DIGEST february 2024

The Magdalene Laundries: Punishing the poor, pregnant and unwed in Ireland

“By 1951, about 1 in every 100 Irish citizens was coercively confined in an institution operated collaboratively by the Church/State establishment, including psychiatric hospitals, industrial and reformatory schools, residential schools for disabled children, Mother and Baby Homes, county homes and Magdalene institutions.”

This astonishing statistic frames Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice (2021), a detailed, gripping, harrowing and, at times, uplifting account of the struggle of the survivors of the Laundries for accountability and reparations. I grew up in Quebec, where the Catholic Church’s iron grip on politics, society and—especially—women and sexuality was finally pried loose in the 1960s. What I read felt all too familiar: the systemic abuses against the most vulnerable, the denials and delays, the complicity of the State, the impunity.

Ireland’s “architecture of containment concentrated on the surveillance and monitoring of all girls and women and, where considered necessary, the incarceration or poorer women and their children,” notes the report. This accelerated after the founding of the Irish State in 1922 when “maternity and social reproduction became significant territory on which to assert a national patriarchal discourse of moral probity and purity, particularly when opposed to the former colonizer. The British Empire might possess vast wealth and political power, but the fledgling Free State would cultivate supremacy on the moral high ground—or so the argument ran.” Containment and punishment of women and children became national policy, with the Church positioning itself to run the vast majority of welfare, health and educational institutions with State financing (as it still does today).

The Magdalenes (named after Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus often portrayed as a repentant prostitute) were created by religious orders of nuns in Ireland in the mid-19th century specifically to “rescue fallen girls and women,” such as sex workers or unwed pregnant girls. In the Magdalenes, vulnerable women and girls were de facto incarcerated, denied education, cut off from contact with the outside world and forced to work at least 60 hours a week in the nuns’ laundry businesses, without pay and in harsh conditions. Physical abuse and food deprivation were the norm. An estimated 30,000 girls and women were held in the Magdalenes over their 150-year history, but solid numbers cannot be established since the religious orders who ran them have never been, to this day, required to turn over their records. Many of the women were never freed and died in detention. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996.

Girls were often moved into the Laundries directly from the Church-run Mother and Baby Homes for unwed mothers, after being forced to relinquish their newborn. Thousands of babies were born in these Homes; many of them died, while countless others were placed in Church-run “industrial schools” or, from the 1950s on, sold by the nuns for adoption by Americans. In 2017, a mass grave containing the remains of over 800 babies and children was uncovered in Tuam, County Galway, on the grounds of a former Mother and Baby Home run by the sisters of Bon Secours. Disabled girls and women, girls who were victims of rape and incest, and girls from poor families were also routinely sent to the Laundries. The shame—of unwanted pregnancy, sex outside marriage, disability, rape, incest, poverty—was theirs to bear.

As “charitable and reformatory institutions,” the Magdalene Laundries were de facto exempt from legislative oversight and health and safety regulations from their inception until the 1970s. State officials rarely inspected them and never inquired about the living conditions and pay of those working there, even though State-affiliated institutions regularly sent in their laundry.

It was only in the 1990s that Church-run institutions for children came under closer scrutiny in Ireland, after multiple accounts of horrific abuse by priests made the news. Finally, in 1999, faced with massive street protests and global media attention, the Irish government established the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) to investigate 18 religious orders and 215 residential institutions for children. But, oddly enough, the Magdalene Laundries were excluded from the remit of CICA and its subsequent compensation scheme, as the State insisted they were private institutions with which it had had no involvement.

Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), a movement to secure a State apology and compensation scheme for survivors of the Magdalenes, was launched in 2003 by daughters of formerly detained women. JFM activists faced formidable odds in holding the State accountable—not because State knowledge or responsibility was hard to prove, but because, as they would soon realize, both the State and the Church were prepared to evade, lie, delay, and place multiple obstacles in their path by adopting a posture the JFM report describes as “belligerent ignorance.”

To understand the struggle they would face, JFM activists only had to look at what was going on at CICA, which conducted its investigations from 1999 to 2009. CICA faced systematic and relentless legal opposition and obstruction to its workings by the religious orders, to the point where its operations were more than once nearly derailed.

CICA’s 2,600-page final report, issued in 2009, formally incorporated evidence from over 1,500 people. Its findings were damning, detailing pervasive and endemic physical, sexual and psychological abuse, forced child labor, lack of food and gross neglect of both hygiene and health. But, in the end, under Church and government pressure, CICA chose not to name perpetrators. "The CICA Final Report did not even explicitly state that the anonymized abusers were in fact members of the orders in charge, leaving open the suggestion that abusers were external or lay agents visiting or working at the institutions"—thus allowing the Church to evade criminal charges or accountability for its actions. And indeed, only one person was prosecuted for child sexual abuse at CICA’s conclusion.

To make matters worse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) made filing compensation claims arduous by forcing victims (who were often elderly, impoverished and sick) to not only prove that they had been abused, but that their injuries and illness resulted specifically from that abuse! Even more shocking perhaps was the fact that the State made a secret deal with the Church—never discussed in Parliament—for the State to foot the bill for CICA costs and RIRB awards above 128 million euros, only slightly raising that threshold later. (Costs for CICA and RIRB amounted to 1.5 billion euros as of 2021). How the powerful protect each other!

Yet the women of JFM and their allies persevered, with remarkable courage and resilience. Between 2003 and 2009, they created an archive of documents, collected testimonies from Laundry survivors, spoke frequently to the press, and met with parliamentarians and government officials. In 2010, JFM submitted survivor evidence to the Irish Human Rights Commission, which concluded there was State responsibility and called on the government to establish a formal inquiry.

In 2011, faced with continued insistence by state officials that the Laundries were private businesses and that women entered them voluntarily, JFM decided to go international. They submitted evidence and survivor testimonies to the UN Committee against Torture, which was reviewing Ireland’s report on its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture. When, at the hearing in Geneva, Committee experts began grilling Irish government representatives about the Laundries, the officials appeared “stunned,” and unconvincingly claimed that any abuses had taken place in a distant past. The Committee Against Torture’s final recommendations affirmed JFM’s submission about abuse and state responsibility. The JFM activists thought they were at a turning point.

Soon thereafter, the Irish government agreed to create the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (IDC), to be chaired by Senator Martin McAleese. Unfortunately, the IDC was not set up to be independent from the government, and did not include any survivor representatives or national or international experts. It had no power to receive individual complaints or investigate allegations of harm, no power to subpoena documents or compel witnesses to testify, and it did not invite the public to submit evidence. Religious orders were allowed to submit the documents they wished, and all their documents were returned to them at the end of the IDC’s work, without copies retained for State archives. Moreover, while the IDC met on the record with religious representatives, it was only after significant pressure from JFM that the IDC agreed to meet with survivors and receive JFM’s almost 800 pages of carefully recorded survivor testimony. The prospects for accountability looked grim.

The IDC’s final 1,000-page (known as the McAleese Report), issued on February 5, 2013, was beyond shocking. Incredibly, it concluded that there had been no physical abuse in the Laundries and that most women stayed less than a year. It only once alluded to the fact that the women were unpaid, on page 774 of the report, but “otherwise forced labour [wa]s simply not addressed.” As JFM activists read the full report, they realized that “none of the[ir] submitted testimony had been included.” Truly unbelievable!

The JFM activists were devastated, yet they found the strength to rally. "We were worn out but we knew we needed to stay in the battle. If we didn't, there would be no apology or redress for the women, and the flawed findings of the IDC Report would become the final, official word on the matter."

With survivor permission, JFM released their entire IDC submission publicly and embarked on a national and global media campaign highlighting the first-hand accounts of abuse. Public outrage was immediate, and members of the Labour Parliamentary Party threatened a walkout. By February 19, 2013, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny had no choice but to deliver an 18-minute apology in the Dáil (lower house of Parliament), and to order that a compensation scheme be created. In May 2013, the Irish Human Rights Commission issued another report, where it concluded that “forced unpaid labor, involuntary detention, degradation and denial of education were systemic features of the Magdalene Laundries.”

Survivors of the Laundries and their supporters holding a vigil outside the Dáil (Parliament) in Dublin on 19 February 2013, as they awaited a formal apology from Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda KennyCredit: Peter Morrison/AP

But true justice remained elusive. The compensation scheme for survivors was set up “ex gratia,” that is, without admission of liability on the part of the State or the religious orders. JFM insisted that survivors be entitled automatically to a sum of money according to the length of time they had spent at a Magdalene Laundry, without having to demonstrate abuse or a specific injury, which was agreed. Nevertheless, to their dismay, the scheme was administered jointly by the Department of Justice and the religious congregations themselves (!), and whenever a survivor and the nuns disagreed on a claim (e.g. duration of detention in a Laundry), the nuns were believed. Survivors who lacked capacity because of their advanced age, including those elderly women who were still in the custody of the convents, were not provided with legal support to file their claim as had been promised. Simply astonishing. Nevertheless, the JFM report notes that “limited though they are, the financial aspects of the Scheme have provided comfort to many survivors,” many of whom live in poverty.

Back in 2009, when the CICA report was released, Irish novelist John Banville wrote a piece entitled A Century of Looking the Other Way in the New York Times: “Ireland from 1930 to the late 1990s was a closed state, ruled—the word is not too strong—by an all-powerful Catholic Church with the connivance of politicians and, indeed, the populace as a whole, with some honorable exceptions. The doctrine of original sin was ingrained in us from our earliest years, and we borrowed from Protestantism the concepts of the elect and the unelect. If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours. We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.”

Small Things Like These, a spare, hypnotic and deeply moving novel by Claire Keegan (shortlisted for the Booker Award in 2022), tells the story of a middle-aged Irish man, Bill Furlong, who chooses to know. He has personal reasons for this.

Furlong came from nothing, writes Keegan, or “less than nothing, some might say.” His mother Sarah was a 16-year-old domestic to a Mrs. Wilson, a Protestant widow who lived in a big house outside of New Ross, a small town in County Wexford. When Sarah becomes pregnant through circumstances that are never elucidated, her own family rejects her, but Mrs. Wilson keeps her on, saving her and her baby from the Mother and Baby Home and the Magdalene. Little Bill grows up in the big house even after his mother dies suddenly when he is only 12.

The novel follows Furlong, now a hard-working coal and fuel merchant, as he makes his pre-Christmas deliveries. Furlong lives in town with Eileen, his wife, and their five daughters who attend the Good Shepherd Convent school. He is a kind and melancholy man, attuned to the suffering of others and, in 1980s Ireland, where so many are desperately poor, keenly aware of how easy it is to lose everything.

One early morning, Furlong pulls up to the Good Shepherd Convent, where a training school for girls and a laundry business are also located. Not much is “known” about the training school, although there is plenty of talk: “Some said that the training school girls, as they were known, weren’t students of anything, but girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen, that they worked from dawn til night. The local nurse had said that she’d been called out to treat a fifteen-year-old with varicose veins from standing so long at the wash-tubs. Others claimed that it was the nuns themselves who worked their fingers to the bone, knitting Aran jumpers and threading rosemary beads for export, that they had hearts of gold and problems with their eyes, and weren’t allowed to speak, only to pray, that some were fed no more than bread and butter for half the day but were allowed a hot dinner in the evenings, once their work was done. Others swore the place was no better than a mother-and-baby home where common, unmarried girls went in to be hidden away after they had given birth, saying it was their own people who had put them in there after their illegitimates had been adopted out to rich Americans, or sent off to Australia, that the nuns got good money by placing these babies out foreign, that it was an industry they had going.”

As he tries to unload his coal delivery, Furlong discovers a young girl locked in the ice-cold coal shed, and realizes she must be one of the residents of the training school. He has a sinking feeling this will cause him problems: “When he managed to get her out, and saw what was before him—a girl just about fit to stand, with her hair roughly cut—the ordinary part of him wished he’d never come near the place.”

But Furlong decides to walk her to the convent. As he presses the doorbell, the girl turns to him:

‘Won’t you ask them about my baby?’


‘He must be hungry,’ she said, ‘and who is there to feed him now?’

‘You have a child?’

‘He’s fourteen weeks old. They’ve taken him from me now, but they might let me feed him again if he’s here. I don’t know where he is.’

Furlong’s encounter with the nuns is tense. He wearily sits and drinks tea with the Mother Superior as the girl—who is called Sarah, like his own mother—is whisked away to be washed and dressed. The Mother Superior compels Sarah to say she was locked (overnight!) by mistake in the coal shed after playing hide-and-seek. The nun also reminds Furlong that his own daughters are in the convent school, and that there is no room for all the students who want a place there.

Rumor of this encounter mysteriously spreads through town, and Mrs. Kehoe, the owner of a local pub, gently warns Furlong:

‘You’ll put me right if I’m wrong, I know, Bill—but I hear you had a run-in with herself above at the convent?’

Furlong’s hand tightened round the change and his gaze dropped to the skirting board, following it along the base of the wall, as far as the corner.

‘I wouldn’t call it a run-in, but I had a morning up there, aye.’

‘Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself.’

He looked down at the pattern of black, interlocking rings on the brown carpet.

‘Take no offence, Bill,’ she said, touching his sleeve. ‘Tis no business of mine, as I’ve said, but surely you must know these nuns have a finger in every pie.’

He stood back then and faced her. ‘Surely they’ve only as much power as we give them, Mrs Kehoe?’

‘I wouldn’t be too sure.’

As Furlong buys last-minute gifts in town that Christmas Eve, he wonders, “Was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”

He walks up to the convent, goes to the coal shed, and sure enough, finds the girl Sarah locked up in the cold, barefoot and lightly dressed. He walks her out and takes her to his home. “How light and tall he felt walking along with this girl at his side and some fresh, new, unrecognizable joy in his heart. The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been—which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.”

Survivors of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross in July 2022

If you are interested in knowing more about the Magdalenes, JFM now maintains a website with testimonies and materials to help make up for the fact that the Irish State never required the religious orders to release their records.

There have been many other accounts of the Laundries in books, movies and music over the years, including former nun Patricia Burke Brogan’s play Eclipse (1992), Joni Mitchell’s song The Magdalene Laundries (written in 1994—yes, Joni knew way back when!), Channel Four’s documentary Sex in a Cold Climate (1998), RTÉ’s documentary States of Fear (1999), the movie The Magdalene Sisters (2003), Boston College professor James M. Smith’s book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007), and the movie Philomena (2013) starring Dame Judi Dench.

In feminist solidarity with all those who choose to know, to fight impunity and to seek justice,