Kevin Cullen

Airing the laundry

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / October 19, 2009

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It started as an academic exercise, which is not surprising, because James Smith is a professor of English at Boston College. It has become a cause, a quest, a rickety bridge between the country of his birth and the place he now calls home.

Ten years ago, he was working on his PhD dissertation at BC and one chapter was about the Magdalen laundries, institutions in his native Ireland, run by nuns, where “fallen women’’ were sent to work off their sins. A few years ago, he decided to do a whole book.

“Academics write books for promotion and tenure. That’s what we do,’’ he said, sitting in his small, cramped office on the third floor of Connolly House at BC. “I had to affect academic detachment.’’

But his research changed him. Some of the “fallen women’’ had fled abusive husbands. Some of the “fallen women’’ were unwanted children. As an academic, he was frustrated by the refusal of the religious orders to release their records. As a human being, he was infuriated by the refusal of the Irish government to accept responsibility for its complicity in the indentured servitude of women and children.

Over the last few years, Smith has been writing letters and making phone calls and generally making a pest of himself. He and a small group of advocates, called Justice for Magdalenes, want the Irish government to apologize to and compensate the women who were forced into hard, unpaid labor in the laundries.

“It’s a hat I don’t wear comfortably,’’ he said. “I’m an academic, not an advocate. But I can’t just go on to the next book.’’

Last year, Smith picked up the phone in his office and heard the frail voice of a woman who asked, “Are you the man who wrote the Magdalene book?’’

She lives in Lowell and when she was 14 her father turned her over to the nuns, and they put her in a laundry, and she is the human face to all that research. Jim Smith talks to her and tells her he’ll do whatever he can for her. But then he talks to soulless politicians and wonders if he’ll ever make good on his promise.

Last month, a government minister named Batt O’Keeffe replied to Smith’s concerns and said the government had no responsibility for the Magdalenes because they were “employees’’ of privately run laundries.

When Smith pointed out that the women were not paid, were not there voluntarily, and were sometimes committed by courts to laundries that held government contracts, O’Keeffe showed just how sensitive politicians can be: He said he erred in calling them “employees’’ and should have called them “workers.’’ The bottom line was the same: Get lost.

Over the last decade, the Irish government handed out more than $1 billion to people abused as children at institutions run by religious orders that were social service agencies in a country where there was no line between church and state.

Now, with the country broke, financially and spiritually, few want to hear about doing right by “fallen women.’’

Jim Smith sits in his office, tapping out e-mails to Paddy Doyle in Dublin, Mari Steed in Philadelphia, Imelda Murphy in New Hampshire, and Claire McGettrick in County Cavan - a trans-Atlantic conspiracy aimed at getting justice for women who have no influence, no voice, no power.

In going after Catholic orders and the Irish government, Smith is taking on two institutions to which BC is inextricably linked. It was the school that Irish immigrants founded because their kind weren’t welcome elsewhere. BC is the American university with the biggest footprint in Ireland - figuratively with its Irish programs, literally with its imposing building on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

But BC also is run by Jesuits, who know a thing or two about justice.

“I have received nothing but support at BC,’’ Jim Smith said.

It was late, but Jim Smith, the reluctant advocate, went back to his e-mails, because what he does, what he’s looking for, knows no time zones.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at