A Brief Reflection on the Magdalen Laundries
Here in Ireland we have had to endure the scandal of the Magdalen laundries, most of which ceased operating more than 30 years ago. In yet another bout of hate-the-Church, the pundits and talking heads of RTÉ painted the Magdalen laundries in the blackest of colours without any reference to their origins, history or the conditions of Ireland a century ago. Commentators ransacked the generally McAleese Report for evidence of Catholicism’s sadistic control of women and anything else that would add to the horror story of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The McAleese’s report, as it became known, was done in response to a demand of the UN Committee Against Torture, that fact alone surely strange. Senator Martin McAleese seems to have been conscientious and respectful of the facts, and should have been a corrective to untruths and exaggeration. For example, instead of the repeated 30,000 women who are alleged to have worked for the laundries, the true number is close to 10,000. Again, none of the laundries were money-makers for the religious orders, indeed most depended on donations and outside finance to survive.
The modern Magdalen movement was initially a Protestant enterprise which began in 18th century London at a time of rapid urban expansion and major social change. This was the century of the Industrial Revolution, of progress and prosperity, fine public streets and buildings, the advance of science and the flourishing of the arts. It was also a time of political corruption and societal decadence that took the form of appalling poverty, stinking slums, cheap gin and prostitution in London and the new cities of the Industrial Revolution, so well immortalised by the artist William Hogarth. Government-organised welfare did not exist until the mid-19th century, and it was left to private philanthropists to address the squalor and depravity.
London’s first Magdalen Asylum was opened in 1758 for the reform and rehabilitation of prostitutes, of whom there were said to be 10,000 in the city. Lady Arabella Denny opened a similar asylum in Leeson Street, Dublin, in 1765 for Protestant “fallen women”, and Catholic ones soon followed.
To Reform and Find a New Life
The marriage options for a woman who wanted to leave prostitution were nil in the 18th century. Whatever the reason that drove a woman to sell her body—and no doubt there were many and various—there was little chance of escape. She had a poor life expectancy, faced violence, disease and social ostracism, and many women resorted to cheap gin and opium to ease the pain.
The Magdalen Refuges or Asylums were intended to provide an opportunity for a woman to reform herself and to escape prostitution, and achieve a better life in every respect. The immediate benefit of the asylum was physical security for a woman from the threats of angry family members or vengeful pimps, now deprived of an income. The second benefit was the chance to learn a useful trade or skill and so acquire a new social identity in a very competitive world. This would enable the woman to support herself, maybe marry and have children.
Most women stayed for about three years, a time deemed necessary for them to learn a trade and gain a new outlook on their lives. Whether run by Catholic or Protestant staff, there was an emphasis on moral and religious reform with regular prayer times and strict rules of conduct. The role of work existed from the beginning of the Magdalen movement, in part, for the women to support the refuge by their own efforts—government support came a century later and private donations were always uncertain. Manual work—needlework or laundry—avoided idleness, viewed, not unreasonably, as a temptation for the “penitents”, as they came to be called.
While some of the Magdalens were founded and run by gifted laypeople, their energy and dedication to the cause only lasted for a number of years. When they became old or died, the continuing existence of the charity was in danger of closing, and it was left to the church authorities to assume responsibility for the charity or find someone or some existing group to take over the good work. In Ireland, the local Catholic bishop felt obliged to ask one of the new women’s orders to take over the Magdalens, even though this kind of work might not have been within the apostolate of the order of sisters.
There is no evidence that women were confined in the early Magdalens against their will. This came later, apparently in the late 1800s, and certainly when the government of the time began to place young girls convicted of petty crime, and families dumped “difficult children” in the laundries. The evidence is clear that, by the beginning of the 20th century, many of the inmates of the Magdalens were not there voluntarily. The balance had changed, and in some cases the nuns or laypeople in charge ceased to be caring guardians and became more like harsh jailors.
For the newly-established Irish State, chronically short of money, the Magdalen Laundries and the Industrial Schools were a convenient solution for dealing with young offenders and problem children, and the religious orders, willingly or otherwise, co-operated, much to their detriment. Today, the religious orders have taken most of the blame for the unacceptable practices of this system of social control.
Despite the failings of the system, I have no doubt that, over 200 years, many young Irish women were rescued from a life of prostitution or crime, and given the chance of a better life through the dedication of the religious orders, now so thoughtlessly excoriated.
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