Magdalene asylums were institutions for so-called "fallen women". Although popularly associated with Ireland, there is nothing distinctly Irish or Roman Catholic about them, indeed a number of the asylums, including the first in Ireland, were founded and run by members of Protestant denominations. Asylums for "fallen women" operated throughout Europe, Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. The first asylum in Ireland opened on Leeson Street in Dublin in 1767, founded by Lady Arabella Denny.
Initially the mission of the asylums was often to rehabilitate women back into society, but by the early twentieth century the homes had become increasingly punitive and carceral (at least in Ireland and Scotland). In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labour, including laundry and needle work. They also endured a daily regime that included long periods of prayer and enforced silence. In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalene laundries. It has been estimated that 30,000 women passed through Ireland's laundries. The last Magdalene asylum in the Republic of Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.
Magdalene asylums grew out of the Protestant rescue movement in the UK and Ireland during the 19th century, which had as its formal goal the rehabilitation of women who had worked as prostitutes. In Ireland, the institutions were nicknamed for St. Mary Magdalene, who, according to Roman Catholic tradition, repented her sins and became one of Jesus' closest followers.
The Magdalene movement in Ireland was quickly appropriated by the Catholic Church, and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries since the facilities were self-supporting and not funded by the Catholic Church.
As the Magdalene movement became increasingly distant from the original idea of the Rescue Movement (the goal of which was to find alternative work for prostitutes who could not find regular employment because of their background) the asylums took on an increasingly prison-like character. Supervising nuns were instructed to enact strong measures that would discourage women from leaving and instead encourage them into penance. The Congregation of the Sisters of Misericordiae, for example, is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia thus:
In receiving patients, no discrimination is made in regard to religion, color, or nationality. After their convalescence, those who desire to remain in the home are placed under a special sister and are known as "Daughters of St. Margaret". They follow a certain rule of life but contract no religious obligations. Should they desire to remain in a convent operated by the Good Shepherd Sisters, after a period of probation, they are allowed to become Magdalens and eventually take the three vows of the Sisters Magdalen, which was formed by Saint Mary of St Euphrasia to meet the needs of the penitent desiring to enter a cloister within a cloister. Former penitents are barred from becoming Sisters in the Good Shepherd Community, but can apply to novitiates in other orders, such as the Ursulines.
Bethany Mother and Child Home was a Magdalene laundry run by members of the Church of Ireland. It was located at Blackhall Place in Dublin from 1921 to 1934 and in Rathgar, until it closed in 1972, and has been the centre of allegations of abuse and neglect. Recently the unmarked graves of infants who died at the Bethany Home were discovered.
Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement, many women entered and left the institutions of their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, that the women in Philadelphia's asylum "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances." Though some may have taken refuge in the institutions, the asylums contained physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse. Many women felt they needed the support of the institutions to survive, since the sisters strove to make them feel the reasons for their refuge were their own fault.
According to Finnegan, because many had a background as prostitutes, inmates (who were called "children") were regarded as "in need of penitence" and were required until the 1970s to address all staff regardless of age, as "mother". To enforce order and maintain a monastic atmosphere, the inmates were required to observe strict silence for much of the day, while corporal punishment was common, and passive-aggression was simply ignored:
As the phenomenon became more widespread, it extended beyond prostitution, to unmarried mothers, developmentally challenged women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious, or too beautiful, were sent to an asylum. This paralleled the practice in state-run asylums in Britain and Ireland in the same period, where many people with alleged "social dysfunction" were committed to asylums. The women were typically admitted to these institutions at the request of family members (mostly men), priests and doctors. Without a family member on the outside who would vouch for them, some penitents would stay in the asylums for the rest of their lives, many of them taking religious vows.
Given Ireland's historically conservative sexual values, Magdalene asylums were a generally accepted social institution until well into the second half of the 20th century. They disappeared with the changes in sexual mores - or, as Finnegan suggests, as they ceased to be profitable: "Possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes."
The sending of wayward women to Magdalene Asylums was an example of what many feminists regard as the phenomenon in which even alleged sexual misconduct by women is punished more harshly than sexual misconduct by men.
The existence of the Irish asylums was of little thought of until, in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 155 inmates, which had been buried in unmarked graves on the property, were exhumed and, except for one body, cremated and reburied in a mass grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. This triggered a public scandal (cremation is normally regarded as a dark throwback to paganism by Catholics) and became local and national news. In 1999 Mary Norris, Josephine McCarthy and Mary-Jo McDonagh, all asylum inmates, gave accounts of their treatment. The 1997 Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate interviewed former inmates of Magdalene Asylums who testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time. Allegations about the conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates of the Irish asylums were made in the film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan-a film which has been both acclaimed and criticized.
Inquiry into child abuse:
In May 2009, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released a 2000 page report recording claims from hundreds of Irish residents that they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children between the 1930s and the 1990s in a network of state administered and church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted. The alleged abuse was by nuns, priests and non-clerical staff and helpers. The allegations of abuse cover many Catholic and State run Irish Industrial schools, including the Magdalene asylums. The Commission stated:
There were two types of inquiry, one drawing on contested evidence (Investigation Committee) and the other on uncontested evidence (Confidential Committee), which reported to the Commission. Between them the Commission received the evidence of over 1,500 witnesses who attended or were resident as children in schools and care facilities in the State, particularly industrial and reformatory schools.
Eclipsed, a play about the Magdalene Laundries, was written by Patricia Burke-Brogan in the 1980s. Burke-Brogan had worked in the laundries in the 1960s. Eclipsed was first performed in 1992.
A play about the laundries, The Magdalen Whitewash, was written by Valerie Goodwin and performed by the Coolmine Drama group at the Draíocht Arts Centre in Dublin, in 2002.
Rachel Dilworth's The Wild Rose Asylum, the 2008 winner of the Akron Poetry Prize, is a collection of poems based on the Magdalene Laundries.
Indie singer Maria Rosa Young has a song called "Ave Maria Gothic", inspired by the Magdalene Asylums.
A song called "Magdalene Laundry" written by J Mulhern appears on the 1992 album Sentimental Killer by Mary Coughlan and has the chorus line "Ooh Lord won't you let me wash away the stain".
Joni Mitchell has a song about the atrocities committed by the Magdalene Laundries on her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. She also performs this song with The Chieftains on their 1999 album Tears of Stone.
The Mars Volta has a track titled "Asilos Magdalena" on their 2006 album Amputechture.
The Magdalene Sisters is a 2002 film written and directed by Peter Mullan.
Sex in a Cold Climate is a 1998 documentary directed by Steve Humphries.
"The Magadalen Martyrs" is a 2003 story written by Ken Bruen. In the third episode in his Jack Taylor series, Jack Taylor is given a mission: "find the Angel of the Magdalene", who is actually a devil incarnate, nicknamed Lucifer, a woman who "helped" the unfortunates, the martyrs, incarcerated in the infamous laundry.
Frances Black has a song "Magdalen Laundry" on her album How High The Moon (2003).
Kathy's Story by Kathy O'Beirne alleges she suffered physical and sexual abuse in a Magdalene laundry in Ireland.
Kathy's Real Story a book by journalist Hermann Kelly, published by Prefect Press 2007 [ISBN 978-1-906351-00-7] alleges that O'Beirne's allegations are false.
In the Shadow of Eden is an award-winning short memoir by Rachael Romero. Using vintage footage and photos of what lead up to her incarceration in the Convent of the Good Shepherd (Magdalene) Laundries in South Australia, Romero outlines her experience there.
For the love of my mother by JP Rodgers tells the story of one Irish mother. Born into a life of poverty and detained at the tender age of two for begging in the streets, Bridget Rodgers proceeded to spend the next 30 years of her life locked away in one institution or another, namely the infamous Magdalen Laundries.
Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O'Connor spent time in a Magdalene Asylum as a teenager.
The woman who has never known the pollution of a single wicked thought - the woman whose virgin bosom has never been crossed by the shadow of a thought of sin! - the woman breathing purity, innocence and grace, receives the woman whose breath is the pestilence of hell! (Catriona Clear, Nuns in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, p.153)
It may be only a white-veiled novice with no vows as yet; and it may be an old white-haired penitent giving back to God but the dregs of a life spent in sin. It matters not. In the Home of the Good Shepherd the one is ever the 'Mother' while the other is always the 'Child'. -A priest wrote in 1931.
A sullen temper, often shown by refusing food, is best dealt with by silence. When a girl wakes up to the fact that no one takes any notice, nor is troubled (apparently at least) by her self-starvation, she gets weary of her self-imposed martyrdom and learns sense. -(Arthur J. S. Maddison, Hints on Rescue Work, A Handbook for Missionaries and Superintendants of Homes (1898)
The Rule of Silence was a major feature of the women's lives and continues well into the second half of the twentieth century.