Written by: Sophia Halverson
On March 29th the Irish government announced its intention to build a ‘site of national conscience’ in the center of downtown Dublin, to honor the survivors of the inhumane mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries during the last two centuries of Irish history. The National Center for Research and Remembrance will be built on the site of the last remaining Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, Our Lady of Charity, which closed 25 years ago on September 25th, 1996, and has since lain dormant. The center will function as a museum and exhibition space, as well as a research center and collection of records chronicling institutional abuses in Ireland. It will provide a space for relatives to find information about their loved ones who may have been lost in the system, including testimonies from survivors about their experiences. The site will also include social housing, community facilities, and programs for early learning.
Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, has said that the project is a step in the right direction on Ireland’s “journey of recognising and learning from the failures of the past and acknowledging the hurt which continues to be felt by survivors and their families”. Professor Katherine O’Donnell of the Open Heart City activist group, an organization that ‘aims to facilitate the emergence of a shared vision for the site of the last Magdalene Laundry to close in Ireland’, said that it will be a place for people to reflect on “all the other parts of what we call our dark heritage, the places where our country failed its citizens.”
The Magdalene Laundries dates back to the mid 1700s and was based on the concept of putting ‘fallen women’, particularly those unmarried and pregnant, to work as a way of getting them to repent. Although the idea was initially championed by both Catholic and Protestant churches, over time the laundries became more Catholic, and the conditions became more and more prison-like, even though the women had not been charged with any crimes. There were worries that the rate of prostitution was growing in Irish cities, and that ‘wayward’ women who had sex, got pregnant outside of marriage, or simply did not fit social norms were more likely to become prostitutes. Families would send their unmarried daughters to these institutions to hide their pregnancies or to keep them from getting pregnant in the first place. More than 11,000 women and girls were held in just ten laundries, overseen by four orders of nuns, from 1922-1996. This is likely a gross underestimate due to (undoubtedly purposefully) inaccurate record keeping.
Although women initially entered the facilities voluntarily, served for a set number of years, and learned skills that would enable them to find a respectable profession once they were released, the Magdalene Laundries soon became more like prisons for undesirable women, including victims of rape, those with mental illnesses, pregnant women who were unmarried, and even ‘flirtatious’ girls or girls who were ‘too pretty’. Although the institutions were run by Catholic orders, they were supported by the Irish government in exchange for laundry services. Although the laundries were subject to the Factories Act, and Factory Inspectors visited the laundries from 1957 onwards, inspectors were “concerned with machinery and factory premises only” and did not question the condition of the inmates. This bureaucratic willingness to overlook tough truths allowed the abuse to continue.
Conditions at the facilities were nothing short of hellish. The prisoners were forced to perform grueling labor all day and never received financial compensation, even though the Laundries themselves were for-profit businesses. However, they made very little money. Women were usually not given information about when they would be released, were forced to change their names,given an ID number, had their hair cut, and were not allowed to associate with other inmates or form friendships. Letters were intercepted and visits from friends and family were often discouraged or monitored. A rule of silence was almost always imposed. Survivors reported being physically and verbally abused and did not receive an education, adding a further burden to life after their release. Women that tried to escape were often caught and returned to the laundries, where they were transferred to different facilities. Prisoners were released abruptly with no warning, money, or extra clothing beyond what they were wearing, and were often forced to flee abroad. One of the only ways a woman could leave was if she was claimed by a relative.
Deaths at the Magdalene Laundries and the similar mother and baby homes were also common among both mothers and children. Unlike the Laundries, which were originally created to house prostitutes as a form of penance, mother and baby homes took in unwed mothers as young as twelve years old for their pregnancies and births, until their babies could be adopted out. Mothers were often transferred from the mother and baby homes to one of the Laundries soon after giving birth. In 2014 a mass grave was found on the site of a former mother and baby home with the remains of children from 35 weeks to 3 years old in County Galway. The majority of burials had taken place in the 1950s. Local historian Catherine Corless first identified the site as a possible mass grave when she found the death certificates of 796 children at the former St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961, but the certificates did not say where they had been buried. It was customary for the Catholic Church to bury the bodies of very young children in unmarked graves on the premises. She had previously suggested bodies could have been buried in an old septic tank, where local boys had found children’s bodies in the 1970s.
Although Corless was understandably horrified and alerted police, nuns, and clergy in the area, the story did not garner widespread attention until it was picked up by papers in Dublin and aired internationally. According to Corless, “it seemed as if no one wanted to bring this up…The only ones who were outraged seemed to be us…The mentality seemed to be: ‘That’s a long time ago, forget about it, it doesn’t matter any more.’” Changes on the map of the neighborhood over the years also seemed to point at a purposeful forgetting: “There is an area across the map marked ‘burial ground” [Corless] says. “First, the houses were built, around that area. Finally a playground was built on part of the burial ground itself.” The government later launched an inquiry, which resulted in the discovery of the bodies.
At a mass exhumation of a Magdalene Laundry in Dublin in 1993 when one of the orders decided to sell some of their land, over 155 bodies of unidentified women were found. As many as one thousand women may be buried in Galway, Wexford, Limerick, Cork, Dublin, and Waterford alone. The nuns prompted further outrage by only having 75 death certificates, despite previously requesting 133 bodies be moved from unmarked graves on the property, with the nuns citing an administrative error. This discovery opened the floodgates, with more and more women coming forward with stories about their experiences and putting pressure on the Irish government to hold the Catholic Church accountable and pursue cases for human rights violations with the United Nations. The United Nations eventually responded, urging the Vatican to look into the abuses at the Laundries and remove any clergy responsible for child abuse. However, the survivors had to wait until 2013 to receive a formal state apology. Then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny both apologized to them and promised to build a memorial, as many survivors had requested.
The Magdalen Restorative Justice Ex-Gratia Scheme was established in 2015 to compensate survivors of the laundries and has dispensed more than 32.8 million euros as of January 2022 to surviving women and their families. However, the four religious congregations who ran the laundries – the Religious Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, and the Good Shepherd sisters – all declined to contribute to the fund.
Ireland’s reckoning with this part of its past, when women could be imprisoned for not fitting strict social norms, is still ongoing. The abuse would not have gone unchecked for so many years without the government’s cooperation, along with the families who put their daughters in institutions like the Magdalene Laundries. According to academic James M. Smith, “Irish society and Irish families re-victimised the female victims of male sexual violence, be that rape, be that incest, be that sexual abuse. The family was sacrosanct after the 1937 constitution – inalienable rights. So, we asked no questions. There was no comment. And it was easier in some cases just to send Mary away or Bridget away.” Ireland’s religious and insular society created a climate of fear and judgment that destroyed the lives of thousands of women before and after their time in the Laundries – and due to the reluctance of government and Church officials to get involved cases of abuse, things didn’t change until people were no longer able to look away.
The construction of a museum and memorial site and the financial reparations made to the surviving women are welcome steps towards dealing with Ireland’s fraught religious past in a constructive way. It will also allow families to heal by helping them find information about relatives that might have been lost in the system. Although it has been far too long in coming, the increasing knowledge of these kinds of abuses and the role the Irish government played in them testifies to the resilience of the survivors and the ordinary citizens like Catherine Corless who refused to let the matter drop. Hopefully the creation of a site of national conscience will erode the last of the culture of silence and enable a collective and individual healing process.