Ireland is usually portrayed to visitors as the land of saints and scholars, full of emerald green hills, welcoming locals, cosy pubs and stunning scenery. Like every other country in the world however, it’s not entirely happy go lucky. In many ways Ireland has a bleak history; and one of those dark moments involves the institutions known as the Magdalene Laundries, where unmarried women who were pregnant or deemed to be too promiscuous were placed in refuges run by nuns. In more than a few cases, this sadly lead to abuse. It’s a complex story, so here’s a brief explanation…
The Power of the Catholic Church
Until very recently, the Catholic Church in Ireland was extremely powerful. The vast majority of the population identified as Roman Catholic, and at the very least gave the appearance of being devout – although most really were very involved in their religion. Even in the cities, communities gathered together every Sunday for mass, and sometimes more than once a week. Religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter and All Saint’s Day were big occasions, with none of the commercialism surrounding them that there is today. In the run up to Easter, families fasted for 40 days and nights, abstaining from meat, all forms of ‘treats’ and praying daily. In short, people’s lives more or less revolved around their religion.
The power of the Catholic Church stretched far beyond people’s devotion to it however. Catholicism was one of the most significant differences between Ireland and its old rulers England, so when the fight for independence finally began to make a difference and after independence was finally achieved, the Church was seen as the natural partner to the State. Parish priests were equally if not more influential than politicians in local communities. The Church ran the schools, hospitals, and social services of the country and had a heavy influence in its political ethos too for the entire 20th century. Catholicism was enshrined in the constitution and divorce, contraception, abortion, and many other ‘un-Catholic’ things were banned. Music, books, films and art prominent in the popular culture of the day were also censored, and young couples were expected not to indulge in any form of intimacy before marriage.
Although this did obviously happen behind closed doors, there was a huge social taboo surrounding it. If a woman was known to have slept with a man outside of marriage, she was considered to have shamed her family, and if it was a fact known by the general public, she was often treated as an outcast. For women who had unplanned pregnancies outside of marriage, it was ten times worse. Unless the father agreed to marry her before the baby was born, she would more than likely be driven out of her family home and left on her own. If word of the pregnancy hadn’t reached anyone else’s ears and if a marriage was unlikely, she would instead be sent away until the baby was born. Although there were plenty of exceptions, in many cases the young woman would be expected to give the baby up for adoption and return home (or look after herself from then on), never to speak about the matter again and never to have any contact with her child. And that’s where the Magdalene Laundries came in…
The Magdalene Laundries
The Magdalene Laundries (sometimes called Magdalene Asylums) were institutions run by Roman Catholic nuns. The Magdalene movement existed in many parts of the world for similar reasons – to house and rehabilitate ‘fallen women’ who had found themselves in situations like the one outlined above. In Ireland however, the institutions were a little bit different than the others. The first one was founded on Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, in 1765, and the last one didn’t close down until 1996. Women who entered the institutions were expected to work in return for their accommodation, meals and other facilities. This work usually came in the form of laundry – the nuns who ran the institutions made a living through washing clothes and linen for wealthy families or businesses in the local area. Remember that until the latter half of the 20th century this was all done without the use of washing machines, which meant long days of scrubbing, bleaching, wringing, pressing and finally packaging and folding – all done by hand. It was back breaking work, and the food and accommodation provided was sometimes not adequate enough for women (many of them pregnant) who had been on their feet from sunrise to sunset.
On top of the work, residents of the laundries – who were usually known as ‘penitents’ – were also subjected to a rigorous schedule of prayers and penance to atone for their sins. Since they were not considered to be ‘good Catholic girls’, they were treated harshly by the nuns. Again there were plenty of exceptions, but the majority of Magdalene survivors have detailed very tough conditions and unsympathetic treatment. They suffered not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually too. If their families were willing to visit, they were only allowed to do so for special occasions, and leaving the institution’s grounds for any reason was strictly prohibited unless family members had signed for their release to come home. Escape attempts were common, but not often successful. In the outside world, the Magdalene women or ‘Maggies’ were treated with weariness or contempt, often subject to staring and verbal abuse. Over time, the laundries became more and more like prisons.
Growth of the Magdalene Laundries
While they were founded as an attempt to reform prostitution, the Magdalene Laundries did nothing to solve that particular problem, as most women would go straight back to their ‘old ways’ as soon as they left. So from the early 20th century the focus shifted from attempted social reform to individual religious reform instead – i.e punishing people for their individual sins. The pool of ‘penitents’ expanded to include unmarried pregnant women, ‘promiscuous’ women, women with impaired mental development, criminals, orphans, women living in poverty, or women deemed to be generally immoral for any reason. The laundries expanded and the number of available beds in them skyrocketed. Orphanages were established for the pregnant women’s babies to be raised in (separate from their mothers) until a suitable adoption family was found. If that didn’t happen, the children were sent to reformatory school and, when the time came, were put to work in the laundry too. If a woman’s family refused to take them back or if they had nowhere to go once they left, they were also encouraged to stay in the laundry permanently.
There was an ulterior motive at play here. Running the laundries brought in a decent amount of money, and the women ‘penitents’ were a plentiful source of free labour. The more fallen women who came through the doors, the greater the output of fresh laundry. The nuns who operated the laundries became increasingly secretive, and all suggestions of them offering a refuge or a place to reform women were abandoned. The Church secretly supported and financed the laundries, and sources say the regime the women were subjected to became increasingly cruel and abusive – a vow of silence was enforced during the day in some institutions and severe punishments or rationed food was forced on anyone who stepped out of line. Information about the women’s circumstances, backgrounds, or when they were admitted and released from the laundries is all still unknown due to the policy of secrecy (with the exception of survivors who have since told their story) – meaning the nuns had carte blanche to do whatever they needed to keep their business and their profits booming. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in Magdalene Laundries in the 19th and 20th centuries, and 10,000 of those came after Ireland’s independence in 1922.
Decline of the Laundries
In the latter half of the 20th century Irish society became more modernised, and began to slowly distance itself from the Catholic church. Sexuality was less repressed, and having a ‘fallen woman’ was not quite the disaster it would once have been (although it was still not exactly acceptable for many people). This and advances in the economy and technology meant that people were able to afford home appliances like washing machines, and the reliance on the Magdalene laundries dropped off steeply. In 1993, one laundry in Dublin sold some of their land to a property developer to help cover their losses. On examination of the land, the developer discovered 155 corpses in a mass grave. Although not initially reported in the media, when the story finally did become public there was a huge scandal. There was mounting pressure on the Magdalene Sisters to explain themselves and the proceedings to shut down all laundries began. The bodies were exhumed, cremated and reburied in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In the coming years Magdalene survivors, silenced by society for years, finally began to speak out. The full extent of the abuse they suffered – psychological, physical and in some cases sexual – emerged to a horrified Irish public. Although the government has publicly acknowledged that these women were victims of abuse, there has still been no official, direct inquiry into what happened at the Magdalene Laundries (there has however been significant reports on child abuse in clerical institutions in general). The government maintains that since the laundries were privately run, an inquiry is beyond their remit. Despite this, there is plenty of evidence showing that Irish courts sent convicted women to the laundries, that the government funded them without examining the treatment of the women, and that Irish State employees brought women to work there and returned women who had escaped.
In 2011 after the Justice for Magdalenes group appealed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the government finally set up a committee to establish the facts of the Irish State’s involvement in the matter. In 2013, they reported that the State had in fact had a hand in the admission of thousands of women into the laundries. That same year Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny issued a formal state apology, describing the laundries as ‘the nation’s shame’. He also announced a compensation package for the survivors who were still alive (an estimated 600 women as of last year), including financial compensation and free counselling and medical services. The nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries to date have not contributed to this compensation package.