The laundries housed “fallen” girls and women

Something I missed last July – Bill Donohue aka “The Catholic League” explains how wonderful Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were, contrary to all the “myths” about them.

One contemporary example of prejudice is the popular perception of the nuns who ran Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

From the mid-eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, the laundries housed “fallen” girls and women in England and Ireland. Though they did not initiate the facilities, most of the operations were carried out by the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758; Ireland followed in 1765 (the first asylum being a Protestant-run entity).

Notice the breezy way he accepts the category “fallen” – in scare quotes, to be sure, but not distanced or questioned in any other way. He doesn’t pause to explain that this refers to girls and women who had sex, and singles them out as “fallen” while completely ignoring their male colleagues in the enterprise of having sex. Notice also the benign “housed” when what he means is “imprisoned.”

The popular perception of the laundries is entirely negative, owing in large part to fictionalized portrayals in the movies. The conventional wisdom has also been shaped by writers who have come to believe the worst about the Catholic Church, and by activists who have their own agenda. So strong is the prejudice that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, the bias continues.

No citations for any of that, of course. No mention of the survivors, and their testimony about what the laundries were like, unless that’s what he means by “writers” – women who were actually there and know firsthand what it was like.

On his way to minimizing the laundries he pauses to minimize the industrial “schools” too.

Media commentary about the laundries eventually led to an investigation about the treatment of wayward youth in every Irish institution. In 2009, Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse published its findings; it became known as the Ryan Report (after the chairman of the Commission, Justice Seán Ryan).

News stories about the Ryan Report quickly emerged maintaining that abuse was rampant in these institutions. Upon closer inspection, however, we learn that the Ryan Commission listed four types of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. Most of the evidence showed there were no serious violations. For example, physical abuse included “being kicked”; sexual abuse was considered “kissing,” “non-contact including voyeurism” and “inappropriate sexual talk”; neglect included “inadequate heating”; and “lack of attachment and affection” was deemed emotional abuse.

Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970. As the New York Times noted, “many of them [are] now more than 70 years old.” Keep in mind that corporal punishment was not uncommon in many homes (and in many parts of the world), never mind in facilities that housed troubled persons.

Note that first sentence – note the phrase”wayward youth” for the children locked up in those industrial not-schools. Many of those children were simply the children of parents who didn’t have enough money; many more were simply the children of mothers who weren’t married. Then go on to notice his callous relativism about what went on in the schools, and feel sick.

He tries to argue that the women in the laundries were free to leave.

The majority of women either left on their own, went home, were reclaimed by a family member, or left for employment. Only 7.1 percent were dismissed or “sent away,” and less than two percent ran away. One might have thought that if Mullan’s depiction were accurate, a lot more than 1.9 percent would have run for the hills. That so few did is further testimony of the bogus portrayal he offered.

Say what? You’d think more would have run away? They were prevented from running away – that’s the whole point. They weren’t “sheltered” as he tries to maintain, they were locked up. The fact that few succeeded in escaping is not evidence that they were not locked up. (He slips by saying “ran away” at all. You don’t run away unless you’re not free to walk away.)

He’s a callous unfeeling church-protecting shit, Donohue is.

Physical abuse was uncommon. “A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalen Laundries,” the Report notes. But they did say that in their time in an industrial reformatory school there were instances of brutality.  As for the laundries, a typical complaint was, “I don’t ever remember anyone being beaten but we did have to work very hard.” Another common criticism went like this: “No they never hit you in the laundry. They never hit me, but the nun looked down on me ‘cause I had no father.”

Clearly he wants us to roll our eyes at what a trivial complaint this is. Fuck that. It is not trivial. Priest-ridden Ireland’s way of looking down on people for reasons of that kind was cruel and corrosive, and not a thing to be minimized. Marie-Thérèse has told us a great deal about what that was like, and it’s scorching.

Donohue is a very bad man.

H/t Lola Heavey.


  1. rnilsson says

    Yes, but he seems to be a good Catholic. May be hard to combine with being a good person, especially while trying to excuse and proselytize, which appears to be his chosen calling.
    Other news at eleven.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Most women have not been held captive in Ariel Castro’s basement.

    Most African-Americans have not been beaten to within an inch of their deaths by cops.

    Therefore, the US does not have a problem with rape or police racism.

    How many examples do you think I’d have to give to his face before Donohue recognized the point?

  3. sarah00 says

    It’s a minor nitpick in some respects, but a massive error in others – he says the laundries were active until the late 19th century. Um, no. According to Wikipedia the last one in Ireland closed in 1996, that’s the late twentieth century. He’s a hundred years out. It may be an honest error or a deliberate attempt to make it seem like people are complaining about ancient history, but either way it’s sloppy scholarship.

  4. sinned34 says

    I’ve heard the same justifications to hand wave away slavery in the Bible. Slavery in Israel wasn’t like slavery elsewhere. It was really friendly, and slave owners had to treat their slaves with respect.

    People will believe what they want in order to make themselves feel better about the people and organizations they agree with. It’s one of the biggest reasons I hate people (including myself).

    No amount of facts or discussion will change their minds, until they are willing to stop lying to themselves. And if people are willing to lie to themselves, they’ll be willing to lie to everyone else, too. Hence, Bill Donahue.

  5. says

    Media commentary about the laundries eventually led to an investigation about the treatment of wayward youth in every Irish institution. In 2009, Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse published its findings; it became known as the Ryan Report (after the chairman of the Commission, Justice Seán Ryan).

    The commission to inquire into child abuse was set up in 2000, after an apology was given by the taoiseach to survivors of child institutional abuse.

    The Magdalen laundries fight for justice, is still ongoing. Survivors of Magdalen laundries only got an apology earlier on this year.

    So – it’s incorrect to say that survivors of Magdalen laundries were the ones behind the eventual set up of the Ryan/Laffoy commission. Bill Donohue obviously did not view the harrowing documentaries Dear Daughter / States of Fear by Mary Raftery R.I.P.?!

    As for ‘wayward youth’ – Mary Smith, mentioned in the latter link, first went into an Industrial “School” at the age of two. She was only a wet week out of her second Industrial “School” at sixteen, when she found herself in a Magdalen Laundry. She only got out of the laundry after allegedly sexually succumbing to a ‘cruelty man’ (colloquialism for government local authority employee). He had made a plea bargain with her. Hence her early escape from the laundry.

    Yes – I was so wayward, at not even five years of age, that there was no help for it but to be sent to the notorious Goldenbridge Industrial “School” to learn to mend my ‘wayward’ ways. I should add here that it was survivors of the ilk of Christine Buckley – who also went into Goldenbridge as a tot – who vigorously campaigned, and was to the forefront with respect of the instigation of the Ryan/Laffoy commission.

  6. Sili says

    How many examples do you think I’d have to give to his face before Donohue recognized the point?

    Whatever makes you think facts have anything to do with this?

  7. says

    The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758; Ireland followed in 1765 (the first asylum being a Protestant-run entity).

    It’s rather ironic that the same RCC – which was so protective of its flock, that it even disallowed same to have anything to do with heathen Protestants, was to the fore when it came to mimicking them when it came to such entities as the Magdalen Laundries and Industrial “Schools”. The latter of which were dispensed with in 1933 in Great Britain, and still flourishing in Ireland into the seventies.

    To add – the same church didn’t think twice about purchasing property from Protestants with proceeds from institutional child slave labour. Think Goldenbridge secret rosary-bead factory and the like.

    Also – the RCC forever reminded its flock of the snares of the devil, and the everlasting flames of hell if one dared to go into a Protestant church. I never forgave myself in the past when I went into a Belfast Protestant church for mass, until I speedily got absolution in the confessional box. Until such time I was left in a state of absolute panic. The double standards of the church is stomach-churning.

    Bill Donohue is doing a very good job at Protestant victim-blaming by trying to disown the wrong-doing of the RCC establishment. Albeit, I’m not convinced. The Catholic League title speaks volumes.

  8. says

    Apologies, Ophelia, mine was meant in reply to 10 by Marie-Therese. I did catch that you’d mentioned it, should have been more specific in my reply. My fault.

  9. says

    Aye – a league unto himself, and that too of his traditionalist Catholic clone-ish clan. I do somehow sense a whiff of Opus Dei perfume in the BD air.

    The only “fallen” girls I ever knew were those who had been beaten to a pulp, as children whilst in Goldenbridge Industrial “School” by sadistic staff, that they fell to the ground. Even then, they were still further kicked and stripped of their clothing in front of a hundred terrified children and more. They were used as scapegoats, and reminders to the rest of the child inmates to remain obedient. That was standard daily behaviour of certain staff towards defenceless little children, who should have been cherished by Irish society. Shame on Ireland, who bragged about cherishing the children of the nation. It failed its children miserably in the past.

  10. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    I think it would be fine if someone would re-open one of the laundries just for goddamned Donahue. He could work 14 hours hard labor every day, with inadequate food, inadequate heat, ill-fitting uncomfortable clothes, no friendly interaction or human warmth ever, and only a few kicks – since he thinks that’s not “abuse” surely he’ be perfectly happy there for the rest of his life. Never knowing when he’s going to be freed, or if he will ever be free at all …

    Actually, while we’re at it, we can find a place next to him for anyone who’s still alive who was staff at one of the laundries, or who was an official who sent children/women there. I suppose if there are any still alive, they’re quite old; fine with me, they should work there until the day they die. No last-minute reprieves, no hospice care. Since there’s no justice in heaven and hell, it’s impossible for me not to wish for retribution here on earth.

  11. pod says

    @picklefactory, post 9
    Some anti-Catholic or just sensationalist writers of the 18th and 19th centuries made shit up about the RC church, and many careless historians failed to check their sources until sometime in the 70’s.
    So the Inquisition was not as bad as it has sometimes been presented. Notably on the issue of witches it managed to be almost rational, showing that it was possible to prevent witch-hunts. If you wanted to, that is.

  12. says

    I think the derelict Magdalen Laundry in Sean McDermott St. Dublin would be ideal. Bill Donoghue could swiftly get to work along with his Über Roman Catholics in renovating the godforsaken dive. He could then get his head shaved, be renamed Mary Consolata, and dress in a sackcloth. He could work the live long day at hand-washing in cold water soiled clothing from the convents / political establishments and posh hotels in the vicinity and beyond, as well as starching and ironing on a gigantic heavy-weight manual press iron. He could be forced regularly to be lined up naked along with all his traditionalist inmates, and be mocked and jeered by those in command. He could be told that he’ll not be privy to letters that arrive in the post, as he came from the scum of the earth, and the nuns wouldn’t like his mind to be contaminated by worldly stuff. He could be beaten to a pulp for minor infractions, such as talking after 9:00pm in the dormitory, having fainted in the chapel, or giggling, or rooting in bins for left-over food. He could be fed gruel, for breakfast, dinner and tea. Life would be a bed of roses. He wouldn’t have to worry, though, about wearing a tight band across his chest to flatten him, as nature would have already seen to that aspect of his anatomy. He could be sent into an outhouse black hole for serious punishment, and made to stay there for a week at a time with very little food to put manners on him.

    Regarding staff being still alive. There is the possibility that there could be plenty of nuns who ran the joints still running around hale and hearty at ripe old ages. That could not be said for plenty of inmates, as it is known that so many had died at very young ages. Some were only in their thirties and forties and fifties. it’s well known that longevity is common with the religious, and why not, they were waited on hand and foot all their lives by the ilk of Magdalen Laundry and Industrial ‘School’ survivors.

  13. says

    Regarding fictionalised portrayals in the films. I actually encountered the sister of a sister – both of whom were reared in an Irish Industrial ‘School’. It was at a meeting concerning the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. The sister told me that her sister went to Scotland after she left the institution and made a life there. The latter subsequently in later years was interviewed by Peter Mullan, the director of The Magdalene Sisters. One of the main protagonists life was based on her real-life story. Sadly, the Scottish-based sister had died a few months prior to the set up of the CICA. Her immediate family also lost out on redress, for that very purpose. Nonetheless, a part of the mother / sister lives on in the story that took the world by storm.

    Yes – there’s no denying that artistic licence was taken with parts of the film. It’s part and parcel of the film directors’ trade.

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