Magdalene Laundries – Part 2/2: Institutionalised Slavery

When the Sisters of Charity in Dublin sold off their property to the Government in 1993, the news burst forth that there were 133 unmarked graves in the grounds. It was discovered that these were previous inmates of the convent laundry. While some bodies were claimed by family members after this became public, many of them remained unnamed, unclaimed. One of the reasons they could not have been traced was that once they entered the asylum, their entire identity before entry was effaced, and their names changed. These women did not even have any death certificates, which went against the law of the time. The convent seemed to have got away with blatantly flouting the law in this case, as indeed, it had by forcibly detaining women to work without pay, and pocketing the income from their labour.

So how was life inside a Magdalene Asylum and what was was its purpose? Ostensibly, it existed to provide shelter to and cleanse the “sins” of the women. This was done by constant prayer and constant work. These asylums in Ireland worked as laundries for the larger community, who paid to use the service. However, those who did the actual work, i.e. the “penitents” did not get to see a penny of this income. It all went to the Church. And remember, it was before the era of affordable washing machines. Each dirty cloth was brushed by hand, and hung out to dry, often in the bitter cold of the Irish winter. In addition to working in the laundry, these penitents also had to take care of the cleaning and scrubbing that went with maintaining a convent of that scale. Again, totally without pay. So what we have here is an establishment technically making use of slavery with the complicity of the Church, the Government and the community at large.

On arrival to the asylum, the new woman inmate was first given a change of clothes. From now on, she had to wear a drab, colourless outfit. The uniforms were designed like bags to take away any form or shape of the human body. Breasts poking out (as they tend to do) was a punishable crime in this place. They were bound tightly with straps to prevent any shape showing. The hair was cut off, as again the hair was a sign of temptation and vanity. The next step would be a change of name. Many inmates had their names changed in order to make them forget their real lives, and adjust to the new life. It was also just another brick in the wall of degradation and humiliation.

Brigid Young testifies with tears in her eyes, in the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate:

They would torture us. They would line us up every Saturday night, and they used to make us strip naked in front of them, and they would be standing at the bottom of the laundry and they would be laughing at us, and they would be criticising us. And if you were heavy, or fat, or whatever, they will show abuse to us. We had no privacy at all, no privacy. They enjoyed us to strip naked.

Mary Norris, who spent years shut up in a Killarney home narrates:

Sister Laurence would often wait until Friday to beat me. We used have a bath on Fridays and she would come in when I was dripping wet and beat me, because it hurt more. But I would never cry and one lay nun (a nun who entered the Order without a dowry) who was nice used to tell me to cry, because she would then stop the beating.

Some of them would even be forced to give away their children to be adopted. Sometimes there were pregnant women from whom the babies were snatched immediately after birth.

Prayer was part of life for the inmates and the nuns sometimes made them pray for five to six hours continuously on a daily basis. While many of the girls were devout Catholics and were probably used to praying of their own volition, forcing them to pray for hours on end for days together is just another kind of abuse.

Why should you let your wandering eyes,
Entice your souls to shameful sin!
Scandal and ruin are the prize
You take such fatal pains to win
Flee, sinners, flee th’unlawful bed,
Lest vengeance send you down to dwell
In the dark regions of the dead,
To feed the fiercest fire in hell.

In spite of the public outrage at different stages in its history, the institutions continued functioning because few people were willing to take the responsibility for change.  The very fact that the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 (long after laundries became redundant and the laws had changed to accommodate women’s rights) is a testament to the difficulty of changing attitudes with respect to social change, and particularly with respect to women’s rights.

Learn more @:

Justice for Magdalenes

The Magdalene Story

Alliance Support Group

Film: The Magdalene Sisters

Documentary: Sex in a Cold Climate

Rebecca Lea McCarthy: Origins of the Magdalene laundries: an analytical history


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Smitha
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 19:17:24

    That was shocking to read. How inhumane, and yet it went on for so long.. Will read the links you provided now.

  2. Indian Homemaker
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 01:20:32

    OMG! This is so blatantly, social norms being used to get free labor!

  3. Fem
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 03:14:24

    @Smitha, I would recommend you watch the film, and then the documentary. But only if you have a strong stomach.

    @IHM, This wouldn’t be the only instance, as we can see only too well.

  4. scribblehappy
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 09:14:15

    How very convenient for the church. What did the church have to say about the men who had been equal participants in the ‘sins’ these women had been accused of?
    Its weird how the burden of sin always comes to rest on the shoulders of women.

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