Last week, Enda Kenny, the right wing head of the Irish government, formally apologized to the women who were committed as girls to work in the Magdalene laundries, essentially Catholic Church-run workhouses that for many years have served as shorthand for cruel and degrading treatment, and even as analogous to antebellum slavery in the U.S.
Awkward, then, that the report commissioned by Kenny’s government actually found that conditions in the facilities were, well, not quite as sensational as playwrights and dramatists would have us believe:
“A striking feature of the McAleese report is the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns, and strongly rejected allegations of physical abuse,” says the Irish Times, which is not exactly a stalwart friend of the Catholic Church.
In fact, the McAleese report was unable to document a single instance of sexual abuse in the workhouses by nuns – that is, zero (and bear in mind that the current Irish government – Kenny’s right-wing Fine Gael party and the nominally socialist Labour Party – is historically unfriendly to the church as well). If you read the actual testimony of women who were committed to the workhouses, you read, alongside descriptions of verbal abuse and unpleasant conditions, sentiments like these:
It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.
“There is no escaping the fact that the report jars with some popular perceptions,” concludes the Times.
So, does it actually matter that depictions like Peter Mullan’s award-winning 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters turn out to be as accurate as Star Wars? You’d think “yes” if you’re interested in boring things like truth, but you’d be surprised how many people are not: Louise Lowe, author of the award-winning play Laundry, a fantasy similar to Mullan’s, defensively tells the Times, “We make art; we are not historians or sociologists.”
That’s fine, except when you want your art to have an effect on the world of ordinary men and women, as Lowe and Mullan clearly did.
The atheist writer Brendan O’Neill notes:
These days, anyone who insists on getting the facts straight about Catholic institutions is accused of being a pedant, someone annoyingly and peskily committed to historical accuracy rather than to the grander goal of making the Catholic Church appear as rotten and warped as possible, regardless of the facts.
After all, what’s the point of letting a little truth get in the way of a good story?