The Magdelen Laundries


The Magdelen Laundries were penitentiary (interesting to note the word’s  origin from  the fact  that the  inmates were “penitents”) institutions run by  by  four Catholic nunnery congregations: (the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity  and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd).

These 4 congregations operated  10 laundries in Ireland  between 1922 and 1996. These and other  forced labour religious institutions used well over 10,000 young women  over that period  as involuntary labour (or more technically: slaves) to launder  washing and provide an income for the convents. The women on  “referral” to the laundries  were assigned a number and their name taken from them;  they were often beaten, starved, had their heads shaved as punishment, received no  education  were kept in captivity indefinitely; sometimes til the end of their days.

Institutions known as Magdalen Laundries were not confined to Ireland, nor were they exclusively Catholic-established or operated.

Their furthest history in Europe may date back to medieval times, but the first of what could be termed a ‘Magdalen Home’ was established in England in 1758. The first in Ireland was a Protestant asylum established in 1765.

Historians estimate that by the late 1800s there were more than 300 Magdalen Institutions in England alone and at least 41 in Ireland. These early institutions –variously entitled Asylums, Refuges and Penitentiaries – included institutions of all denominations and none.

The focus and purpose of these early institutions was closely tied to women in prostitution or women regarded as in danger of falling into prostitution, including unmarried mothers. This purpose, however, appears to have changed over time and based on the records it identified, the Committee found that the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland, after 1922, was not associated in the same strong way with prostitution or unmarried mothers. From the “Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries” ;  Dr. McAleese February 2012

Made infamous by the 2002 movie the Magdelene Sisters and the subsequent heart-rending song composed by  Joni Mitchell, the government of Eire was finally moved to commission a  report in  2010  to identify  whether the government had any responsibilities for the suffering inflicted by  the Magdelen Laundries.

The reporting committee was composed of Senator Martin McAleese, eight Civil Servants and Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh, a civil servant who acted as the report’s “analyst and drafter”;  and then the report has five pages of acknowledgements. Bishops, Archbishops, Accountants, Doctors, Historians and Academics, Agencies of the State and named Civil Servants are name checked. Advocacy and Representative Groups administrators are thanked by name. Finally, just before the bottom of page 5 we get the last line of the acknowledgements.

“And finally a special thanks to all the women who shared the story of their time in the Magdalen Laundries with the Committee.”

The Irish convents identified in the McAleese report claimed that the Laundry’s made no profit,  despite large incomes, an unpaid workforce and tax exemption. But as Labour Party representative, Eamonn Maloney, said;

“They did make money, they made lots of money,” he said during Dáil statements on the report, adding that most commercial laundries in the 1940s and 1950s closed because of competition from the Magdalenes.


After the McAleese report was released, representatives of some the Magdelen Laundry survivors said: the report delivered by former Senator Martin McAleese fell short in many ways; one of the most glaring was to write of “self-referral”.

Was a destitute woman thrown on the street by her parents “willing” when her choice was between selling herself or a hell-hole of slave labour?

Was a motherless child “willing” when a Catholic priest took her from the care of her widowed father because to have her free in society left her open to “moral hazard”?

More importantly, if every woman still alive who was ever locked in one of those dark, fearful places was a prostitute; if every woman there had given birth to children “out of wedlock”, there should still be no “stigma”. They were human, that’s all: human like the rest of us. And they were ignorant of the world and its ways, the ignorance as enforced as was their incarceration.

The stigma is ours, and ours alone, to be shared by all of us except the women victimised and brutalised by Irish society as a whole. That the women could have perceived themselves as bearing a stigma for their incarceration reflects on us, not on them.


It is noteworthy that Martin McAleese found limited evidence of physical  or sexual  abuse in  the Magdelen Laundries from the interviews he  personally  undertook alone with the women,  with whom he “engaged broadly”

However, according to the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) group, more than 800 pages of transcripts of first-hand oral evidence was offered to the McAleese inquiry, but never used. Much of that unused testimony referred to systemic abuse of all  kinds by  nuns and priests. JFM collected testimony from survivors who attested to severe psychological and physical suffering incurred during even short stays of less than a year.

Apparently only women  who would sign  a declaration of anonymity  were permitted to testify to McAleese. In addition, the Report Committee agreed a Data Protection policy with the nunnery orders consulted, under which the Committee could access records containing personal data, but could not publish the names of the residents of the laundries – even those of deceased women to whom data protection law no longer applies.

Eire Human Rights reports that: Those interviewed include a small sample of 118 survivors, of whom 58 still live in the care of religious orders. Most were introduced to the Committee via representative organisations and survivors’ groups. They were interviewed in private. There were no public hearings. Claire McGettrick of  Justice for Magdalenes describes the manner in which the Committee interviewed survivors of the Laundries here.

Initially, the committee didn’t even want to speak to women in person, but we fought for that. The women gave their testimony verbally and then we were given very little notice of a second meeting where we were to look at the format of the initial testimony. Instead, the women were brought in one by one for a meeting with the commission where they asked repeated questions.

Their overall impression was that they were being checked to ensure that their memories were correct. The women came out of those meetings very quiet and subdued. None of them, none of us, had been expecting for them to be questioned like that.

The women are allowed scant quotations in which to share their stories. (This is in contrast to, for instance, the long passages of quotation from identified benign male authority figures later in the chapter – GPs who attended the Laundries, the chaplain of the Sean McDermott Street Laundry [who appears again at length in Chapter 9 to explain, unchallenged, the famous photograph of police and women from the Laundry marching in a religious procession (shown below)

McAleese however did say in his  report that “the large majority of women who engaged with the committee… spoke of the deep hurt they felt due to their loss of freedom, the fact that they were not informed why they were there, the lack of information on when they would be allowed to leave, and denial of contact with the outside world, particularly family and friends”.

The report’s Executive Summary ends with the following assessment of the first hand evidence of the women who witnessed and experienced these institutions

“Although identifying common patterns in these stories, the Committee did not make specific findings on this issue, in light of the small sample of women available.”

Simon McGarr in his article on  the McAleese report states that “In fact the Executive Summary is a shameful farrago of guesses, elisions and wilful ignorance. It proposes the most unlikely of explanations for the most serious of issues. On the lack of death certificates for women and the total failure to ever report any women’s death to a Coroner it says

“It is not possible to state definitively whether the deaths for which certificates were not found were unregistered; or whether registration occurred under a variation of the woman’s name or at her former home-place rather than the district in which the Laundry was located.

Simon McGarr a solicitor, also notes that:

A) The Committee concedes it went outside its brief to present the argument made by the Religious Orders as to the profit the laundries did (or, it is claimed, did not) make. It says it did so because it was in the public interest.

B) The Committee decided its brief did not allow it to decide who was liable for anything. It decided this also meant treating the first hand evidence of the women who had been in the Magdalene institutions as merely “input to the process.”

The only member of the Committee to meet with any women who worked in the Magdalene institutions was Martin McAleese. Paragraph 31 assures the reader he ‘engaged broadly’ with them.

It is unfortunate that Martin McAleese chose not to include anything more of the women’s accounts in this report,” said Mr McGarr.

The Eire  Human Rights website reports  that

  • At least 2,500 women were sent to the laundries by the State.
  • The State gave laundry contracts to the Magdalene Laundries, participating in a system which ran on forced unpaid labour and which did not comply with social insurance obligations.
  • The State oversaw that system of forced, unpaid labour in that it inspected the Laundries under the Factories Acts.
  • The State, in various contexts and for various purposes, funded some of the activities of the Magdalene Laundries.
  • The Gardai pursued and returned some women who had escaped from the Magdalene Laundries, often on an informal, non-statutory basis.

It should be noted that the Magdelen Laundries were just one symptom of a lack of moral  and ethical behaviour by  the government and society of Eire. In the absence of significant government welfare institutions in  an impoverished society,  responses to poverty, criminality or “immoral” behaviour were abdicated to   community and religious institutions with minimal oversight and control. Inevitably, as in every isolated  institution around the world,  such institutions became a magnet for those who  had a penchant for cruelty and abuse or simply a lust for power over others.

PaddyDoyle reports that

By 1966, Ireland was incarcerating a higher proportion of its people in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world. It follows that very many of these people (21,000 at the height of the system) were not mentally ill but were locked up for social, political and familial reasons. Conditions were generally abysmal. Mental hospitals were not just grim places of incarceration, they were also death traps.

O’Sullivan and O’Donnell show that an astonishing 11,000 people died every decade in Irish mental hospitals – that’s 33,000 people between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many of them died because of neglect and insanitary conditions. “Around one in 20 patients died each year from a variety of ailments, such as tuberculosis, influenza and malignant tumours . . . Occasionally patients perished because they had been given the wrong medication, or tried to escape but fell into a river, or lost their lives in ways that are unexplained, but seemed to involve neglect or deliberate harm. Only in exceptional circumstances were staff called to account for such deaths.” Basic decency demands that the State should, at the very least, commission a full independent historical report on the mental hospital system.

However the McAleese report also offers one other salutory lesson; the importance of recognizing, valuing and accepting as truth, the narratives of victims.

It should be painfully obvious to all that, as in so many similar formal  analyses of wrongdoing across the world;  that the statutory  and community/religious agencies involved have reputations to keep and budgets to  hold, while the victims had their reputations to lose and their fears re-generated in  telling their stories. What is comforting however, is that in the end, the victims’ and survivors’ stories always win out.


Links to Magdelen Laundry Research

Testimony from Magdalen survivors is located here

The Testimony of the survivors by Justice for Madgalenes

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