The Magdalene laundries

The report on the Magdalene laundries in Ireland is out.

Between 1922 and 1996 around 10,000 women are known to have entered Magdalen laundries, working for no pay in what were lonely and frightening places.

Senator McAleese and his committee were asked to outline the extent of state involvement and knowledge of the women in these laundries.

In each of the five categories it examined, it found evidence of state involvement. Most notably, 26% of the women who entered the laundries were referred there by the state.

The authorities also inspected the laundries, funded them, and registered the departures and deaths of the women there.

But it found that there was a legal basis for the state’s involvement as many of the women were referred by the courts as a condition of probation, or under supervision after enrolment in industrial schools.

Many but not all. That means that some were there without due process. That means they were unlawfully held prisoner – in an institution the state was partly involved with. It’s incredibly sinister.

The Irish Times presents one personal experience.

Her mother died when she was seven. At 14, her father remarried but she and a younger sister were unwelcome in the new family household, the only home they ever knew. Poverty was her only crime.

She was taken to the Good Shepherd convent in New Ross, her younger sister sent by train to the congregation’s Limerick house. The Good Shepherds managed industrial schools for children at both locations and a reformatory school for girls in Limerick.

But the two sisters were put to work in the Magdalene laundry with its population of adult women workers. For the next five years she washed society’s dirty laundry and received no pay. When she refused to work the nuns cut her hair as punishment. The hair grew back but to this day the loss of her education angers her. To her, it was a prison in all but name. There was no inspector, no child welfare officer. She was abandoned and no one cared.

She wasn’t just abandoned. She was imprisoned and made to do forced labor for no pay. She was kept out of school. She was first abandoned (and rejected) and then imprisoned and enslaved.

…the women’s testimony is compelling. It rebuts government claims that they entered these institutions “voluntarily”. It contradicts the religious orders’ assertion that women were free to come and go as they pleased. Some survivors describe their experience as tantamount to “slavery”, living behind locked doors and barred windows.

They insist, moreover, that members of An Garda Síochána routinely brought women to the laundries and/or returned women who escaped – regardless of whether the State was involved in committing them in the first place, and in the absence of any statutory basis for doing so.

The women’s testimony corroborates historical archives that disclose the transfer into the Magdalene laundries of children from State-funded residential institutions and unmarried mothers from State-licensed mother-and-baby homes.

There is no evidence to suggest the State made certain the release of these women and young girls. Some would remain to live and die behind convent walls.

The Free State was a slave state.




  1. tazzage says

    In bed ill listening to radio 4 all day. I’m amazed that 1) nobody has used terms such as imprisoned, kidnapped, or enslaved and 2) nobody has suggested prosecuting the church

  2. says

    Thanks for airing this very worthy cause, OB. It is presently huge in Ireland. Irish people are now beginning to see the light of day, and not afraid to express themselves, as was the case in the past. The outpouring of empathy and support towards Magdalen Laundry survivors (and survivors of industrial *schools*) has been just overwhelming in the lead up to the reports. The survivors who worked tirelessly for the last ten years in seeking justice for the “Maggies” are now seeing the fruition of their work in the report.

    I came across some relevant old posts: Hope it’s okay to highlight same here.

    “Will Ireland apologize to the Magdalenes?
    July 5th, 2011
    The ten Magdalene laundries were for-profit businesses where women and girls were incarcerated against their will and forced to do unpaid physical labor.… Read the rest,8599,2081008,00.html

    Right here in River City
    June 8th, 2011
    Well here is something I would love to know more about – the early history of the Home of the Good Shepherd in Wallingford, in Seattle. I’ve been familiar with the building that housed it for years, indeed decades. It belongs to the city now, and houses various organizations; the grounds around it are a city park. I think I always vaguely knew it had been some kind of “homeforunmarriedmothers”…but I’ve been learning to treat that archaic term with more suspicion, plus “Good Shepherd” is one of the four orders that ran those houses of horror the Magdalene laundries, so…

    So I finally got around to looking it up, and sure enough.

    The Home of the Good Shepherd, located at

    … Read the rest

    The horror of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries
    June 8th, 2011
    Ireland locked up more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world – not in prisons, but in psychiatric hospitals, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools.… Read the rest

    UN Committee Against Torture reports on Magdalenes
    June 7th, 2011
    Says Irish govt should set up statutory investigation into allegations of torture and degrading treatment against women committed to Magdalene Laundries.… Read the rest,1

    Women politicians urged to support Magdalenes
    June 3rd, 2011
    One Department of Justice official said most women entered the laundries voluntarily. Srsly!… Read the rest

    Ireland’s disappeared
    May 30th, 2011
    Magdalenes? What Magdalenes?

    …it was Ireland’s hidden scandal: an estimated 30,000 women were sent to church-run laundries, where they were abused and worked for years with no pay. Their offense, in the eyes of society, was to break the strict sexual rules of Catholic Ireland, having children outside wedlock.

    Their “offense” – but it wasn’t a mere offense, was it, it was a crime. We know this because of what the passage says: the women were imprisoned for years. They got the kind of sentence a convicted murderer gets. They were locked up, for years, and abused and worked for no pay. That’s an extremely harsh prison sentence – for having children outside marriage.

    Until recently, the

    … Read the rest’s-disappeared/

    Justice for Magdalenes takes its case to the UN
    May 30th, 2011
    Ireland has failed to investigate a 70+-year system of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of women and girls in the Magdalene laundries.… Read the rest

  3. says

    The committee did not find physical abuse or torture to be a feature of the schools and there was no evidence that the women were sexually abused.

    This angers me. Whoever, did this report had to ignore well publicized stories to the contrary. They were either trying to maintain the illusion that the Catholic church is what they say there are or they are intellectually lazy. It is amazing how people will cling to the illusion that the no church would ever do those things. They would rather believe victims are lying than shatter their privileged outlook on life. The church demonstrably doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt on this, yet the report has ignored avenues to reveal the truth of what happened. The illusion must be maintained at the expense of the truth and the victims of the illusion.

  4. says

    This is truly alarming. It could only have happened where a governing ideology was in play. In the Soviet Union it was communism. In Ireland it was Catholicism. (I notice that Windows 8 automatically capitalises the ‘c’ in Catholicism but not the ‘c’ in communism.) To think that children were imprisoned in these places is completely beyond reason. Those who were enslaved in this way should seek large indemnities from their slave masters. It should bankrupt the church (and perhaps the state, which was clearly just an arm of the church, and still, to a great degree, remains so). It is appalling to think of children working long hours for no pay, without anyone to care for them. How is it possible to recover from such mistreatment? Religion and its crimes. The poor we have always with us — perhaps — but religion seems to be inescapable. I tell you, Geheime Welt Polizei, through and through, and the Garda playing an official but illegal role. The Irish Republic was a Catholic Slave State, not unlike King Leopold’s Congo, in which the church also played a central role.

  5. says

    “When she refused to work the nuns cut her hair as punishment. The hair grew back but to this day the loss of her education angers her. ”

    Nuns had their own heads shorn underneath the veils. They had such an obsession with hair on child inmates. I can fully empathise with the Magdalen Laundry survivor in the Irish Times article, as I had similar experiences throughout whole Goldenbridge incarceration period. To this day I abhor short hair. The nuns constantly shaved child inmates’ hair with a barber electric razor. Talk about Mohican hairstyles.

    Yeah… the loss of education…tell me all about it indeed!

  6. Miss Anthrope says

    A few years back, I watched a film called The Magdalene Sisters which featured the Magdalene laundries from the point of view of three women, whose stories are composites of actual events. The appalling treatment shown to the women was justified by the fact that they were “fallen,” and that their servitude advances them in the path towards redemption. OK, if I were a sick Catholic fuck obsessed with an incredibly narrow notion of purity, I may be tempted to buy it. But why the hell would you recruit orphans into these slave factories, what type of baloney transgressions are you expecting these child inmates to atone for? And the government collusion with the church in operating these laundries is just sickening.

    BTW, the movie was inspired by a documentary called Sex in a Cold Climate, which is equally, if not more gut-wrenching.

  7. says

    Lots of numbers in this ‘Report’ – numbers taken from surviving records apparently.

    The Ryan Report produced a devastating report in 2009 based on the testimony of people who were incarcerated between the years 1914 up to the year 2000 – but the vast majority of witnesses were from the Industrial Schools of the 1940s up to 1970. Strangely enough most of their records were missing – only a tiny percentage of their records survived! These records just vanished from the Dept. of Education offices just about before the Taoiseach’s ‘apology’! Isn’t that strange!!

    But back to this ‘report’ – isn’t it a bit sickening and insulting of this ‘report’ to be STILL regarding the Magdalene Women as mere numbers!

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    What’s crazy is that this continued into the 90’s. This was part of what Sinead O’connor was protesting against when she tore a picture of the pope in half on SNL in 1992.

    What? This went on until the 90’s?

  9. says

    Yes, into the 90s. The first I ever heard of the Magdalen laundries was a hair-raising 60 Minutes segment, which leaned heavily on that point. I didn’t have a blog at the time. I’m not sure blogs existed at the time.

  10. TGAP Dad says

    I highly recommend above-mentioned film The Magdalene Sisters. But you should be aware that it is a powerful, kick-to-the-gut film.

  11. says

    “These records just vanished from the Dept. of Education offices just about before the Taoiseach’s ‘apology’! Isn’t that strange!!”

    I personally know two people in particular who went to the archive offices in Dublin, and reported strange goings-on vis-à-vis “lost” records. One of them heretofore had been in a prominent position within a government dept. – so knew the ropes.

  12. says

    This is why you cannot have an unquestioned authority that rich and powerful. Not only do you literally get away with murder, you have sycophants covering it up if anyone asks questions. No human being can be unwarped by that kind of power.

  13. says

    Any other organisation that failed women, children & vulnerable communities so miserably would be hounded out of the country, their assets seized, prosecutions and jailings would have resulted – except in Ireland – Ireland with it’s 40 shades of hypocrisy … and then some!

  14. says

    Hounding them out is right, Andrew. They’re eating humble-pie now. Too bad that they had to put the women through more suffering, for them to finally realise the error of their ways. Some of those women, who had already been through industrial *schools* prior to internment in Magdalen laundries should not have been subjected to more mental torture by the government. The latter never thought the “Maggies” would fight them tooth and nail. Well, they did and once again showed Ireland up in the eyes of the world.

    The Leader of Fianna Fáil has expressed his regret that survivors of the Magdalen Laundries were omitted from the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme following the Ryan Report. Micheál Martin said he was sorry that the inter-department committee that he chaired did not deal with the laundries. At that time, the Fianna Fáil-led government denied State complicity in the Magdalen Laundries, claiming they were private institutions. They also claimed that a mother & baby home was a ‘private institution,’ However, what it omitted to say, was that the government actually owned the institution.

    Like the Phoenix the Maggies have risen from the ashes.

  15. says

    As horrific as the Industrial Schs. were – and they were that and more – at least there was a Release Date in writing. But for some the Religious Orders completely ignored that and held many children past that date – myself included.

    Why isn’t the fact that some children were moved into the Magdalene Asylums a bigger issue? The Dept. of Education will have to respond to that part of this report and explain itself. Explain its dereliction of duty.

  16. says

    That was very common in Goldenbridge as well, Andrew. Many of my counterparts were very embittered about that and let it be known to the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. I too was sent back to GB, after being deported from Switzerland, because of underage.

    Sure, too, weren’t the religious desperately worried because the judiciary wasn’t sending enough children to industrial schools, that they wrote and pleaded with same, using exorbitant upkeep of their buildings as a grand excuse!

    Mary Smith is just one typical example of one who was sent to a Magdalen Laundry, not long after she’d been placed with a family – as a domestic in Cork – by the he’d-honcho in charge at her industrial school. She was seen hanging about with a boy and the Good Shepherd Magdalen laundry was the only proper place to put manners on her. She was carted off by the cruelty man. Remember, she had nobody in the world, so they could do what they liked. She was even allegedly raped by the cruelty man. Mary, as with the rest of us were just inconsequential nonentities. The above information is publicly documented.

    I recall talking to a survivor counterpart from Goldenbridge, who was sent to a Magdalen laundry when she was 16. She was dealt with by the redress board for the period up to her 18th birthday. The raison d’être being that the state was responsible for industrial *school* survivors up to 18 years of age. So that would make sense as to why they kept on girls after the official release date at 16.

  17. kevinj says

    I found out not so long ago that one of my great aunts was put in one of those (she died before i knew) .
    Fortunately unlike many she still had friends on the outside who managed to fight her case and get her out reasonably quickly.
    I dont think it was a coincidence that that she and her sisters decided manchester was a better choice.
    My dad doesnt have kind words to say about the nuns who taught him either.

  18. KevinW says

    My wife’s mother was in the Good Shepherd in Limerick after her father died in 1916. Are there any records to confirm this?

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