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Until very recently, the Catholic Church in Ireland was
extremely powerful. Ireland’s Catholicism proved to be the most significant
difference between Ireland and its old rulers England following its achievement
of independence in 1922. Following this, the Church was seen as the natural
partner to the State and quickly grew in popularity and power in Ireland. The
Church had a heavy influence in the country’s political ethos for the entire
20th century and parish priests became equally as influential as politicians in
local communities. The Church ran the schools and hospitals along with many
other institutions such as orphanages. The Catholic Church tightened its hold
on Ireland and throughout the 20th century had an impact on almost every aspect
of life (S1).

Not only did the Catholic church have a heavy influence on
politics during this time, it made a great social impact on Ireland.
Catholicism was enshrined in the constitution and divorce, contraception,
abortion and many other ‘un-Catholic’ things were banned. Music, books, films
and art were censored and unmarried couples were expected not to indulge in any
form of intimacy before marriage. Conservative morals and values were
reinforced in schools and in the church and a huge social taboo surrounding sex
had developed.  As author Steven
O’Riordan wrote, “When John Charles McQuaid was head of the Church in Ireland
there was no worse sin than that being unmarried and pregnant. Sex was simply
taboo” (S2). This led to families holding a strong resentment towards women
that found themselves pregnant out of wedlock. In the eyes of the Catholic
church she had shamed her family and was often treated as an outcast. The Catholic
church continued into the 20th century with its main aim being to maintain
Ireland’s conservative sexual values.

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During the 20th century Ireland held strict beliefs about
what was acceptable for women. Emphasis was placed on women’s morality and home-making
duties. It was expected that every girl would get married and have children and
it was unthinkable that any women would desire anything else. Women were
treated as second class citizens and had very few laws in Ireland that
protected them in the home and within society in general. Until the early
1970s, the family law statutes in Ireland were the same since the Victorian
period and they clearly stated that a woman ‘could not exclude her violent
husband from the home’ (S3). During this time, women received little
recognition and crimes such as domestic abuse and rape were silenced from the
public. As the emphasis on chastity and self-restraint grew in Irish society,
women who did not conform to this ideal were labelled as ‘fallen women’. The
term originally referred to prostitutes or women who found themselves pregnant
out of wedlock.

In 1765 the first Magdalene Laundry was founded by Lady
Arabella Denny. The Dublin Magdalene Asylum located in Lower Leeson Street was
the first such institute in Ireland. Named after Mary Magdalene, the prostitute
who repented and was forgiven by Jesus, the original purpose of the Magdalene
asylums was to reform prostitution and provide safety for women who found
themselves pregnant out of wedlock (S4). Women who entered these institutions
were expected to work for the forgiveness of their sins in return for their
accommodation and meals. This work usually came in the form of laundry. The
Magdalene women spent their days scrubbing, bleaching, wringing, pressing and
folding clothes and linen for wealthy families or businesses in the local area.
The nuns who ran the institutions made a living from the money the laundries
were making.

During the 20th century four female Catholic congregations
came to dominate the operation of the Magdalene Laundries. These included the
Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of our Lady of Charity of
Refuge and the Good Shephard Sisters.  As
time went on the asylums became increasingly prison-like. The religious
congregations’ motivations began to range from maintaining social and moral
order in Ireland, to using women as ready source of free labour for these
laundry businesses. As the number of laundries in Ireland multiplied, a new
definition was given to the term “fallen women”, one that was much less precise
and included any woman who appeared to challenge the traditional notions of
Irish morality. It extended beyond prostitution to petty criminals, orphans,
mentally disabled women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered
too promiscuous or flirtatious were sometimes incarcerated against their will
at the request of family members or priests. Only 16.4 percent went there of
their own free will (S6). By 1920, Magdalene laundries had almost entirely
abandoned claims of rehabilitation. They acted as institutions used to
incarcerate and punish women “in need of penitence” in attempts to uphold
Ireland’s conservative sexual values and profit from the free labour that the
Magdalene women were providing.

During their time at the laundries, the majority of the
Magdalene women were subjected to physical abuse. This abuse often came in the
form as work as the women were expected to work long, painful hours without
rest. Former Magdalene worker Kathleen Legg recalls her experience in the care
of the Sisters of Charity, where she worked in a “calendar room”. The calendar
was a roller iron. It was a “vicious machine” with no safety guard. It would
snatch the sheets from your hands, so there was a real danger that your fingers
might get caught.” Work was not the only form of physical abuse they endured.
The nuns that dominated the laundries used fear to consolidate their power and
violence was used when the workers did anything wrong. Marina Gambold explains
how she once slipped and scalded her lower arm, leaving it a “burning,
blistering lump of charred meat”. The nuns treated her with unsympathetic
treatment. “Mother Scholastic grabbed me by my burned arm. She didn’t care.”
Food was rationed and women were often starved for days as “penitence”.  (S2)

Not only were the women subjected to the extreme physical
conditions in the asylums, they also endured severe psychological abuse. As the
laundries became increasingly cruel and abusive, the Magdalene women lost their
identities once incarcerated. They were generally given a new name, for
example, Marina Gambold became “Fidelma”. In some cases the women were just
called by numbers. They did not celebrate their birthdays or Christmas. The
Magdalene women were forced to take a vow of silence and were not allowed
communicate with each other about why they were there. They knew nothing about
each other, or about what was happening outside of the laundries’ walls.  “They did not have mirrors in the laundries.
The nuns felt that would encourage vanity. And vanity was a sin.”

Although the religious congregations appeared to be solely
responsible for the brutal conditions in the laundries, they were silently
supported by the state. Irish courts sent convicted women to the laundries and
the Irish government funded them without examining the treatment of the women.
More than 2,500 women who were incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries were
sent in directly by the State (S5). In reality, that number is higher but many
records did not survive. Irish state employees brought women to work their
often against their will and forcefully returned women who had escaped.  Survivors have long claimed that the forces
of An Garda Síochána were used to keep women and girls incarcerated and working
without pay or education. (S5)

As the “big business” of the Magdalene laundries continued
to be secretly supported and financed by the Catholic Church and the Irish, it
began to decline in the latter half of the 20th century (S1). There were two
main reasons for this; Ireland had become more modernised and home appliances
such as washing machines had been introduced which left businesses less
dependent on the Magdalene laundries. Secondly, the influence of Britain and
American could now be seen following the introduction of TV and radio into
Irish life.  Sexuality was less repressed
as subjects that had once been seen as ‘taboo’ were openly discussed on TV
programmes such as the Late Late Show. 
Women’s place in society gradually began to change as people began to
realise that it was okay to disagree with the Church’s rule.

The Magdalene laundries had a huge significance in Irish
history. It has been estimated that around 30,000 women were admitted during
the 150-year history of the Magdalen institutions, 10,000 of whom were incarcerated
following Ireland’s independence in 1922. The exact number and identities of
the women that died whilst incarcerated in the laundries has not been confirmed
due to the religious institutes’ policy of secrecy. However in 1993, one
laundry in Dublin sold some of their land to a property developer (S2). On
examination, the developer discovered 155 corpses in a mass grave.   The majority of the babies that were taken
from unmarried mothers were sent for adoption in America and are still not
accounted for. The last Magdalen Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25,
1996. In 2013. Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a formal state apology. He
acknowledged that the state in fact had a hand in the admission of thousands of
women into the laundries, which he described as ‘the nation’s shame.’ (S2)


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