Magdalene Chronicles: Secrecy Silence and Shame

Magdalene Chronicles: Secrecy Silence and Shame

“Those who believe in absurdities can be made to commit atrocities” (Voltaire)

‘”What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it appears in the guise of good.” (Soviet dissident,Poet, Joseph Brodsky)

For the sake of goodness,how much evil are you willing to do?” (Wendell Berry)

     In  Ireland, in the city of Dublin, during the early 1990s, land that had been owned by the former Catholic,  Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Mother and Baby Home, attached to a laundry, was found to contain hundreds of bodies in unmarked graves. As the truth and horror of abuses were literaly unearthed, adult corpses showed signs of malnutrition and broken limbs; some with multiple fractures. This led to media revelations about sadistic practices that had transpired within this and other clandestine religious institutions. (Carol Ryan, “Irish Church’s Forgotten Victims Take Case to the U.N, The New York Times, May 25,2011).

     Further revelations arrived in 2014 with a report published by amateur historian Catherine Corless. In response to local stories, her inquiries eventually uncovered a mass grave in unconsecrated ground, where nearly 800 children had died in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway.; It was run by this religious order of Roman Catholic nuns, which operated from 1925-1961,.  Forensic  excavations and DNA analysis sadly included tiny fetal, infant and child bodies which had been dumped into a sewage tank. What had been something of an open secret, sustained by willful ignorance, now shocked the world and launched a series of media and other inquiries into what actually went on behind high convent walls. (Niall O’Down,, August 22,2017).

These asylums, which began as Protestant and then Roman Catholic institutions, operated laundries from the 18th until the late 20th century. In reality, these supposedly charitable facilities were actually penetential workhouses, found throughout the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Canada, ,Australia, New Zealand and the USA.  Many were named for Mary Magdalene, who in traditional Christian  tradition, was a prostitute who chose to reject her sexuality and repent in order for her soul to be saved. According to this belief, she then became one of the closest followers of Jesus. Women and girls incarcerated in these apparently holy facilities were named penitents, best removed from decent society  in order to prevent moral contagion from the impure. Their apalling privations and forced labor were symbolic of a need to be chastised and wash away nasty stains on dirty linen. (James M. Smith, Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Confinement, Manchester University Press, 2007).

Mary Magdalen Isenheim Altarpiece 1512-1516 by Mattias Grünewald

     Ostensibly established to house,”fallen women”, it has been estimated that throughout Ireland, nearly 30,000 women were enslaved into a grim archepelago of Magdalene facilities, locked in tight, behind high convent walls, topped with iron spikes and broken glass; together with iron bars and caging wires on the windows. While  these now infamous laundries were initally founded to remove prostitutes from the streets, by the 1940s a majority of  inmates were unmarried mothers. At that time in Ireland, sex outside of Holy Matrimony was considered a mortal sin, equivalent to murder, and such women were condemed by family, community and church. There was no such punishment for fathers of these babies whose indentities often remained secret. In many cases fathers were unaware and never informed of pregnacies as women were quickly sent away with their fate and that of their babies unknown. (Gary Culliton, “Last Days of a Laundry” The Irish Times”, April 30, 2019).

     At a time in theocratic Ireland, before sex education and contraception, it fell to the church to preach that chastity was the only option to avoid the sin of sex. Due to religious dogma, most people approached courtship in a state of ignorance. If an unwed pregnacy was discovered, it was most important to avoid a scandal; “don’t let the neighbors know”, and women were sent away and often “disappeared” into convent laundries; then regarded as charitable institutions. Some of these women were victims of incest, rape and other sexual abuses. Even a suspicion of loss of chastity was reason enough for involuntary confinement. At that time the only alternatives for these disgraced women were immigration or the street.

     Magdalene laundries also offered convienent warehouses for unwanted girls,  mentally and physically hanicapped young ladies, who ran away or were deemed flirtacious, “out of control” or deemed ” too pretty”, and likely to fall into sin.It was routine practice to send girls from Catholic orphanages to these laundries to work, some as young as nine years of age. Some inmates were raped by visitng priests.Nevertheless, these convent charites offered a convenient “architecture of containment” for undesirable segments of the female popluation; hidden in plain sight. (Erin Blakemore, “How Ireland turned ‘Fallen Women’ into Slaves”,, July 21, 2019).

Magdalen Laundry Monument, Galway City, Ireland

Survivors of these laundries, now elderly, have recently come forward to let their experiences be known. Since the Catholic Church in Ireland was held as the highest moral order, supported by community and state, there was no oversight into convent life or slave labor routines. Women tell of being sent by family members, priests or police to nuns, who subsequently took away their clothes, stripped them naked, cut their hair, and then gave them new names and numbers.  Breasts were tightly bound with a calico strip and the only attire allowed were shapeless ,drab uniforms of rough cloth along with thick woolen stockings and poorly fitted hobnail boots. There were no clocks or calendars and many lost track of their ages as well as contact with the outside world. Privacy was nonexistent , silence was enforced and no “special friendships” allowed.  

Magdalen Laundry: Marie Therese O’Loughlin

     Dehumanizing, back breaking laundry chores were scheduled from early morning until late at night; 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Backbreaking, hard labor often included huge mangles, big heavy rollers, red hot sheets, the acrid smell of carbolic soap and handling of harsh dangerous chemicals. Nuns wore black leather belts around their  waists, and often “leathered” anyone for any reason. Punishments for even minor infractions were severe, including beatings, and witholding food, water basin torture and solitary confinement cells. The few that manged to escape were returned by family, priests and police, with severely cruel consequences. Inmates had no idea how long they were to remain there and many never left.This supposedly charitable system for cotrolling and exploiting inconveneint lives persisted well into the late 20th century. (Rebecca Lea McCarthy, Origins of the Magdalene Laundries: An Analytical History, McFarland Publishers, Jeffereson, North Carolina, 2012).      Many of these Magdalene laundries were attached to an orphanage with nurseries where “children of sin” could be fostered out or adopted. Mothers were given no choice and their babies were taken away. A number of their harrowing testimonies were recorded in the BBC documentary, Magdalene Laundries Survivor Stories. One survivor’s story was sadly similar to so many others… “They took my life, my human rights, my name, my clothes, my hair and worst of all…….my daughter.” (, February 5, 2013).

     Some of these children were fostered out and up to 15,000 children were illegally exported from asylum nurseries in Ireland to be adopted by Americans . Hollywood stars such as Jane Russell looked to Ireland  to shop for familes. (James Wilson, “Jane Russell’s adoption of Irish baby nearly ended her career. (“, June 09,2017). The movie Philomena (2013) with Dame Judi Dench, tells the story of a pregnant  teen in Ireland sent to a convent asylum where her son was taken away for adoption in America. Her search for him is a remarkable story which awakened many to practices carried out by secretive religious orders which operated with no oversight whatsoever. The last remaining and now derelicht convent laundy run by the Sisters of Our Lady, located on Sean MacDermatt street in Dublin, finally closed its dismal doors, for good, on September 25, 1996. Inquiries remain ongoing. (http://adoptionland.ure, September 1996).

     Like many tragedies often hidden by silence and secrets, Magdalene stories have generated music, poetry and film. In addition to Philomena there is The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film by Peter Mullan and a 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate produced by Steve Humphries and The Forgotten Maggies documentary by Steve O’Riordan. Rachel Dilworth’s, Wild Rose Asylum: Poems of the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland won the Akron Poetry Prize. Joni Mitchell recorded the  Magdalene Laundries in 1994 for her album Turbulent Indigo.  See also: Katherine O’Donnell et al. Ireland and The Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice, I.B. Tauris, London, June 3, 2021.

Anngwyn St. Just                                                                         Timothy John Thornton

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