Posted by: mdmusingsie | October 13, 2013

Dublin Festival of History

This post is a bit tardy, but sometimes life gets in the way.  I attended several of the events of the Dublin Festival of History which consisted of a series of primarily free talks on assorted subjects.  Not only was it a tip-toe through Ireland’s history, but also a celebration of libraries, as many of the events were held at local libraries.

I can just hear some people out there thinking, “Libraries? Do they still have those anymore?”  In this digital age when most people rely on Google or Wikipedia to supply the answer to all their questions, libraries are still a valuable source of information as well as a place where you can check out books to read for free (and sometimes the audio variety as well as movie rentals).

An old saying goes “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and this adage can apply to your source of information.  Whilst some online sources are reliable, remember that others are community based and contain plenty of conjecture and opinion mixed in with a dash of fact.

The first talk I went to was on the Magdalene Laundries which operated in Ireland from about the late 18th century right up to the 1990’s.  It was part work-house, part half-way house, part poor-house, and part asylum as well as a laundry business. Many of the young women or girls sent there were prostitutes, considered “troubled”, promiscuous, petty criminals, or orphans. The laundries were run by various Protestant and Catholic orders. At their inception they were designed to rehabilitate but became more prison like as time went on.

The women worked long hours and were never paid – their recompense was room and board, which was meager at best, and penance was the order of the day.  Some were subjected to physical, psychological and even sexual abuse.

While they couldn’t possibly cover such a huge topic in the hour and a half presentation, and a certain amount of history of the subject was assumed, the speakers had some good points to make.  Despite warnings of abuse in the Carrigan Report in the 1930’s, the government essentially suppressed those findings, preferring to bury it and their heads in the sand, so to speak.  The speakers claimed that part of the reasons stemmed from reliance of the fairly new Irish Republican government on colonial infrastructure at a time when the State was not only getting on its feet but lacking in resources to deal with such issues.  It was more convenient to sweep it under the rug and let the religious orders handle the people and the problem.

The recently completed McAleese Report on the Laundries had a directive to only look at the Government’s relationship with the laundries and covered nothing prior to the 1920’s when the Irish State was established.  Many of the orders investigated had spotty records covering the women who came and went.  Whether those records never existed or were destroyed or hidden by the church is unclear.

Margaret MacCurtain, a nun herself (though one with an unusual track record of fighting for women’s rights), made an argument that the nuns of the laundries were protecting the privacy of the women sent to them by not keeping or exposing records.  In one regard, that argument has some merit, but it can also been seen as a cop-out.  Likely we’ll never know the real truth.

Despite the vast resources of the Catholic Church, several of the orders most heavily involved in the laundries have refused to participate in compensating the small number of victims who are still alive today.

It was definitely a topic that could not be fully covered in such a short time, but the speakers did provide some interesting food for thought.

The second lecture I attended was entitled Truth, Lies, and Historical Fiction and consisted of a talk with authors Robert Goddard, Katherine McMahon, and Tim Severin.  As a writer who has incorporated some bits of historical settings in my fantasy novels, this was of particular interest.

How much truth must be present in a novel set in a historical time frame?  A lot depends on whether actual people from the time period make an appearance.  It also depends on which period of history is represented.  You certainly can’t have King Arthur checking his i-phone or Christopher Columbus cursing his GPS that fell overboard during a storm, yet an author has quite a bit of latitude in writing a novel set in a historical period.

Since much of ancient history wasn’t written down until centuries after the occurrences, what we now consider to be historical fact may actually have been the sagas, myths, and fictional legends of their time. Also, the farther back in history you go, the less that is known about the period which gives the author a good deal of creative freedom to invent.

Despite the wealth of information at our fingertips, there so much out there to learn and do.  So get out and attend a lecture in your area or go to a library and check out a book. You might be surprised at what you’ll discover.


Postscript (Nov 9, 2011):  If you want a glimpse into the world of the Magdalene laundries, check out the movie Philomena  starring Dame Judi Dench, based on a true story. A heart wrenching story that both saddened and angered me.  Odd how a fire at the Abbey destroyed all the adoption documents but not the ones where the girls signed over rights to their children.  Despite her tragic tale, Philomena had more compassion than I could ever muster, forgiving the nun who sent her child away and lied about his whereabouts for 50 years.  I was more of the same mind as Martin Sixsmith.  Where was the love and forgiveness that Jesus preached?  Instead these unfortunate girls were punished and persecuted throughout their lives.  The things that have been done and continue to be done in the name of religion (of all types) are deplorable and prove that humankind does not always learn from history.


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