From the late 18th century right up until 1996, Ireland and parts of the UK had various institutions run by the Roman Catholic Church, known as the Magdalene laundries or asylums. They were run to house ‘fallen women’. However, this definition was very broad, covering anything from prostitutes to unwed mothers to rape victims – even women and girls that were considered too flirtatious or attractive. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions in Ireland.
Women were often sent there by their local church, influential members of the community or their own families. They arrived at a young age and often spent the rest of their natural lives there, overseen by the strict and unforgiving nuns that ran the asylums. Escapes were often attempted, but with the girls having no money and nowhere to go, they would often return to their homes, only to be brought back to the asylums by the people who were supposed to love them. Punishment was more often than not to have their heads shaved.
As time went on, the asylums became increasingly prison-like. Supervising sisters were instructed to encourage the women into penance, rather than merely berating them and blocking their escape attempts. The sisters would often beat and humiliate the women, with the inmates believing they deserved this treatment. Surviving inmates recalled being forced to run on the spot naked after showers, for the sisters’ amusement.
The inmates were required to work hard, primarily in laundries, since the facilities were self-supporting. A typical day would involve rising at dawn for a breakfast of gruel and prayers, before being put to work. This was their penance for being not what society deemed ‘acceptable’ – basically, for being a woman.
In the late-18th century, the aim of the laundries was to decrease the high number of street prostitution, but by the end of the 19th century, Magdalene laundries were filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who had yet to engage in sexual activity.
The motivations behind these institutions seemed to range from a need to maintain social and moral order within a patriarchal society, to a desire to profit from a free workforce. These institutions became a part of a large structure of suppression. The free labour became high in demand as the laundries became bigger, giving the Church a large profit margin, which could explain why the definition of ‘fallen women’ became broader.
These institutions did not become public knowledge until the 1990’s, when a mass grave filled with past inmates was discovered, causing public uproar. The bodies were given a proper burial and compensation was paid to surviving victims and their families, but it will take a lot more recognition and thought to undo 200 years of abuse and oppression.
The last Magdalene asylum didn’t close until 1996. Ireland’s Magdalene laundries were quietly supported by the state, and operated by religious communities for more than 200 years. The Roman Catholic Church still refuses to accept responsibility.
Words: Suzanne Wilson
Image: Sophia Maria