A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland

A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland

This book offers a comprehensive exploration of the Magdalene system through a close study of Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry in Dublin. The disciplinary perspectives featured include history, philosophy, law, archaeology, criminology, accounting, architecture, archival studies and heritage management.

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About the Book

A new collection of essays entitled A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland has been published by Bloomsbury.

The book is co-edited by Mark Coen, Katherine O’Donnell and Maeve O’Rourke, with further contributions by Maolíosa Boyle, Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Chris Hamill, Máiréad Enright, Brid Murphy, Martin Quinn, Lynsey Black, Laura McAtackney, Brenda Malone, Barry Houlihan and Claire McGettrick. 

In the name of all of the girls and women held in the Magdalene Laundries the editors are donating all authors’ royalties to the charity Empowering People in Care.

The editors have written to Minister Roderic O’Gorman to request that the Magdalene Restorative Justice Implementation Team provide a copy of the book to every survivor who wishes to receive one.

The book’s front matter is available free of charge here

This book offers a comprehensive exploration of the Magdalene system through a close study of Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry (DML) in Dublin. The disciplinary perspectives featured include history, philosophy, law, archaeology, criminology, accounting, architecture, archival studies and heritage management. 

By focusing on this one institution–on its ethos, development, operation and built environment, and the lives of the girls and women held there–this book reveals the underlying framework of Ireland’s wider system of institutionalisation. The analysis includes a focus on the privatisation and commodification of public welfare, reproductive injustice, institutionalised misogyny, class prejudice, the visibility of supposedly ‘hidden’ institutions and the role of oral testimony in reconstructing history. In undertaking such a close study, the authors uncover truths missing from the state’s own investigations; shed new light on how these brutal institutions came to have such a powerful presence in Irish society, and highlight the significance of their continuing impact on modern Ireland.

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Preservation of material and access to records

While researching this book, the editors gained access to part of the site of the former DML, now owned by a property developer. They advocated for the preservation of important contents from the Magdalene era and, with the cooperation of the owners, invited the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) to become involved. The NMI subsequently acquired a representative sample of the contents, including laundry machinery. This effort by the NMI is part of the Museum’s emerging interest in recording and exhibiting post-independence Ireland, including its institutional and coercive dimensions. 

The editors also discovered that some of the financial records of DML remained on the site of the former laundry: dating from the 1960s to the 1990s, with broken periods. The current owners of the site provided these records to the editors and subsequently to the National Museum of Ireland, and they have been deposited at University of Galway Library Archives where they are undergoing processing and cataloguing (for more information contact barry.houlihan@universityofgalway.ie). Three tranches of records from the archive currently held by the University of Galway are available here.

It is possible that both the objects and documents collected by the NMI at DML could be located in the future at the promised National Centre for Research and Remembrance at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin 1.

Ongoing church and state secrecy

The research collected in this book is made all the more important by the secrecy imposed to this day by the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC) and the State over the archives they hold concerning Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The other two religious congregations involved in the running of Magdalene Laundries – the Sisters of Mercy and Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd (which is the modern-day amalgamation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and the Good Shepherd Sisters) – adopt the same stance of not permitting researchers to access their records.

The editors offered the RSC the opportunity to contribute to the book, to read and comment on draft chapters and to participate in an oral history project as part of the research. The editors had a Zoom call with the Leadership Team of the RSC at which these proposals were discussed. The RSC declined to engage in any way. Even a request for a copy of the 1941 rules of the congregation was refused with the explanation that such documents are only provided to persons who are ‘working with the Congregation’. The RSC further insisted that they hold no photographs or building plans of DML and no copies of correspondence with customers, machinery suppliers or State agencies. 

Sheila Ahern’s research

In the book’s Introductory chapter the editors describe the painstaking efforts of greatly experienced researcher Sheila Ahern to access the State’s records concerning DML; these records are collected in the archive of the Inter-departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (IDC) (also known as the ‘McAleese Committee’). 

The IDC declared in its Final Report that it would place its collected copies of official records in the Department of the Taoiseach because ‘maintenance of these copies together in a single location will be a concrete outcome to the Committee’s work and may be a resource for future research’. (Notably, the IDC returned and did not place copies in its archive of records received from religious congregations, the Dioceses in which Magdalene Laundries were located or the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.) 

When researching for the book the editors made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Taoiseach’s Department for all records in the IDC archive concerning DML. The Taoiseach’s Department refused the request, stating that it would exceed the costs allowable under the FOI Act to search through the archive for certain records. The Department recommended that the editors instead make individual FOI requests of all original sources of State records, and the Department provided the editors with the Index to the IDC archive. 

Over many months in 2021 and 2022, Sheila Ahern made numerous FOI requests in an attempt to piece together the IDC archive from scratch. As Ahern explains in this summary, all requests but one (to the Department of Rural and Community Affairs) were refused. Having had little success using FOI, Ahern visited several public archives where she accessed a range of records which are available on this page. Notably, National Archives of Ireland (NAI) staff advised that most NAI files referenced in the IDC Report are ‘closed files’ which require special permission from the relevant government departments to access; therefore these files were not provided. 

The archive of records obtained by Sheila Ahern is available here.

The editors of this book, and Justice for Magdalenes Research, extend their utmost gratitude to Sheila Ahern for her voluntary contribution of her time, and the proceeds of her research, for public access. 

In the absence of unfettered access to the archival records of the Sisters of Charity, the contributors to this volume have painstakingly undertaken an extraordinary multi-layered study of the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry, which presents an exemplary model for re-writing into modern Irish history the legacy of institutional abuse, with a critical awareness of social justice.
This is an important book about power and resistance. In meticulously and painstakingly building a detailed picture of one key institution, the contributors question and complicate many fundamental aspects of modern Irish history and the priorities of the Irish state. Underpinned by its interdisciplinarity, this outstanding volume engages with historical trauma and its legacy in political, intellectual, cultural and legal contexts, offering important insights into the past as well as putting down a marker for future research. This is a book about lost lives, endemic sexism, secrecy, endurance and perhaps even healing. This is not always a comfortable read (how could it be ?), but anyone who wants to understand modern Ireland should read it.
This volume is at once a history of an individual institution and a broader analysis of the social forces of respectability, neo-colonialism, economics and incarceration in 20th and 21st century Ireland. With essays by leading figures in the field, each section strives to give readers insight into how the Donnybrook Laundry, as a microcosm of the national system of incarceration, operated for so long and in such an embedded way. Taken together, the essays give an unparalleled insight into the history and practice of coercive confinement at a single site, the cover-ups and challenges in researching this difficult past, and the ways in which we can better witness survivors. This is a work of rigorous and engaging scholarship that comes with a trigger warning –reading it will make you both informed and angry.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Year: 2023
ISBN: 9781350279049