Home Features Magdalene Lives—an extract

Magdalene Lives—an extract

Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice|Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke  James M. Smith & Mari Steed|Bloomsbury| ISBN:9780755617494|£15.39

“One of the greatest acts of truth-telling in the recent history of Ireland… In helping the survivors to reclaim their dignity, this indispensable book also helps the rest of us to reclaim the true meaning of shared citizenship and common humanity.” ——Fintan O’Toole

Magdalene Lives

An adapted extract from Chapter 1

The first Magdalene Asylum was founded in 1765 as part of the Catholic church’s mission to ‘rescue’ so-called ‘fallen’ and vulnerable women, and Ireland’s Magdalene institutions remained in existence until the last one closed in 1996. They were operated by four religious orders – all of which also owned and managed residential industrial schools where poor children considered ‘wayward’ or ‘neglected’ were held. 

After 1922, the Magdalene institutions cannot be understood as remotely rehabilitative: they were not residences that were primarily offering temporary asylum and opportunities for women to train for a career in service.

They became deliberately punitive and, as the century progressed, increasingly carceral.

There was a general assumption in Irish culture that the girls and women confined in these institutions had to atone for sins (generally ‘sins of the flesh’) that they were adjudged to have committed or be at risk of committing. 

Survivors who gave their testimony to the Justice for Magdalenes group and who participated in the Magdalene Oral History Project say the girls and women incarcerated in the laundries were generally young and motherless, and in some cases may have given birth outside wedlock. 

Other women were intellectually disabled; some had committed minor crimes.

Many were raised as children in industrial schools and transferred ‘on licence’ to the laundries, typically upon reaching their sixteenth birthday when the State capitation grant payments ended (and sometimes at a younger age as punishment).

Most strikingly, girls who were committed to Magdalene institutions were regularly victims of incest, sexual assault and rape.  In the words of one survivor who found herself incarcerated in a Magdalene after she complained to the Gardaí [police] that her father was sexually assaulting her, she was told by the nuns: 

It was my fault I was in there because I made ‘behavioural suggestions’ . . . towards my father. . . I don’t know how many times I went up to the police after Mum died. And told them what was going on, and they still ignored it. And he got away with it. Yet I’m the one who’s punished for telling the truth. And yet nobody heard me, nobody listened. I was just a child . . . why weren’t we heard . . . why weren’t the men questioned? Why was it always the woman’s fault? You know, why was I the only one punished? Why wasn’t my father punished?

The nuns held the Magdalene girls and women under lock and key, and once inside the convents they were imprisoned behind locked doors, barred or unreachable windows, and high walls. As one survivor, ‘Maisie K.’ describes it: 

You couldn’t look out a window. They were high. . . there was six-inch thick glass . . . you could see shadows but you couldn’t see out. You didn’t know anything about what went on outside. You weren’t even allowed to stand and look out. If you’d seen a gate open or a door it would be immediately closed. It was like you know you were wiped out of that area of the world.

The women were given little information as to when or even whether they would be released: they experienced the institutions as prisons. The Sisters cut the hair short of girls and women brought into their institutions. As one survivor remembers, 

I saw the scissors in her hand. . . They forced me on my knees and she cut my hair . . . she left me with nothing only bits sticking out here and there in my head and it was then I think that my whole attitude towards nuns . . . changed – changed completely. . .  It was the first time in my life that I learned to hate somebody.

Upon entry, they were made to strip, and their clothes were taken away and replaced with drab work uniforms. The Sisters gave them a religious name and a number by which they were identified inside the institution, as the nuns sought to erase their former identity and insisted on treating the Magdalenes as ‘penitents’, regardless of the reasons they found themselves in the institution. A survivor who was incarcerated in High Park describes it thus: 

You weren’t in there for sympathy, you were in there to be punished. And that’s basically what it was all about. You did wrong and you’ve heard of people saying, ‘I’ll make your life hell.’ Our lives were made hell, literally made hell. And because you did wrong. You were being punished. And you were reminded of why you were in there. . .  And as far as they were concerned you did wrong. And the person who actually did wrong got away with it. So you were being punished for nothing.

Many women recall being instructed not to speak about their homes or families. Letters were censored or undelivered. Survivors repeatedly recall being told: ‘Nobody wants you, that’s why you’re here.’ As one survivor describes it, 

The older I get I find these years haunt me, I will carry it to the grave with me. . .  The nuns made you feel as if you’re a nobody and you never have any roots. . . As the years go by you try not to be spiteful, I try not to be bitter. . .  I have bad days and then I have good days.

The Magdalenes rose very early in the morning and went to Mass and then worked without pay, usually six full days a week at laundry or needlework. They also had general chores relating to the running of the institution.

All the survivors describe how the work was endless, repetitive, compulsory, forced and unpaid.

Kate O’Sullivan says of Sundays Well, the women had to work six days a week with no breaks and then sew scapulars for ‘recreation’ on the seventh day, ‘No, no, no there was no outings, no nothing. Nothing.’

The women slept in dormitories or individual cells and they were often cold. The food was meagre and poor; sanitary and hygiene facilities were degrading. Survivor Catherine Whelan says of her time at New Ross:

‘I did not receive the basic components of a balanced diet for four years. Our diet did not contain fruit or vegetables and very little protein. . . I was extremely thin and sickly for my first year. I never began my menstrual cycles until the age of 19.’ 

Sara W. says, ‘We got one egg a year’ on Easter Sunday morning. Other than that, ‘you might get a bit of cabbage, you might get a potato and a bit of meat you know, about that size [about 3 cms] and then you’d get porridge in the evening time and again for your breakfast.’

Close relationships between the women could result in a transfer to a different institution.

The rule of silence and prayer between the inmates was strictly applied, enforced through an internal system of intimidation and physical punishment that sometimes involved older, institutionalized women coercing more recent arrivals to conform. Survivor Sara W. says that if you did not want to or could not work, ‘You’d be beaten down the stairs, you’d be beaten up and brought down and made [to] work.’

The frightening disappearance of co-inmates without notice or explanation recurs as a trope across women’s testimony:

Perhaps the nuns transferred them to a different laundry, committed them to a mental hospital or placed them in another menial working situation at a different Catholic religious institution, perhaps they escaped, or perhaps they died.

The girls and women left behind in the Magdalene were rarely told what happened to their fellow inmates.

Mary, who was in the Good Shepherd in Limerick, says, ‘the women just . . . never saw a funeral . . . but I know lots of people would have died and . . . they wouldn’t say too much to you so’s you didn’t ask many questions.’

Girls as young as nine were committed to Magdalene institutions and never received an education. Survivors dwell on this fact as determining their loss of opportunity in later life.

One survivor describes that, at the age of fourteen, when her foster mother died, she was taken to Galway on false pretenses and upon arriving at the laundry there her schoolbag was taken away from her. She was put to work straight away on a roller machine. About a week later, she asked one of the nuns, ‘why wasn’t I going to school? . . . and she said with a sneer and a laugh at me: “You’re in the finishing college now”.’

This survivor, who eventually managed to escape from the Galway Magdalene, would have loved to have become a nurse:

‘But I couldn’t train because nobody would take anybody on with a record like that. . . the fact that the Magdalene came out, that was taboo entirely.’

Regardless of how they entered the Magdalene, all survivors endured the stigma attached to these institutions, but the loss of an education at a young age made it all the more difficult to overcome this deficit in later life. 

Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice|Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke  James M. Smith & Mari Steed|Bloomsbury| ISBN:9780755617494|£15.39