues Myers. As he puts it, "The Irish State and the Irish people were thus in thrall to a militant ultramontane Catholicism"; "a prison cell made with the willing labour of the prisoners". Socialist revisionists might exempt James Connolly as the secular exception, but Myers disagrees, finding him to be another intolerant "Catholic bigot". So, within a generation, Myers says, the Protestants had mostly vanished in a "primitive Catholic, pseudo-Gaelic state, in which both dissent or 'immorality' were savagely punished, within an all-pervading culture of physical violence" Therefore the Magdalene Laundries were "the very quintessence of post-independence Ireland".

I would be fascinated to hear your comments on this piece. Certainly, there is a residual thread of authoritarian coldness and superficial strictness evident in institutions, structures and processes here, evident even to a 'blow-in' sociologist, who is also impressed with, and grateful to, the warmth of welcome an Irish university has given to a recalcitrant radical. I do not know well enough Irish history to know whether this bureaucratic authoritarianism stems from the dominant ideologies of 1916, and have certainly not lived here long enough to say more. So, please, let's hear from some Irish social scientists and historians on this.

It would be particularly interesting too to hear from those who might know anything of the fall-out of this callous and strict form of Catholicism - the rebellion and anger of boys mistreated in strict, religious, detention centres, and of course their own families, who mature into hardened Dublin gangsters.

Criminologists in the UK and USA in recent years have begun to discover the phenomenon of state crime, but they have rarely researched the role of the church or religion in generating crime through its overly aggressive and even violent suppression of what it censures as moral deviance. My former UK students in Cambridge would have thought the church [qua Cof E] was dead and so inconsequential re moral matters and definitions of deviance and crime; many of my former East London students however, as Muslims, would curse, suffer from or bemoan 'the power of tradition'. Several young female victims of 'forced marriages' cried on my shoulder, so to speak, as Head of a Law School. Indeed, little has been said about the role and roots of religious authoritarianism generally in identifying, defining, over-punishing and over-scrutinizing minor pecadilloes, especially those alleged of girls and women. Links with patriarchy and religion still need exploring in the understanding of moral censure and social discipline; we lack a full critical knowledge and global history.

But perhaps we should also study the links between this Irish Catholic patriarchy and the distanced disdain of a tiny but very rich and powerful Irish bourgeois elite that to this day shamelessly and unreflexively evidences its greed and over-bloated sense of entitlement in the way it cosies up to and sleeps with the banks, accumulates capital in public office, collects directorships, awards itself huge salaries, pensions and pay rises, and demands that the rest of us tighten our belts. The ruling class in the UK pissed me off many years ago, and sociologists like Ralph Miliband documented interlocking elites and their grip on the state form in 1972 in The State in Capitalist Society, well before his sons attempted to seize that state power in the neo-Thatcherite age, but this one is truly shameless and doesn't even seem to feel the need to respond to the savage attacks of its eloquent journalists.

See Philip Nolan's excellent critique, "Golden circle still thriving", The Irish Mail on Sunday, 24 March 2013, not available online without a subscription.

If the Catholicism of the 1916 revolutionaries owes much to late 19th-century France, let us remember that the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw excessive suppression of human diversity as at least as dangerous as over-tolerance and normative disintegration. We may have moved beyond the limp-wristed hippie permission of all excesses in the late 1960's but we have certainly not adequately critically dealt with that other great French 'sociologist of censure' Michel Foucault. In supposing that modern societies were societies of judgement, with moral assessment built into every capillary of power, Foucault never really grappled with the idea, and practical implication, that excess did have to be regulated, if not everywhere then certainly in the bank, church and family, and lines had to be drawn, without slipping back into an authoritarian penality of terror and strict discipline. When a society is ruled by a tiny powerful elite and it hands over its moral guidance systems to an undemocratic and unregulated religious elite, there is a risk that it will lose all hegemonic unity gained through the independence struggle and be seen by its people as a backward satrapy awaiting secular revolt.

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