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Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and Across the Western World

Updated on April 19, 2018
leahlefler profile image

In addition to working for a small biotechnology company, Leah enjoys writing about science, gardening, and travel.

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.

Girls inside an Irish Magdalene Laundry (click to enlarge).
Girls inside an Irish Magdalene Laundry (click to enlarge). | Source

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

The location of Magdalen Laundries in the Republic of Ireland.
The location of Magdalen Laundries in the Republic of Ireland. | Source

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.

Other Laundries:

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.

Women working at a Magdalene Laundry in England (early 20th century).
Women working at a Magdalene Laundry in England (early 20th century). | Source

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.


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    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 15 months ago from Western New York

      The history is horrifying. The most recent discovery of a number of buried children at the home in Tuam is heartbreaking. I sincerely hope we learn from history and do not repeat these mistakes.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Leah.....Good Grief!! The Catholic Church is certainly guilty of numerous crimes and sins against humanity, but this is as ghastly & egregious as I've ever heard! There is in no way any excuse nor explanation for such horrendous and sub-human treatment.

      No wonder people have abandoned this cult by the thousands & their churches are closing. Complete extinction of this deplorable establishment would be BEST.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 2 years ago

      Sickening, I had no idea. I just knew of the atrocities committed against Native American children who were jerked from their families and raised in "Christian" schools.Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 3 years ago from Western New York

      D Phillips, I cannot find much information on St. Philomenas. Sadly, some of these institutions are difficult to find information on..I wonder if an organization like SAVIA could be more helpful? I hope you are able to find some more information - so many babies were adopted abroad and records are hard to locate for many of the baby homes in Ireland.

    • profile image

      D Phillips 3 years ago

      As an infant in 1964-5 I was cared for in an institution called St Philomenas in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry with children of unmarried mothers.

      Is there some way to find out more about this institution?

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      I added the link to S.A.V.I.A. to the resources section of the article. I hope that those who are seeking family and other survivors find a connection, budha1969!

    • profile image

      budha1969 5 years ago from Belfast

      leahlefler i am also so glad that you have written this wonderful piece also as it lets people know what really went on we are able to be found on and are so glad that the truth is starting to come out but you can also get me on as well as there is so much more out there now on what has gone on

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      Hi budha1969 - when I get a chance, I'll update my hub to include a link to S.A.V.I.A. - I am so glad there are organizations to help the survivors of institutional abuse. Thanks for your comment!

    • profile image

      budha1969 5 years ago from Belfast

      Hi i am involved with S.A.V.I.A survivors and victims of institutional abuse and we have a few of the women also with us that were in the magdalene laundries we are trying to connect them with others so if anyone out there is reading this i would be so grateful if they got in touch we also have people from all different institutions in ireland and are going through the (H.I.A) enquiry at the moment its great as we are all supporting each other through everything and we move into an office in Belfast tomorrow so we can be there for a lot more people and offer more people comfort assistance and support i think your hub is fantastic and thankyou for putting it up

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      Thank you for the link, anendtosilence. It is absolutely horrifying to think of the young girl's rape and torture at the hands of the nuns. These stories are so heartbreaking and we must NEVER let this happen again!

    • profile image

      anendtosilence 5 years ago

      Magdalene Laundries in Buffalo NY: An American survivor's interview (Exclusive):  via @wtcommunities

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      The list I posted is from 1911, K Dunne - is there a specific year you are searching for?

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      Hi, K Dunne - there is a list of names from the Magdalene Laundry in Donnybrook here:

    • profile image

      k,dunne 5 years ago

      does anybody know anybody name that in one in donnybroke

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      It is shocking, isn't it, Nell? I was horrified to learn that the laundries were open for so long. Fortunately they are all closed now, but untold damage was done to so many families. The industrial schools were horrible, the laundries were a source of slave labor (and fodder for the adoption industry), and it was all so very corrupt.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, after watching it on tv today, I had to come and read this. its so unbelievable that this slavery in a workhouse was still going on till 1996! surely Ireland had to realise what was going on, the irony of the whole thing is that they called it magdalene, who in fact turned out to be Jesus's friend! great work, and so interesting, nell

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      Hi L. Mullallyl, there is a list of known Magdalene Laundry survivors here:

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      L. Mullallyl, I'll have to do some research to see if I can find lists of names. I'm not sure if the laundries kept records that are available to the public.

    • profile image

      L. Mullallyl 6 years ago

      I was wondering if any lists of names from these horrible places exist, and if so where ?

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      Oh, CMurphy - I don't think anyone knew the full truth about the laundries, other than the nuns in charge and the women imprisoned there. A facade of charity was kept, and as a child there was no way you could have known what was happening there.

      It took quite a bit of time for the truth about the laundries to come out, and they were finally all shut down. The industrial schools have similar horror stories. Now that we are adults, it is our responsibility to make sure the weak are not exploited by the powerful. It is a difficult thing when slavery and abuse are cloaked in "charity," because things are not always what they appear to be.

    • profile image

      CMurphy 6 years ago

      I'd love your opinion on my experiences:

      I grew up in Waterford, where the women in my family were nurses/social workers & as such, very well connected to & involved with nuns. This is because every major establishment, particularly anything to do with medicine or education, were run by the religious orders. As a young girl my mum & I used to go visiting The Good Shepherd convent to say hello to some of the nuns who were her friends. The nuns made the best cakes & buns I've ever tasted. And to get the buns and/or cake we used to go to the bakery. On our way to the bakery we had to pass the laundry. So, you see, I've been into one of these laundries. At the time it was believed by everyone that the nuns were doing a service to the community. That's what I was told & I believed it, fully. I had no reason to question it. When the stories of the Magdalene laundries came out, I suddenly realised what I'd witnessed. And when I brought my mind back into my younger self, I realised that I'd seen fear on the girls' faces. It now haunts me. I don't think I could have done anything but I wished I'd never have been brought there

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      Sadly, many nations have shameful histories - from the American concentration camps for the Japanese to the kidnapping of Australian Aborigine children by the British government. I take heart in the fact that these operations have all been shut down, though I remember being surprised by how recently the Magdalene Laundries were in operation. It was an awful situation - the unmarked graves, the slavery... it is truly painful to think about the children ripped from their young mother's arms, destined for a life of abuse.

    • profile image

      Paul R. Jennings 6 years ago

      So much for our reputation as "the smiling Irish." We're a cruel and brutal nation, we had our very own speciality institutional abuse in the form of laundries and industrial schools. Just look up "Ireland's shame" on youtube. We were always financially derelict, it's the moral decay and dereliction that we can't won't admit to..

      Ladies and gentlemen of the world.....I give you Ireland's little gulags and auschwitzes.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      The language was extremely deceptive: truly, these were prisons and labor camps - not "laundries" and "schools." It is good to remember that power corrupts, and we must always be on the lookout for the abuse of the powerless in society.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      It is stunning that there were any open through 1996.

      Stepping back from the emotion of these people's stories, I thought through your hub and realized, once again, that truth is the issue. Calling an institution a laundry or a school does not necessarily mean that it is one.

      On top of everything else, this report reminds us that we need to be careful to know what definition is intended when we hear words from others.

      Thank you for posting this. We need to remember what people are capable of.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 7 years ago from Western New York

      Mari, so many people have never heard of the laundries (or the industrial schools). I remember learning about them for the first time when we lived in Ireland, and being absolutely astounded that the last laundry remained open until 1996. Your organization is a champion for those victims - awareness is vital to stop this sort of thing from happening again in the future!

    • profile image

      Mari Steed 7 years ago

      Hi Leah,

      Thanks for highlighting this! Awareness and public outrage are our most potent weapons in seeking true restorative justice for survivors.

      Mari Steed

      Committee Director

      Justice for Magdalenes

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 7 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Simone. When we lived in Ireland, there were several popular books on the subject. The stories were horrifying - particularly the tales of the children in the "Industrial Schools" (the Irish version of an orphanage during that time - run by the nuns or by the Christian Brothers). I am still in disbelief that the last laundry was still operational until 1996.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      What a chilling history, leahlefler. I can't believe I had never read of this before. Amazing Hub!

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 7 years ago from Western New York

      Thank you, jacobkuttyta.

    • jacobkuttyta profile image

      jacobkuttyta 7 years ago from Delhi, India

      Very informative hub. Thanks

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 7 years ago from Western New York

      I heard about it for the first time when we lived in Ireland. The industrial schools (the orphanages children were sent to) were awful. Obviously, the Magdalene Laundries were also terrible. The irony is that Jesus was forgiving and loving to Mary Magdalen - the polar opposite of what happened in Ireland.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Will abuse by the ones in place to nurture and protect never end? Probably not until Jesus returns. I had never heard of this place and these tragedies. Thanks for the informative Hub.


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