What were the Magdalene Laundries?
From the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1996, at least 10,000 (see below) girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland’s Magdalene Institutions. These were carceral, punitive institutions that ran, commercial and for-profit businesses primarily laundries and needlework. After 1922, the Magdalene Laundries were operated by four religious orders (The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters) in ten different locations around Ireland (click here for a map). The last Magdalene Laundry ceased operating on 25th October, 1996. The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included those who were perceived to be ‘promiscuous’, unmarried mothers, the daughters of unmarried mothers, those who were considered a burden on their families or the State, those who had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State. Confined for decades on end – and isolated from their families and society at large – many of these women became institutionalised over time and therefore became utterly dependent on the relevant convents and unfit to re-enter society unaided.
How many women and girls were confined in the laundries?
The ‘official’ figure of 10,000 women and girls who were confined in the laundries is is a significant under-estimate by the Report of the Inter–Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (also known as the McAleese Report, after Senator Martin McAleese who chaired the committee). The Sisters of Mercy could not produce records for the Dun Laoghaire or Galway institutions and the Committee excluded girls and women who entered before 1922 and remained thereafter—referring to such women as ‘legacy’ cases. JFM brought numerous examples to the IDC’s attention of women listed on the 1901 and 1911 censuses who died in Magdalene Laundries post-1922, some as late as 1961, 1967 and even 1985 (in the care of the nuns after the closure of the Limerick institution). It has also emerged that many girls detained in ‘voluntary’ (unregulated but funded by the State) residential children’s and teenage institutions known as ‘Training Centres’, sometimes on the same grounds as Magdalene Laundries, were forced by the nuns to enter and work in the Laundries for some or all of their days.
How were women and girls confined in the laundries?
Women and girls were confined in the Magdalene Laundries through a variety of channels, including: women and girls sent by the judicial system (including those committed informally or as a condition of probation, those held on remand, sent to the Laundries after release from Prison sentences and those sent to the Laundries instead of Reformatory Schools), transfers from Industrial Schools and transfers from Mother and Baby Homes. JFM also discovered evidence of girls who were sent to the laundries by social workers, members of the clergy, the Gardaí (police), hospitals, local authorities, County Councils, psychiatric hospitals. Most worryingly of all, a whole group of girls appear to have been sent to the Laundries because they were the victims of abuse.
It is true that some women and girls were committed to the laundries by non-State actors, including their families, or church groups, such as the Legion of Mary. This happened for an array of reasons – they feared scandal related to unmarried motherhood and illegitimacy, sexual abuse, incest, domestic abuse, disability and mental illness. Although the State was not directly involved in incarcerating these women and girls, it failed to protect and defend their individual liberty and human rights, as they had a right to expect in a democratic State governed by the rule of law. Whatever the reasons why women and girls were sent to the Magdalene Laundries, the State had duties to all of the women and girls in the Laundries (a) to prevent them from being held against their will, (b) not to exploit or benefit from their forced labour or servitude and (c) to care for these women and girls in terms of their rights to a safe workplace, to social welfare and (in terms of school-age girls) an education.
What were conditions like in these institutions?
Once inside the convents, girls and women were imprisoned behind locked doors, barred or unreachable windows and high walls (oftentimes with broken glass cemented at the apex). They were usually given no information as to when or whether they would be released. Upon entry, their names were often changed and they were given an identification number. Many women recall being instructed not to speak about their home-place or family. Their hair was cut and their clothes were taken away and replaced with a drab uniform. A rule of silence was imposed at almost all times in Magdalene Laundries and, in many women’s experiences, friendships were forbidden. Correspondence with the outside was often intercepted or forbidden. Visits by friends or family were not encouraged and were monitored by nuns when they did occur.
The girls and women were forced to work from morning until evening – washing, ironing or packing laundry, and sewing, embroidering or doing other manual labour. These Laundries were run on a commercial, for-profit basis, but the girls and women received no pay. No contributions (‘stamps’) were paid on their behalf to statutory pension schemes. The laundry they washed came not only from members of the public, local businesses and religious institutions, but also from numerous government Departments, the defence forces, public hospitals, public schools, prisons and other State entities such as the parliament,, the Chief State Solicitor’s Office, the Office of Public Works, the Land Commission, CIE and Áras an Uachtaráin (the President’s Residence)(to name but a few).
Punishments for refusal to work included deprivation of meals, solitary confinement, physical abuse, forced kneeling for long periods or humiliation rituals, including shaving of hair. Survivors speak of constantly being under surveillance, being verbally insulted, feeling cold, having a poor diet and enduring humiliating and inadequate hygiene conditions. None of the girls received an education, and survivors dwell on this fact as determining their ‘loss of opportunity’ in later life.
It was common for the girls and women to believe that they would die inside. Many did: comparison of electoral registers against grave records at the Donnybrook location shows that over half of the women on electoral registers between 1954 and 1964 died in that institution. If girls or women escaped – perhaps in the back of a laundry van, out an open door at delivery or collection time, or by scaling the wall – they were often captured and returned by the local Gardaí. The nuns punished escapees, in many cases, by transferring them to a different Magdalene Laundry. If and when a girl or women was released, it was invariably without warning, without money and with only the clothes she was wearing. Some girls and women were given jobs in other institutions run by nuns; many fled abroad as soon as they could.
The State never regulated the Magdalene Laundries, despite its use of the institutions both as places of detention and care, its commercial dealings with them, its knowledge of the detention of young girls of school-going age, and its awareness that the girls and women were working for no pay. The IDC noted that the commercial laundry premises were subject to the Factories Acts, and that Factories Inspectors visited the Laundries from 1957 onwards. According to the IDC’s report, however, the inspectors were concerned with machinery and factory premises only. They did not question the age of the girls or the conditions under which the girls and women were forced to work and lived.
where are the survivors today?
In JFMR’s experience, Magdalene survivors (and their family members) fall into five main categories: firstly, those who have spoken out and demanded justice; secondly, those who continue to live in silence; thirdly, women who are still living in institutional settings under the control of religious orders; fourthly, those who died both inside and outside the laundry; and finally, the family members of women incarcerated in the laundries, including adopted people.