When I first came across the Magdalene laundries, I could not believe what I was reading. My jaw literally dropped. I thought, “What?? Magdalene asylums??? How was it possible that I had never heard of such a despicable concept that violated human rights in the name of the holy?”
Never mind the fact that the name Magdalene was used once again as symbol for promiscuity and fallen women but that is beyond the point and the suffering these women went through. How could such institutions even exist?
Unwed mothers were given to God to be reformed and treated like slaves. Feminine silence has been a cancer in our consciousness for far too long and this horrific period of history in Ireland underlines the necessity to continue sharing our voices, for each other and for the healing of humanity.
The Magdalene laundries (also known as Magdalene asylum, nice don’t you think?) were institutions where human rights were constantly violated although they were originally presented as charitable refuges for unwed mothers. The Magdalen were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, abuse, and forced unpaid labor.
In the span of its existence, at least 30,000 women and girls suffered in the various institutions throughout Ireland and England.
The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758 and Ireland followed in 1765 with the Magdalene Asylum for Penitent Females founded by the Protestant Church of Ireland.
The ML were generally run by nuns between 1922 and 1996. Yes you read that well. 1996. That’s when the last one was finally shut down.
The original purpose behind the laundries were to morally reform so-called “fallen women” from perceived mortal sins of the flesh and the spiritual consequences. They were supposed to rehabilitate the girls into society but many of them never left the asylums and died there.
The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758 and Ireland followed in 1765.
In the 18th century, orders of nuns throughout Europe opened houses in after the perceived fallen woman of the Bible, namely Magdalene, to convince women to leave prostitution and walk on the path of God. By the 20th century in Ireland, they had enlarged their vision: taking in women from the streets, unwed mothers, daughters of unmarried mothers, and young girls considered burdens by their families. Victims of rape and incest were also sent to the laundries, girls who were deemed pretty were also sent to the asylums because they had the potential to be “temptresses”. If a woman became pregnant outside of marriage, she was treated like an outcast by her family and her community and had nowhere left to go.
The unwed mothers were forced to give up their baby for adoption. Up to 2,000 children were forcibly removed from their birth mothers and illegally exported from Magdalene laundries in Ireland to adoptive parents in the U.S..
Veronica Smith was sent to a South London Magdalene laundry for six months after announcing her pregnancy to her pregnancy to her parents in 1964. This was before the pill and the option to terminate early pregnancy. She recounts her experience:
“My daughter was born in March, and she was with me in hospital for about a week. I knew from the start that she was going for adoption. No one ever said I could keep her.”
Four different religious orders ran the ten for-profit laundries around Ireland. The original mission of saving those women’s souls quickly turned into a sour, profitable business. Although ran as a for-profit enterprises, the Magdalens were unpaid. They slaved away during the day, doing laundry, scrub the floors, cooking for the nuns. The women were strictly controlled and not paid for their forced labor.
They would be beaten up if they were not doing their work appropriately and would have their head shaved at the slight disobedience. The women were told that they were literally washing away the stain of their “sins” and had to be rehabilitated in order to make it to heaven. The windows had bars on them and the women would get beaten up, experience food deprivation, physical abuse if they attempted to escape.
Attempts to escape were severely punished and the girls would often return to the homes since they had no money or anywhere to go.
One of the Magdalenes, Maureen Taylor recalls her experience living there:
“The nuns were very cruel, they would come up behind and if you didn’t do the job right, they would pull you by the hair. I just didn’t do something something they wanted me to do.”
One girl was detained because the sisters her good looks would cause her to fall away: she was “too pretty to be allowed out”.
The victims of rape were branded as tainted and evil while the perpetrators carried no fault nor blame at all. The young girls were morally cleansed for their mistake and the trauma of these years at the laundries followed them for years if not for the rest of their lives.
“We were cursed as nothing. We were told that we came from nothing, we will never be anything, and we will always go back to being nothing,” shares Josephine Meade, a woman who spent three years in the reformatory institution in Cork and Dublin, Ireland.
“There was a lady in there and she was dying in terrible agony. The nun that was there took me over to this lady and said ‘do you see this? She has never done anything and she is suffering in agony for your sins’,” recalls a Magdalene asylum survivor by the name of Bridget (her name was changed for privacy purposes). “Their hair was cut, and their clothes were taken away and replaced with a drab uniform. A rule of silence was imposed at almost all times in Magdalene Laundries and, in many women’s experiences, friendships were forbidden. Correspondence with the outside was often intercepted or forbidden. Visits by friends or family were not encouraged and were monitored by nuns when they did occur.”
In 2018, the Magdalene laundries came into the spotlight as civil rights associations brought together 220 former Magdalenes under the Magdalene Restorative Justice program. President Michael Iggins of Ireland also delivered a formal apology to the Magdalene victims and their families on June 5, 2018. “You were profoundly failed by the state which, in its relationship to these institutions, should have had your welfare at its core. You were failed by governments that knowingly relied on the existence and practices of these institutions rather than addressing your particular needs in other, more sympathetic ways,” he said. (Source: NRC online)
If you want to educate yourself on the Magdalene Laundries, start by watching The Magdalene Sisters, a British drama about three teenage girls sent to a Magdalene asylum in 1964.
Also follow this link from the Justice for Magdalene association.