Ireland’s Disappeared: The Magdalenes

For years, 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.

By Ruth Riddick | Vol. XXXIII – No. 2 2012
Conscience Magazine

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Once upon a time in Ireland, it was permissable to lock up your daughters for sexual sin, perceived (“being pretty”) or actual (“having a baby”). Incarceration was at the pleasure of the church and there was no recourse to the law. These special prisons offered laundry service to ecclessiastics, reputable businesses and the respectable Catholic middle classes, and the women installed there—against their will and without hope of reprieve—were unpaid for their labor. Upon entry, their names were changed in the institutional register. No state taxes were paid on their behalf, nor were contributions made to state pension plans. No outside authority, no trades union, oversaw or improved working conditions. When the inmates died, often after decades of institutionalization, they were interred in unmarked graves.

“Once that door was locked, never, never, were you going to get out of there,” survivor Mary Smith told Irish radio in 2011.

Meanwhile, their children were appropriated and exported to adoptive Catholic families in America. Incomplete records were kept of these transactions, some undoubtedly involving payment, in a deliberate attempt to frustrate any future efforts to reconcile mother and child.

The so-called Magdalene “asylums” were located in full view of the complicit citizenry and served as an object lesson in female terror.

These practices were finally halted, and the institutions closed, fewer than twenty years ago, not by public outcry or legal reform or political initiative, but by the newly popular laundromat. Technology trumped servitude.

This is the century-spanning scandal of Ireland’s Disappeared.

An open secret in Ireland, audiences in the United States were shocked to learn of it from Peter Mullan’s searing 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters (reviewed in these pages).

Which is only the beginning of the story.

The Irish Times confirms the extent of the laundries’ connections at the highest levels of Irish society. “A ledger for a Magdalene laundry in Dublin’s Drumcondra reveals that its regular customers included Áras an Uachtaráin [the president’s residence], Government departments, Guinnesses [brewery], some of Dublin’s leading hotels and golf clubs, Clerys [premier department store], the Gaiety theatre and Dr Steevens hospital in the city,” wrote correspondent Patsy McGarry last year. “Included also are religious congregations in the city. Dublin airport and the Bank of Ireland were also regular customers of the laundry.” The ledger covers a six-month period in the early 1980s and was discovered during a 1993 exhumation of over one hundred anonymous women’s remains when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off land to developers. It took seventeen years to come to light.

“Yes, the church was very involved,” says historian Dr. Mary McAuliffe of University College Dublin. “But the Irish state was complicit too.” Recent research confirms that the Department of Health paid capitation grants for “problem girls” sent to the laundries as recently as the 1980s. McAuliffe adds that girls and women were routinely referred to these church-owned enterprises by the civil courts and probation services. “They were conveyed, escorted and contained there by agents of the state, the gardai [the police]”—“in their fancy car,” as one Magdalene described.

Thus, the laundries were used by the state as places of confinement similar to the state-run industrial schools where boys such as writer Gerard Mannix Flynn spent miserable childhood years subject to daily horrors, including sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. (Flynn’s moving drama about his experiences—James X, a solo performance directed by Gabriel Byrne—was seen to acclaim in New York late last year.)

There, however, the similarities end. In a foreseeable twist, the Magdalene survivors have been denied the protection of a contemporary Ireland struggling to come to terms with this shadowy past.

“The laundries were privately owned,” McAuliffe summarizes.“That put them beyond the scope and recommendations of inquiries into abuse in children’s institutions.”

In 2002, as a direct result of journalist Mary Raftery’s groundbreaking investigations, the government established a Residential Institutions Redress Board to make awards to those who were abused as children while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions subject to state regulation or inspection. Again, the Magadelene survivors were excluded from its reach.

(Image: Public Domain)

Then-Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keefe, was unambiguous in a letter of September 2009: “The Magdalen [sic] Laundries were privately owned establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the state.” He dismissed any possibility of redress under existing legislation. Mary Raftery was not impressed. She wrote, “While the state did not fund these institutions, it is unarguable that the legal duty to inspect and regulate them…did exist.”

In his letter, the Minister astonishingly refers to Magdalene survivors as “employees” of the laundries. This solecism only follows that of his fellow minister who, 70 years previously, had mendaciously claimed under parliamentary privilege that army contracts with Magdalene laundries “contain a fair wages clause.”

Which is the point at which Justice For Magdalenes (JFM), an advocacy group established in 2004, brought the issue to the attention of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Campaign Against Torture (UNCAT).

“We participated in the UN process [of examining human rights abuses] by submitting evidence of the state’s involvement in the Magdalene Laundries abuse, including first-hand testimony from survivors,” says Maeve O’Rourke of JFM’s advisory committee.

UNCAT duly issued a damning report recommending that Ireland establish a full statutory investigation into allegations of torture and degrading treatment against women and girls forced to work without pay, and for prosecution of those who abused them. “The government has elided the suffering of the women who spent time in Magdalene Laundries, who have so far been denied any apology or reparation,” adds JFM spokeswoman, Claire McGettrick.

Amid evidence of political foot-dragging, Dr. Martin McAleese was appointed in July 2011 to chair an interdepartmental committee established to clarify the state’s interaction with the Magdalene laundries. (McAleese, spouse of the former Irish president, is a member of the Senate and was widely commended for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process.)

Mary Raftery cautiously welcomed the McAleese committee. “[They] will need to deploy formidable skills in lateral thinking,” she wrote. “Official information on these institutions can be tricky to find, and may pop up in unexpected places.” Thus far, four religious congregations, including the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, have agreed to participate, characterizing the laundries as “a dark story of Irish society.”

JFM’s O’Rourke was also welcoming, “This interdepartmental committee is the first step because we are confident that if this inquiry is fast and fair, it will soon lead to an apology and concrete measures such as reparations for the women,” she said. “Magdalene Laundry survivors need to know that the government is serious about putting this injustice right.”

The Irish government’s response to the UN was due in May 2012 and the McAleese report expected in September.

“It was the story of the graves at Drumcondra that caught my attention,” says artist Cheryl Parry, on a mission of reclamation. “I went to Ireland to see for myself, and I only use well-documented material in my work.”

The Magdalene Laundries installation incorporates Catholic iconography
with oranges, a traditional Christmas gift among poor families.[/caption]

Parry is creator of the multimedia piece, The Magdalene Laundries, recently installed and performed at New York’s Clemente Solo Vélez Cultural Center. “It was important to me to be in this kind of institutional setting evoking the 19th century aesthetic of despair,” says Parry.

A stark classroom is decorated only with the flotsam of Catholic iconography—a rosary, a small crucifix, a missal. “The objects have a symbolic and metaphoric meaning,” says Parry. “I’ve collected lots of them which I lay out to be site specific wherever we’re presenting this piece.” Astonishingly, these artifacts are interspersed with oranges, the only representation of life in the uncompromising setting. It’s a dramatic contrast—vibrant color against whitewashed walls and the darkened objects. “For poor families, oranges were often the only gift they could give at Christmas,” Parry explained. “You’ll remember the scene in Mullan’s film where the orange appears on the pillow.”

This mise en scene also reminds the witness (it’s difficult to think of ourselves as an audience) of the Magdalenes’ obsession with cleanliness. Parry refers us to the old adage, “Bad girls do the best sheets.” We’re left to meditate on how cleanliness is next to godliness and on the need to expiate our sins.

The whole effect—sterile, redolent— is enormously moving.

A sheet pinned to the wall serves as an apt screen for Parry’s short film, The Cloths of Heaven. This engrossing, somber piece follows the path of a Magdalene in illustrative montage, a via dolo-rosa. The narrative is given only in titles, as in silent movies; the accompanying music is unexpectedly engaging and appropriate. Overall, the effect is poetic; the story primitive, heartbreaking.

Live performance interprets the story further. “I once wanted to be a dancer,” says Parry, so it was automatic for her to include movement. “My ballet teacher referred me to the choreographer, Mary Clare McKenna, whose grandmother was a Magdalene whose son was adopted in Brooklyn.” McKenna’s piece is disciplined, with five ghostly dancers performing repetitive movements mimicing the routine of institutional life.

To complete the installation, Parry contacted LuLu LoLo, the New York performance artist best known for her monologues commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “LuLu’s really interested in women’s history and she creates characters from her own research. I thought she was perfect,” Parry explained. For The Magdalene Laundries, LuLu imagined an original mother/child monologue. Its impact was heightened by being the only voice heard all evening.

“The subject matter requires different media,” says Parry, who hopes to bring The Magdalene Laundries to other venues, possibly including Ireland. “The story is about gender, class, codified behavior. It needs a wider audience to break the silence.” Mary Raftery could only agree. She wrote, “The most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced.”

Meanwhile, Catriona Crowe, senior archivist and head of special projects at Ireland’s National Archives, turned her attention to the adopted children. “Some of these would undoubtedly be children of Magdalenes,” she confirmed. “I came across the records from the embassy in Washington, DC, when they were handed over to us after the 30 year moratorium. There were approximately 2,000 files, covering years from the 1940s through the ’70s.” Crowe was aware of how important it would be to adopted children to know who their mothers were. She became an advocate. “It’s really important to reassure people that the files exist and that they can have access to a proper contact register through the Department of Foreign Affairs,” she said.

Nor has Gerard Mannix Flynn, now a member of Dublin City Council, been idle. As Far Cry Productions, Flynn has launched an internet petition to stop a €500,000 memorial to victims of child abuse, originally proposed in 2002. He writes, “In June 2012, the Office of Public Works will announce the winning artist’s design…. However, the more difficult issues of responsibility, accountability and securing justice for the abused still appear to be a long way off.”

Referring explicitly to the Magdalenes, Flynn concludes, “The time to memorialize an issue like this is only when all that can be put right has been put right.”

Reproductive rights activist and former service provider Ruth Riddick won a freedom-of-information judgment against Ireland at the European Court of Human Rights in the Open Door Counselling case (1992). She regularly reviews books and films for Conscience, most recently “There Be Dragons” (2011).

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  1. Shocking documentary stories opens up the black side of Ireland… It’s 24 years since the State’s Magdalene laundries became a source of public controversy. Was nice to hear that The Irish Government has unveiled a package of financial and other supports for survivors of Magdalene laundries.


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