Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and Across the Western World
Magdalene Laundries: Sanctified Slavery
Imagine getting pregnant as a young teenager, or getting pregnant as a single mother. Your baby is ripped from your arms and sent to an orphanage the moment he is weaned. You are sent to a prison where you will be forced into slavery for the rest of your life.
For approximately 30,000 women in Ireland, this was a reality. In actuality, it was a very recent reality: the last Magdalene Laundry closed on September 25, 1996. It might seem surprising that the Magdalene Laundries continued for so long, but they were not in the public conscience until a rather macabre discovery was made when a convent of nuns sold their real estate: 155 inmates were buried in unmarked graves. The discovery at the Good Shepherd Asylum finally made the national news in 1999, and became a scandal.
Originally, Magdalene Laundries were meant for the rehabilitation of prostitutes. Initiated by the Evangelical Rescue Group in the United Kingdom, the goal of the Rescue Movement was to find quality employment for former prostitutes, who could not obtain a career due to their history. In Ireland, the Rescue Movement locations became known as Magdalene Laundries, nicknamed for Mary Magdalene of the Bible (a prostitute, according to Catholic tradition). The primary intent of the Rescue Movement was to help prostitutes restore their standing in society.
While the majority of Magdalene Laundries were run by the Catholic Church, there were two laundries run for (and by) Protestants. Bethany Home in Rathgar, Dublin was one such institution. The laundry on Ballsbridge Terrace in Dublin was another Protestant laundry.
The Reasons Women Were Sent to Magdalene Laundries
Unfortunately, the Magdalene Laundries did not prove to be a short-term haven for prostitutes learning skills for a new trade. Instead, they morphed into long-term prisons. The labor became increasingly difficult, and the list of “crimes” broadened. Over time, women could be incarcerated against their will for having a baby out of wedlock, or simply for leaving an abusive husband. A simple accident of birth – being orphaned or an illegitimate child – was enough to cause a girl a life sentence in the laundries.
As the name suggests, women did laundry in these asylums. The act of cleaning stains from clothing was highly symbolic, as the women were to constantly consider their past and become penitent about their past. A priest, family members, or other Catholic Church authority figures could commit a woman to a life of hard labor in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A "voluntary" committal was the label given to any woman surrendered by family, a doctor, her employer, the police, or a social worker.
"Referred" committals were women who accepted a sentence at a Magdalene Laundry in lieu of a prison sentence. Women who were sent to the laundries while awaiting trial were also classed as referred committals.
Life Inside a Magdalene Laundry
Women were not allowed to speak to each other inside the Magdalene Laundry. Silence was imposed for most of the working hours, which were typically 10 hours per day, six days per week. The women received no wages, though the laundries were profitable organizations. The women were not allowed to see their families, or even their own children – who were often kept in an orphanage adjacent to the Magdalene Laundry.
Women were completely imprisoned, and never saw life outside of the laundry – and private conversation was forbidden. Women were assigned numbers rather than names, or had their names changed to a different moniker, since they were “sinners” and could not be allowed to have the same name as a holy figure from the Bible.
One Woman's Account of Life in a Magdalene Laundry
Mary Norris is a woman who was taken from her family as a 12 year old girl. Her mother was having a relationship with a nearby farmer, and the Catholic Church deemed the family situation “unsuitable” for young Mary. So they took her from her mother, locked her in a laundry, and condemned her to a life of slavery.
Mary was the eldest of eight children, living in South Kerry, Ireland. Her father died of cancer in 1945, leaving Mary’s bereft mother the sole provider for her young brood. Mary’s mother began a relationship with a local farmer, who was kind and generous to the children. They might have had a happy life, if not for the intrusion of the Catholic Church into their happy family life.
A local priest appeared at their door one morning, demanding that Mary’s mother and the farmer appear at the church by 8:00am with the farmer, or end the relationship. Mary’s mother refused.
A car pulled up to the house a couple of months later: the police and child welfare had come to take the children away because the mother’s lifestyle was considered unsuitable. By that evening, Mary and her siblings were all wards of the court, and Mary was placed into an orphanage.
The orphanage was just a stop on the trail leading to the Magdalene Laundry. As girls became too old for the orphanage life, they were often transitioned to the Magdalene Laundries under the pretense of some created “sin.”
Mary was assigned a job as a maid for a local family, but returned late one evening because she had gone to see a movie. The nuns were enraged, called her a tramp, and took her to a local doctor to be examined. A painful examination followed, proving that Mary was, indeed, “intact.” Despite this evidence, the nuns shipped her off to the Magdalene Laundry in Cork, Ireland.
Life in the Magdalene Laundry was horrible. Mary would go to the toilets at night, because there was a skylight there. When she couldn’t sleep, she would get a brief glimpse of the outside world – the sight of the stars and sky were reminders that an outside world existed. Her name was changed to Myra, because she was not allowed to share the name of a holy woman.
Wearing a strip of cloth to flatten her breasts, and a long, shapeless dress, Mary ironed, pressed, and cleaned every day – for no pay. She managed to escape this sanctified form of slavery two years after her admittance to the laundry. An American aunt had sent a letter, inquiring as to the whereabouts of young Mary. Outsiders were feared, and Mary was released at the age of 19. Mary suspects that money was exchanged for her release, though she has no proof.
Mary was reunited with her mother and sisters (who had been released from their orphanage) a year later. Mary’s brothers were not returned to the family, and were kept by the notoriously abusive Christian Brothers – one brother was later murdered, and the other died in a fire.
Mary now lives with her second husband in the west of Ireland.
A Magdalene Laundry Survivor's Account
Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
The following Magdalene Laundries operated in the Republic of Ireland:
The Dublin Laundries:
High Park Convent Laundry: The High Park Convent Laundry was located in Dublin, Ireland.
35 Ballsbridge Terrace Laundry: Located in Dublin, this laundry was run by Protestants.
Dun Laoghaire Laundry: Located at 12 Crofton Road, Dublin.
Donnybrook Laundry: Located at 6 Floraville Road, Pembroke West, Dublin
Gloucester Street Laundry: Located at Number 63 Gloucester Street Lower, Dublin.
The Bethany Home: This laundry was run by Protestants - it admitted prostitutes and female ex-criminals. Located on Orwell Road in Rathgar.
Gerald Griffen Avenue Laundry: Located in Cork (St. Finbarr's Cemetery).
Good Shepherd Laundry: This laundry was located in Limerick (Mt. St. Laurence Cemetery).
Mercy Laundry: Located in Galway.
Good Shepherd Sundays Well Laundry: This laundry was located in Carrignaveigh, County Cork.
Good Shepherd Waterford Laundry: Located on College Street in County Waterford.
Magdalene Laundries in the Western World
Magdalene Laundries were found in several countries, and
were not exclusive to Ireland.
The United States, Canada, Britain,
and Europe all had asylums for “fallen women.” None of these laundries or societies proved to be as abusive or long-lasting as the laundries inside Ireland.
A Magdalen Society in America
Pennsylvania had the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1800. Founded by an Episcopalian, this asylum was the first of its kind in the United States. Its primary purpose was to re-educate prostitutes. Unlike the Irish laundries, however, the mission of the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia evolved into a kinder pursuit: it began to focus on preventing delinquency by providing education to young girls. In 1918, the name was changed to the White-Williams Foundation for Girls.
From 1800-1918, the Society admitted white prostitutes for reformation. Pregnant women, women with diseases, and non-whites were not allowed in the institution. Women were encouraged to read scriptures every day, sew and make articles of clothing, and were not allowed to leave the institution without permission from the Visiting Committee. Unlike the Irish Magdalene Laundries, the Philadelphia Society was used for a short duration – many women left prior to completing a single year. The abuses seen in the Irish institutions were not observed in the American version, and the Society began to focus on educating homeless and destitute girls rather than “fallen women.”
Magdalene Survivors Seek Justice
Books About the Magdalene Laundries
The Magdalen, by Marita Conlon-McKenna, is the story of Esther Doyle of rural Connemara. She finds herself swept off her feet by a young man, becomes pregnant, and becomes an inmate at the Holy Saints Convent in Dublin.
Childhood Interrupted: Growing Up Under the Cruel Regime of the Sisters of Mercy, by Kathleen O'Malley, was sent to a Magdalene Laundry at the age of 8 - after she was raped by a neighbor. This harrowing tale of life in an Irish Industrial School will haunt the reader.
The Light in the Window, by June Goulding, who worked as a midwife in a home for unwed mothers. She details the hard labor imposed on the young pregnant women, who were expected to raise their babies for the adoption trade. By the time the babies were three years old, the children were "adopted" for a fee - the money lined the pockets of the Sacred Heart nuns.
Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland's Baby Export Business, by Mike Milotte, uncovers the truth behind the adoption of over 2,000 babies from Ireland. The babies were often born to unwed Irish mothers in Magdalene Laundries, who were compelled to give their babies up for adoption.
Websites on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
- Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse
Survivors NI is a campaign group of survivors and victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland.
- Welcome to the Justice for Magdalenes
A comprehensive website bearing evidence against the Magdalene Laundries.
- Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment
Published by Notre Dame, this website is for the book written by James M. Smith, who investigated the ten Magdalene Laundries across Ireland.