The following is a picture of one of the infamous Magdalene Asylums in Ireland, now nationally referred to as the “Magdalene Laundries,” where unwed mothers and other “fallen” women were employed as slave labour in inhumane conditions by the Irish Catholic church.
A documentary following several women who spent their lives in Magdalene Laundries can be found here: Sex in a Cold Climate. This documentary came out in 2003 and helped bring to light many of the hidden atrocities which had occurred in the Magdalene asylums.
Since the formation of the Irish state in 1922, the Catholic Church has had an immense influence in shaping government policy and daily life. Even before Irish Independence, the Church held a tight control over Irish morality and was considered above criticism. Because the Irish schooling system was run by the Catholic Church, their influence was pervasive in shaping people’s education. The documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate (2003), describes the enormous extent to which sexuality was tied to sin: “Sex outside marriage was not only objectionable, but like murder, a mortal sin. And women who fell under suspicion were condemned by both the community and church as ‘fallen women.’” As a result, heavy emphasis on chastity was prominent when it came to the education of females. There were cited cases of extreme measures being used to keep women from sexual sin, such as nuns cutting the hair off of attractive girls, making them wear clothing that strapped down their breasts and informing them that sexual contact with a man was shameful.
All forms of contraception were illegal in the Republic of Ireland until 1980, and there was no sexual health education apart from the promotion of abstinence. For this reason, many women lacked a basic knowledge of sexuality and thousands of single women got pregnant. Single mothers, who were turned out by their families due to the immense stigma that premarital sex held, went to charity institutions run by nuns. These institutions were initially called the Magdalene Asylums, after Mary Magdalene, a prostitute from the Bible. Later, the asylums would be nicknamed the “Magdalene Laundries” because of the intensive labor in the laundry rooms that the occupants were forced to endure with no pay. According to the documentary, “labor was symbolic,” it represented the “purging of sin by the washing of dirty linen.” After the women had given birth, the babies were usually taken away from their mothers and sent to orphanages to be adopted without the mothers’ consent. These institutions were more focused on punishing single mothers than helping them. Bridgette, one of the women portrayed in the documentary, says “I didn’t see anything godly in that Church. All I saw was a bunch of bullies.”
The asylums were initially meant for prostitutes, but later expanded to include unwed mothers. However, not all of the women who were sent to the Magdalene Laundries were single mothers. For some women, suspicion that they had or would engage in sexual behavior was enough to get them sent to the Magdalene Laundries as “preventative measures.” Other young girls were sent to the orphanages attached to the asylums because the state did not want to take care of them. This broad category included victims of sexual assault and rape that spoke up against their attackers, especially if the attackers were priests. The church did this on the assumption that by removing these women from the public eye, they would be unable to “corrupt” the rest of society. A similar practice of removing members of society who were deemed corrupted or damaged occurred within the industrial schooling system in Ireland. Here poor, abused, or troublesome children were sent to schools removed from the rest of society where they were often mistreated, neglected and were continued to be abused by sisters and brothers of the Catholic Church. The majority of these children came from impoverished backgrounds.
When entering the Magdalene Laundry, a woman’s clothing was taken away and exchanged for an unflattering uniform. Her hair was often cut and she was given a new name. With the other women, she would be employed to work hard labor for no pay as a penance for her sin. The work was done in silence and friendship was discouraged. Some women spent the rest of their lives working with no hope or expectation of ever leaving. The nuns would dole out physical punishment and abuse to disobedient women. The priests in the asylums would sometimes sexually abuse the women. “Having been accused of sexual impropriety, they were targets for abuse from their supposed moral tutors” (Sex in a Cold Climate, 2003). They had no communication with the world outside of the asylums and some would never see their children again. The children were often kept in orphanages attached to the Magdalene Laundry, but they had no contact with the women. The children were told that the Magdalenes were evil, disgraceful sinners and the children were beaten if caught attempting to speak with them. Some of the children would be sent to the U.S. for adoption. Many of the female children would eventually end up in the asylums themselves.
Escape was difficult but some women succeeded. The most common way of leaving the asylum was to be claimed by a family member. Once out of the asylums, many women found it difficult to reintegrate into society. Numerous women chose to leave Ireland and find work in Britain. Emotional scars of physical and sexual abuse followed women and destroyed marriages. Although support groups for these women exist, so far no reimbursement money has come from the state which helped fund these institutions, and had a large role in the way the laundries were run.
The Magdalene laundries existed since the late 1700s and the last one, located in Dublin, was closed in 1996. An estimated 30,000 women total spent time in the Magdalene asylums. Along with the endemic abuse of children in Catholic-run industrial schools, news of the abuse that occurred within the Magdalene laundries has shaken national trust in the Irish Catholic church.
In February, 2013, the Irish government published a report on the Magdalene laundries that investigated government involvement in the matter. The report found that not only did the state help to fund these laundries, but it had also sent regular inspectors who were fully aware of what was going on and were involved in sending these women away. The prime minister of Ireland, otherwise known as the “Taoiseach,” Enda Kenny, has endured criticism by the public for his initial response to the report. His statement on the matter made it clear that the State has not yet issued an official apology or promising to pay retribution. Two weeks after the Magdalene Report came out, however, Enda Kenny made a full state apology, promised a compensation deal for the survivors which includes counseling and healthcare, and announced the plans for a government-funded memorial. The religious orders which ran the Magdalene Laundries have also issued public apologies.
Last Updated 10 March 2013.