Digging, uncovering, unearthing: Activist and academic approaches to Irish Magdalene Laundries

This is the first in a series of articles discussing the Magdalene Laundries in 20th century Dublin and reflecting on those aspects which appertain to urbanity and religion. The articles are part of my research project ‘Strike or Punishment: Urban Spaces and Female Laundry Workers in 20th century Dublin’ which seeks to investigate historical notions of behaving im/properly as Irish, Catholic, and working women. I would like to thank Martin Christ, Claudine Moulin, and Kieron O’Reilly for their helpful criticism in preparing this text. With this article, I discuss the background to the other parts in the series which are more concerned with conceptual questions.


When you go into Sean McDermott Street, in through the … the frightening door… (…) the horrible corridor it was, when you go in there first there was big grounds then and (…) there was a big huge garden and a big circle around it and the nuns used to walk around the circle but you … when you go in first, to the right was the laundry. I didn’t notice it was a laundry at first when I went in because I didn’t (…) see the laundry first.[1]

This is how in 2013 Lucy recalled her arrival at the Magdalene Laundry run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (OLC), in Dublin. She had been referred to the asylum after the intervention of social services, possibly also the Gardaí (the Irish police force), following sexual and physical abuse in her home in the late 1970s. Lucy, born in 1961, was 14 or 15 when she was sent to Lower Seán McDermott Street asylum in the northeastern part of the inner-city, close to Connelly station. Once inside, Lucy worked in the in-house laundry, usually from eight o’clock in the morning, after breakfast and cleaning her quarters, to ‘six or seven in the evening time’ (Oral History of Lucy; 39). For her work, she did not receive any wages – in her words, ‘somebody was getting paid for the work that we did. It certainly wasn’t us.’ (Oral History of Lucy, 90). The experience of Lucy and other women – held in a convent under the supervision of religious professionals and working in a commercial laundry – is now subsumed under the term Magdalene Laundries; survivors like Lucy are often referred to as Magdalene women or women of the Magdalene Laundries.

The former Magdalene Laundry (…) on Lower Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, 16 February 2012. Photograph by Miriam Haughton (NUI Galway). First published in ‘From Laundries to Labour Camps: Staging Ireland’s “Rule of Silence” in Anu Productions’ Laundry’.

This article introduces the institution of Magdalene Laundries. I will briefly discuss how aspects of gender, faith and class interplayed in them, before sketching out which position this historical phenomenon has in contemporary Irish discourse.

What were Magdalene asylums and Magdalene Laundries?

Magdalene women have come to be named after the institutions they were held in, often against their will and in violation of their human rights. Magdalene asylums and their adjunct laundries were run by female religious orders. Magdalene Laundries were ‘residential, industrial and for-profit laundries housed in Catholic convents where, between the foundation of the State in 1922 and 1996 (the year the last asylum closed) an as-yet unidentified number of women and girls were imprisoned and forced to carry out unpaid labour for the commercial benefit of four religious congregations’ (O’Rourke 2011, 200). Other work by the women held in the asylums included sewing and tailoring. The women running these asylums are still today colloquially known as nuns, although they had ‘strictly speaking (…) no papal or full enclosure’ (Prunty 2018, 279). They supervised all aspects of the lives of the resident women, including their work and spiritual life. The laundries were an integral part of the so-called asylums; when discussing points concerning the whole institution run by the religious order, I use the term asylum.

Unidentified Magdalen Laundry in Ireland, early 19th century (public domain)

In Dublin, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, in short Our Lady of Charity (OLC), established four convents: High Park in 1853, Glouchester St in 1887, Kilmacud in 1944 and The Grange in 1956 (Prunty 2018, 268). The latter two did not operate as Magdalene Laundries. Overall, four Roman Catholic orders operated ten Magdalene Laundries, across Ireland from the mid-19th century. These were, apart from the OLC in Dublin: The Good Sheperd Sisters (Cork, Limerick, Waterford), the Sisters of Mercy (Dún Laoghaire, Galway), and the Sisters of Charity (Cork, Dublin, New Ross). The Sisters of Charity teenage training centre at Stanhope St in Dublin has come to be ‘recognized as a de facto Magdalene” and was part of the state’s 2013 ex gratia payment scheme (Coen, O’Donnell, and O’Rourke 2023, 1). The first Magdalene asylum, set up on Dublin’s Leeson Street in the 1760s, was a Protestant foundation and operated as such until 1918. In the following, I return to the institution on Gloucester St (later Seán McDermott Street) in Dublin as an example.[2] It is at times described as the largest asylum on the island, although such estimates should be treated with caution given the scarcity of sources. In 1920, Seán McDermott St had capacity for 120 women. This number grew to 130 in 1932 and to 140 by 1952.[3]

Magdalene Laundries in the Irish Free State/Republic of Ireland. Blue: Our Lady of Charity; Magenta: Sisters of Mercy; Red: Good Sheperd; Burgundy: Sisters of Charity (based on opensteetmaps.org)

The Glouchester Street convent was founded in 1887 by sisters from the older High Park who took over an existing asylum. This had been set up in 1821 by the laywomen Brigid Burke for ‘troubled and homeless women’, with an entrance on Mecklenburg St (later Railway St). The site was expanded to Glouchester St/Seán McDermott St in 1860. In 1873, the Sisters of Mercy took over the asylum, themselves handing it over to the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (OLC)in 1887 (McAleese Report, chap. 3, 22-23). The architectural evolvement of the site, and a 3D model, can be seen on the Atlas of Lost Rooms.

Mid-20th century map of Dubin’s city centre (public domain). The Magdalene Laundry at Seán McDermott St is marked with the circle. On the map, it is identified as ‘convent’.

Within the OLC, each house acted autonomously and governed itself. Ties between houses were spiritual, not financial, or organisational. As Jacinda Prunty has observed, ‘the only real link (between High Park and Glouchester St) [was] an agreement brokered by the archbishop that the nuns from Glouchester St, a confined city centre complex, might be buried in the nun’s ground in High Park’ (Prunty 2018, 268). The asylum in Glouchester St/Seán McDermott St closed in 1996. At this point, it cannot with any certainty be said how many women were sent to Seán McDermott St in the 109 years it was open. It is estimated that about 10.000 women and girls were admitted to all ten Magdalene asylums in the Saorstát (Irish Free State) and Republic of Ireland, that is after national independence in 1922. 14.607 records of entry have survived (McAleese Report, chap. 7, 147). The duration of a woman’s stay in a Magdalen asylum appears to have been linked to her network and social relations outside; those who were not ‘collected’ remained inside indefinitely, while others could leave after a couple of days or months. Uncertainty about the precise number of women and girls sent to the asylums – and incidentally also the children some gave birth to – is in large part due to the limited and fragmentary source body. As internal records are, unfortunately, not made available to researchers, most inquiries draw on publicly available sources like newspaper articles, state documents, archaeology and, crucially, oral history statements by former Magdalene women.

Magdalene asylums were introduced to Ireland when the island was still a British colony. Their function and their self-understanding changed over time, as James Smith has succinctly shown, away from their initial focus.[4] With independence, hitherto more latent aspects of social control and administration came to the fore. As Smith observed, Irish Magdalen asylums were ‘institutions founded with a philanthropic mission [which] by the close of the 19th century [became] more carceral than rehabitative’ (Smith 2007, 25). Whereas women in the 19th century seemed to have entered and exited the asylums voluntarily, the asylums became increasingly punitive over the course of their existence, as indicated also by rising number of referrals and increasing differentiation of state related entry routes.

In the Saorstát, the Magdalene Laundries emerged as a crucial part of a network of religious institutions taking over public services in lieu of the state, especially in education and health care: orphanages, industrial schools, Mother and Baby homes[5], first and second level schools, hospitals, and care homes. Since national independence, containment in the Magdalene asylums was unlawful in the legal framework of the time as ‘the State failed, in violation of its positive obligations under international law, international labour law, European human rights law and arguably Irish constitutional law, to protect its citizens from slavery, servitude, and/or forced labour’, as Maeve O’Rourke observed in 2011 (O’Rourke 2011, 234).

Many of the Magdalene women came from a working-class background. As is often the case (also today) with relationships of care structured by class, Magdalene Laundries ‘were not the concern of economically secure women [but rather] for a section of poor, lower-class women and girls with no prospects’ (Urban 2012, 10). Life in the asylums was underwritten by not only a theological but also a social hierarchy performed through respectability, including proper speech and comportment but also financial means.[6] Once sent to the asylums, the new arrivals were classified as double penitents, as having acted against the moral/social order of Irish society at the time, and as having sinned against their divine maker. Work was the form their penitence took, apart from repeated, daily prayer. It was not possible to choose not to work, nor was the physically straining labour paid. Magdalene women could not enter or leave their workplace freely and endured the continuous and repeated violation of their constitutional rights as well as psychological and physical violence by religious professionals like sisters and priests.

Former Good Sheperd Magdalene Laundry in Cork (Image: Donal O’Keeffe; originally published in The Avondhu, 25 Nov 2020)

Laura McAtackney has described the sites of former Magdalene Laundries as ‘messy, multilayered, contemporary’ (McAtackney 2023, 206). The messiness is particularly striking in the case of Magdalene women dying and how the religious orders treated some of the dead Magdalenes. Present day investigations into Magdalene Laundries in many ways began with the dead of High Park. In 1993, the OLC sold off parts of their convent land to building developers, also to off-set recent losses on the stock market. To make the site ready for the construction of residential properties, the exhumation of the convent graveyard was applied for and granted. 155 bodies were exhumed, quickly cremated and re-buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in a different part of town. On 13 September 1993, the Irish Times reported that the

brown urns which held the ashes of the dead were almost identical. The only minor characteristic which differentiated one urn from the 132 others was the thing white strip around the front. It carried the name of the deceased, and the year in which she died. On many of the urns it simply read “Unknown”. (Irish Times, 13.09.1993, 4)

Mary Raferty’s investigation in 2003 showed that in 1993 builders had accidentally disinterred a further 22 bodies. In the end, the OLC ‘could not produce legal names for 23 women or death certificates for 58 women’ (McGettrick 2023). The ensuing scandal hinged also on the state’s refusal of a public funeral, further unmarked graves, as well as inaccurate names on the High Park graves in Glasnevin Cemetery. As of today, the Justice for Magdalenes conclude, ‘A burial place of a total of 231 women from High Park is unknown.’ (JFMResearch).[7]

For most Magdalene Laundries it seems to have been the case that if a Magdalene woman died, she was buried in a public cemetery. In some cases, High Park and Donnybrook being two of these, two groups of women were buried within the convent’s boundaries: Magdalene women, for some of whom neither death certificates or marked graves exist (or both), or so-called ‘auxiliaries’, Magdalene women who had taken a spiritual vow to remain within the asylum indefinitely (McGettrick 2023, 240–41). There seems to have been no overall rule or tradition of how and if the graves were marked: unmarked individual and group plots have been described, as have individual marked graves and collective headstones with either religious or civilian names and other information. At times headstones are in used, some erected retrospectively, in some cases metal crosses.

Reckoning with Magdalene Asylums

While they were in operation, Magdalene asylums were neither secret, nor hidden away. Recent historical work shows how the institutions featured widely in the media, e.g., with appeals for donations, listing charitable bequests, advertising their laundry services or as objects in the reporting of criminal cases against women.[8] Regardless of this discursive embeddedness, learning about the Magdalene Laundries for many took the form of an uncovering and giving voice back to the victims. The same is the case for human rights abuses by professionals of the Irish Roman Catholic Church in industrial schools, Mother and Baby homes, psychiatric asylums or local parishes. Other prominent phrases in the discourse, used by survivors and commentators alike, are reckoning, seeking justice and breaking the silence. In a similar vein, Maolíosa Boyle wrote of a recently published book on the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry in Dublin, research ‘afford(s) us another means with which to unearth (…) the uncomfortable “material memory” that the Church and State thought they could bury and silently erase’ (Boyle 2023, xiii).

In 2003, Claire McGettrick, Mari Steed and Angela Newsome founded the activist organisation Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), which today conducts its own research (as Justice for Magdalenes Research/ JFMR) in addition to public campaigns, in the wake of the High Park scandal. Since then, the history and memories of survivors of Magdalene Laundries and other carceral institutions continue to be exhumed literally and culturally – Magdalenes feature in an ever-growing body of films, plays, and publications, both literary and academic.[9] It is probably due to the combination of activism and academic work that the phenomenon of Magdalene Laundries has developed into a key issue in public and historical debate in Ireland.

William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In academia, the field of women’s history has been central to the reappraisal of Ireland’s twentieth century and the entwinement of state, nation, and gender which so impacted everyday life, especially that of children and women. Within and outside academia, the Magdalene Laundries act as a lynchpin in the overall reckoning with the specific constitution of Ireland’s Catholic modernity and its dark underbelly, so to speak. This reckoning, commencing during the so-called Celtic Tiger years (1995-2007), has been mostly cultural, with some political and judicial outcomes. However, it cannot, at this stage, be deemed an Aufarbeitung in the sense of the whole-scale societal, including judicial, interrogation and processing which took place for example, deeply flawed, partial, and self-serving as they were, in post-Nazi Germany or after the collapse of the GDR.[10] Academic work on the history of the present – in German known as Geschichte der Gegenwart [11]  – has grown out of long-standing commemorative, feminist, and activist engagement with the topic, especially by survivors. This is also the case with the Magdalene women. The entry quote to this text is from an interview conducted by Dr. Sineád Pembroke – made available by the JFMR, funded by the Irish Research Council.[12]

Arguably, the Magdalene Laundries have, together with the so-called Mother and Baby Homes, attracted more attention than related phenomena like industrial schools, psychiatric asylums, or orphanages. This is most likely due to a combination of factors. Both the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes concern (young) women and (their) children and thus reflect current preoccupations with questions of bodily integrity, social identity and the (political, legal, social) borders of female* self-determination. Similarly, as instances of a fundamentally different lived experience, both the laundries and homes raise questions of national politics of remembrance and the representation of diverse experiences in the historical and national canon. As cases of the protracted disregard of individual human rights, they touch upon questions of the comportment of the Irish state, and its representatives, towards their sovereign, the Irish people.

Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes are part of the biographies and memories of people living today. The survivors, and their families, have been fundamental to staritng and perpetuating research into the history and responsibilities of Magdalene asylums. They have been vocal in their calls for a wholescale Aufarbeitung, including restitution for survivors and a re-evaluation of the ‘charitable’ work of religious orders today. They remind us that the Magdalene Laundries and other institutions are part of the history of the present. It cannot be researched without them.

[1] ‘Oral History of Lucy; MAGOHP/07/ANON’ 2013, p.87. Lucy is the pseudonym of the interviewee who chose to remain anonymous.

[2] The main entrance to the Magdalene asylum was located on Glouchester Street (which had been named so in 1764). In 1933, the street was renamed to honour one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Seán MacDiarmada. McDermott is the Anglicised version of his last name.

[3] Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (McAleese Report) 2013, chap. 3, p. 23)

[4] For reasons of space, the long history of Mary Magdalen Asylums in Europe is not discussed here. Also, the details of the Irish state’s role in the investigation into Magdalene asylums is not part of this article. See for a first orientation, McGettrick et al. 2021. Also, Finnegan 2004; Smith 2004; 2007; Luddy, Maria 2007; Urban 2012; ‘Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (McAleese Report)’ 2013.

[5] For an overview, also on their evolution see Garrett 2017; Earner-Byrne 2015.

[6] See for this, especially her discussion of the differences between conceptualisations of poverty, personal responsibilites and outside factors in the thinking of Ellen Smyly (Irish Church Missions) and Margaret Alyward (OLC) see Preston 2004. For a more general discussion on care by and for women in an urban context, see Brejon de Lavergnée and Epstein 2019.

[7] Apart from being the starting point, the High Park scandal is one instance where the intricacies (and gaps) of Magdalene deaths and the behaviour of the religious orders are best documented, McGettrick 2021. Many aspects recurred during later scandals like that of the babies and children interred in a septic tank on the grounds of the Bon Securs Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway, first publicised by Catherine Corless in 2013/2014.

[8] See Enright 2023; Black 2023.

[9] In Irish historical writings, the analysis of Ireland’s ‘Catholic modernity’ (following Taylor 1996) has initially concentrated on aspects of hegemony, coercion and social control, with some attention to individual biographies, c.f. Hill 2003; Ferriter 2007; Cooney 2009; Cochran 2017; Beatty 2017; Ó Corráin 2021. Noteworthy contributions from the field of journalism include Hogan 2020; Scally 2021; O’Toole 2022.

[10] I first came across a reflection on this in Scally 2021, 275–80.

[11] https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/editorial/.

[12] http://jfmresearch.com/home/oralhistoryproject/transcripts/survivors/.

Works Cited

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Black, Lindsay. 2023. ‘“Women of Evil Life”: Donnybrook Magdalene and the Criminal Justice System’. In A Dublin Magdalene Laundry. Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland, 187–185. London: Bloomsbury.

Boyle, Maolísa. 2023. ‘Foreword’. In A Dublin Magdalene Laundry. Donnybrook and Church-State Pwoer in Ireland, xi–xii. London: Bloomsbury.

Brejon de Lavergnée, Matthieu, and Anne R. Epstein. 2019. ‘Charitable Care? Women Religious as Care Providers in Urban France in the Nineteenth Century’. Clio. Women, Gender, History 49 (Gener and the History of Care): 69–93.

Cochran, David Carroll. 2017. ‘Dethroning Irish Catholicism: Church, State and Modernity in Contemporary Ireland’. In Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and Beyond, edited by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien, 53–69. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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Earner-Byrne, Lindsay. 2015. ‘The Rape of Mary M.: A Microhistory of Sexual Violence and Moral Redemption in 1920s Ireland’. Journal of the History of Sexuality 24 (1): 75–98.

Enright, Máiréad. 2023. ‘“Benefactors and Friends”: Charitable Bequests, Reparation and the Donnybrook Laundry’. In A Dublin Magdalene Laundry. Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland, 151–70. London: Bloomsbury.

Ferriter, Diarmaid. 2007. Judging Dev: A Reassessment of the Life and Legacy of Eamon De Valera. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Finnegan, Frances. 2004. Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. Oxford: OUP. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195174601.003.0001.

Garrett, Paul Michael. 2017. ‘Excavating the Past: Mother and Baby Homes in the Republic of Ireland’. The British Journal of Social Work 47 (2): 358–74.

Hill, J.R. 2003. A New History of Ireland. VII – Ireland, 1921-1984. Oxford: OUP.

Hogan, Caelainn. 2020. Republic of Shame: How Ireland Punished ‘Fallen Women’ and Their Children. London: Penguin UK.

Luddy, Maria. 2007. ‘Sex and the Single Girl in 1920s and 1930s Ireland’. The Irish Review (Cork) 35 (Irish Feminisms): 79–91.

McAtackney, Laura. 2023. ‘Contemporary Archaeology and Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry. Working with the Material Remnants of an Institutionalized Recent Past’. In A Dublin Magdalene Laundry. Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland, 203–20. London: Bloomsbury.

McGettrick, Claire. 2021. ‘Bringing up the Dead: Burials and Land Deals at High Park’. In Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries. A Campagin for Justice, 163–68. London: IB Tauris/Bloomsbury.

———. 2023. ‘Guerilla Archive. Donnybrook and the Magdalen Names Archive’. In A Dublin Magdalene Laundry, 233–52. London: Bloomsbury.

McGettrick, Claire, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, James M. Smith, and Mari Steed. 2021. Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice. London: IB Tauris/Bloomsbury.

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O’Donnell, K., S. Pembroke and C. McGettrick. (2013) “Oral History of Lucy”. Magdalene Institutions: Recording an Oral and Archival History (MAGOHOP/07/ANON). Government of Ireland Collaborative Research Project, Irish Research Council, pp.1-88.

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Smith, James M. 2004. ‘The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland’s Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931)’. Journal of the History of Sexuality 13 (2): 208–33.

———. 2007. Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries And the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Urban, Eva. 2012. ‘The Condition of Female Laundry Workers in Ireland 1922-1996: A Case of Labour Camps on Trial’. Études Irlandaises 37 (2): 49–64.

Cite this blog post
Klara-Maeve O'Reilly (2024, March 28). Digging, uncovering, unearthing: Activist and academic approaches to Irish Magdalene Laundries. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w4dt

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