• Rose

Magdalene Laundries- Institution for "fallen women" - what happened?

I was skimming through Facebook last week looking for something new and strange to talk about as I needed a break from governmental history. I came across a picture posted by Weird History that stated "One day I broke a cup, and the nun said, "I'll teach you to be careful'. She got a thick string, and she tied it round my neck for three days and three nights, and I had to eat off the floor every morning." ( I did find the actual quote from Marnia Gambold to BBC). It was a picture of a young girl in what looks to be a orphanage. But that is it- that is all that was posted. Okay, I will bite- what is a Magdalene Laundry and why were Irish women sent there?

Typed in 'what is a magadalen laundry in google', bypassed History.com and went for the third website which was entitled 'Justice for Magdalene's Research- a Resource for people affected by and interested in Ireland's Magdalene Institutions'. What the heck happened in a laundry faciality that requires research and restorative justice? Why is the Catholic Church mentioned?

According to the website- from 1922 until 1996, over 10,000 females were imprisoned in Ireland's Magdalen Institutions that was operated by The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Sisters of Charity, and The Good Shepherd Sisters throughout Ireland. Women who ended up in this institutions were considered to be promiscuous, unmarried mothers, daughters of unmarried mothers, women who were a burden to their families, or who had been sexually abused. According to The Marshall Project ( a nonprofit journalism website about criminal justice) Michelle Jones and Lori Record stated that "Magdalene Laundries is both functional and metaphorical...Named for Mary Magdalene, herself an alleged prostitute, the laundries were supposed to be places of reform and repentance where women could 'wash away' their sins while scrubbing society's dirty laundry, all for the profit of the church".

The first institution named Magdalen Asylum for Penitent Females' in Dublin, Ireland was founded by Lady Arabella Denny in 1765, the first one in existence being in the Whitechapel area of London, England which was opened in 1758. Lady Denny has a interesting history herself. She was the daughter of the 1st Earl in Kerry, Ireland who seemed to be from a early age a compassionate lady who set up a dispensary on her fathers estate to care for the tenants. In 1727 she was married to Colonel Arthur Denny, who unfortunately died in 1742 without any children between them. She moved to Dublin and became involved in the Dublin Foundling Hospital who took care of unwanted children. She was unhappy about the unmarried pregnant girls and started a institution that would provide a safe place for them to recover after giving birth and reform them to good standing society members. Lady Denny was a smart lady and knew that this operation was going to cost money, so she enlisted the help of Queen Charlotte, King George III's wife- we know King George from our discussions on the Revolutionary War. Remember him? He was the guy that wouldn't allow colonist to have their freedom and taxed our tea and stamps, big war ensue, we became a independent nation- funny how history all connects. Back to the story. She gets other high ranking members of Ireland involved to include the sanctioning of the Protestant Ascendency. Lady Denny stepped down from the committee that ran the institution in 1778 and leaves it in the hands of the church. I wonder what she thinks of her institution and what it became after her death.

So, the institution was not founded in Ireland by the Catholic Church. So how did the Catholic Church end up owning so many? I am unable to find the answer to that particular question, but it seems that when the institution was first started it was by both the Protestant and Catholic Church, and over the years the Catholic Church just took it over. It is noted in History.com that initially the majority of women who went to the institution did so voluntarily and were taught a respectable profession, while also working in order to support the institution financially. Not a bad idea, women needed a safe space during that time period if they were unmarried and ended up in a bad situation. Seems legit to me. So how did it transform into a slave factory?

Welcome the Irish government into the story- it is reported that they worked with the Catholic Church to house inmates from psychiatric institutions and jails, women who had special needs (medically and mentally), teenagers who got pregnant and the parents petition the courts to have them sent away, victims of rape, and women who were considered 'too flirtatious or tempting to men'. I wonder what that last statement meant and how did they prove it? So the Catholic Church ran the institution, but it is claimed that the Irish government gave them financial support in exchange for laundry services.

The conditions or the abuse that has been reported of the almost 300,000 women who were at a Magdalene Institutions is hard to prove because the church refuses to provide any archival information to investigators or historians. So what brought to light this system of modern day slavery? In 1992, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity needed to sell some of their property and reported that there were 133 unmarked graves that needed to be uncovered in order to complete the process. The uncovering started in 1993, and 155 different skeletons were found- but there were only 75 death certificates. This peaked the interest of community members in Ireland. Then it gets worse.

In 2014, at least 796 babies were found in the septic tank of the Bon Secors Mother and Baby Home in Tuan, Ireland according to history.com. On 27 March 2017, the dailymail.co.uk reported that earlier in the month a mass septic tank was uncovered in County Galway, Ireland that held the skeletons of 800 babies with only some death certificates blaming diseases such as measles, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Seems like a lot of dead children in one area to me- was there no doctors or medication in those areas? Wait there is more- according to reports- over 2,000 Irish babies were illegally adopted by U.S. citizens. A survivor of the Magdalen Laundries, Mari Steed, was adopted by a family in the U.S. and grew up in Philadelphia speaks on her and her mothers' story around the country.

So, research continued and I found that there many survivors still alive. The stories were haunting- one reporting that "All the time I was there I had little to very basic food. In fact it was dismal and how we survived I'll never know. I was constantly hungry and on the verge of starving". I am going to add links to the videos on YouTube that you can watch on your own time.

Now in the interest of being neutral when fact finding- I did spend a lot of time reading the 'Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries' (better known as the 2013 McAleese Report), which does portray a bit of a different picture of the same story. It does have statements from survivors who state they were physically and mentally abused by the Nuns, but others state that they only worked hard, some said that the Nuns were mentally cruel but never physically, a majority of the statements just pull at your heart as they just did not experience a happy childhood. The report also does acknowledge that a majority of the deaths were not recorded, approx. 879 of them. An outside research report claims that the number should be closer to 1663, but that has not been proven. But, the report does seem to skirt around the governments involvement in the facilities and that the whole picture should not be painted by the few survivors that have come forward with painful stories, but should be viewed by the majority who did not experience much trauma. I would recommend that you read it yourself if you have a couple of hours of nothing to do. However, to fully understand any story- you have to be diligent to listen to both sides.

Finally, while this is not AT ALL a full picture of the Magdalene Laundries, there is just not enough time, it is very important to note that Ireland and England were not the only countries that had these practices. According to reports- there were institutions in Australia, the U.S., and Canada; however, most of them did shut down in the 1800's. In 2013, the Irish government issued a formal state apology and settled a $75 million retribution to victims, while the Catholic Church has refused to acknowledge any wrong doing and refuses to contribute any of the profits they received from these women's unpaid service in their laundries.

What are your thoughts on this story?

Please watch these documentaries that I found on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4VAdN7HaxQ- The Forgotten Maggies Official Documentary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChDRDrb7e-U- Magdalene Laundries: Our World, BBC News Channel 27-09-14

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edlG5YbUf2U- 16x9 Slave Labour: Magdalene Laundries disgraced Irish Catholic Women

Books found on Amazon (not a complete list- but one to get you started)

The Magdalen Laundries: A novel inspired by true events by Lisa Michelle Odaggard

Whispering Hope by Nancy Costello; Kathleen Legg; Diane Croghan; marie Slattery; Marina Gambold; Steven O'Riordan; Sue Leonard.

Irelands Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment by James M. Smith












22 views1 comment