Magdalene Asylum

Magdalene Asylum

Magdalene Asylums were institutions for so-called "fallen" women, most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labour such as laundry work. In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalene Laundries. It has been estimated that 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions, often against their will. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.


Magdalene Asylums grew out of the rescue movement in Britain and Ireland in the 19th century, which had as its formal goal the rehabilitation of women who had worked as prostitutes. In Ireland, the institutions were named for St. Mary Magdalene, who according to 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 merely short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries.

As the Magdalene movement became increasingly distant from the original ideas of the Rescue Movement, that is, to take prostitutes off the streets who would 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, colour, 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 the convent, after a period of probation, they are allowed to become Magdalenes and eventually take the vows of the Magdalene order.

Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement, many women entered and left the institutions on 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" (published in "Historical Archeology", the journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology), that the women in Philadelphia's Protestant asylum, "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances."

Because of their background as prostitutes, inmates were regarded as "in need of penitence": : "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; cited from Finnegan, p.20]

Inmates were required until the 1970s to address all staff regardless of age, as "mother", and were called "children". As one priest wrote in 1931: "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'." [Finnegan, p.42]

To enforce order and maintain a monastic atmosphere, the inmates were required to observe strict silence for much of the day. "The Rule of Silence was a major feature of the women's lives and continues well into the second half of the twentieth century." [Finnegan, p. 24] Corporal punishment was common, and passive-aggression was simply ignored:

: "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); cited from Finnegan, p.31]

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 were sometimes 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 or priests. 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 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 Frances 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 "suspected" sexual misconduct by women is punished more harshly than sexual misconduct by men.


The existence of the asylums was 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 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 1998 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. The conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates was shown in the acclaimed film "The Magdalene Sisters" (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan. However the accuracy of this portrayal has been challenged. In addition, the story of one of the most famous alleged victims of the Magdalen asylums has been charged by relatives and investigators with being largely an invention. [ [ "Mis lit: Is this the end for the misery memoir?", "Daily Telegraph"] 5 March, 2008.]

Similar instances of abuse have been reported in Ireland's industrial schools. As a group these institutions were exposed in an RTÉ (Ireland's national broadcaster) series by reporter Mary Raftery in 1999. Despite the Irish government convening of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, attempts to obtain compensation for the victims of the system have proven frustrating. [] [] Essentially, to be eligible for compensation, a victim must have been resident in one of a number of specifically listed institutions; no Magdalene Laundries are included on this list.


*"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 1960's. "Eclipsed" was first performed in 1992.

*A play about the laundries was written by Valerie Goodwin and performed by the Coolmine Drama group at the Draíocht Arts Centre in Dublin, in 2002. []

*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".

*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.

See also

*Stolen Generation
*Unfree labour
*Behavior modification facility
*Involuntary servitude
*Tranquility Bay
*Indian Boarding School


*cite book|last=Finnegan|first=Frances|title=Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalene Asylums in Ireland|year=2001|publisher=Congrave Press|location=Piltown, Co. Kilkenny|id=ISBN 0-9540921-0-4
*cite book|last=Raftery|first=Mary|coauthors=and Eoin O'Sullivan|title=Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools|year=1999|publisher=New Island|location=Dublin|id=ISBN 1-874597-83-9

External links

* [ The Magdalene Laundry] . "CBS News", August 3, 2003. "(Note: The date given in this article for the mass grave discovery is incorrect.)"
* [ "Review of Academic study of prostitution reform"]
* [ Summary on-line.]
* [,4120,890489,00.html In God's Name.]
* [ Magdalene laundry] Wikinfo article (detailed, subjective article on the abuses)
* [ Last Days of a Laundry]

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