Sweat stung Marie’s eyes. Her drab gray dress clung to her damp and itchy skin. No matter the time of year, the laundry room was always humid. It was Marie’s job to feed the heavy damp sheets through large hot […]
Sweat stung Marie’s eyes.
Her drab gray dress clung to her damp and itchy skin.
No matter the time of year, the laundry room was always humid.
It was Marie’s job to feed the heavy damp sheets through large hot rollers to dry them.
Many a time she had burned her hands.
The nuns walked back and forth supervising the long rows of women washing, mending and ironing.
Each nun carried a long, thick strap tied to their belt.
If you worked too slow, you got the strap.
The room was quiet.
In fact the only sounds were the clanking of machinery, rasp of scrub brushes and the hiss of steam.
Singing or chit chat was not allowed.
The Magdelenes needed to work hard, contemplate their sins and be penitent in order for God to forgive them.
A nun paused by a girl just down the row from Marie—the girl was new, Marie thought the girl’s name was Grace, but wasn’t sure.
The nun said something to Grace.
Before Grace could answer, a strap whistled as it flew through the air, before landing with a loud crack on her arm.
Marie flinched, she knew well that pain.
The last time she had been whipped, her bruises had taken several days to fade. Grace cried out, and tried to back away down the aisle, but she was trapped; a second nun approached her from the other direction.
One of the nuns began dragging Grace by her ear towards the door.
She screamed for someone, anyone to help her.
But the other women kept their eyes on their work and pretended not to hear.
They couldn’t, wouldn’t come to her aid lest they be punished too. In 1993, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Dublin, Ireland sold part of the land of High Park Convent to a developer for £1.5 million [about 2 million USD at the time]. However, there was an unusual provision to the sale.
The land contained a mass grave of 133 Magdalenes or women had been institutionalized in High Park’s Magdalene Laundry.
In fact, High Park had been the largest such laundry in Ireland. The plan was that the nuns and the developer split the costs of exhuming and cremating the bodies.
Then the ashes would be reburied in another mass grave, in Glasnevin cemetery.
But when the project got underway, the mass grave was found to have a dark secret. The first Magdalene Asylum was opened in 1758 in London, England by a trio of philanthropist businessmen.
They wanted to create a place where prostitutes could be rehabilitated. In addition to attending church and learning manners, the women did household chores and various crafts to contribute to the institution.
Generally, the women earned a small sum of money for their craft work.
The idea of Magdalene Asylums spread.
Soon there were homes in several countries including the United States, Canada and Sweden.
The asylums were run by several different religious organizations. Each group had different regulations governing its homes and experienced varying degrees in successfully rehabilitating the Magdelenes or penitents as they were now called. Over time the asylums began to function as penitentiary work-houses where the women were required to labor.
That was especially true of Ireland, where after the Great Famine the Magdalene Asylums started to evolve into forced labor laundries run by 4 female Catholic religious orders. By the late 1800s, innstead of just sex workers, Magdalene Laundries also came to house any women considered outside the bounds of regular society.
That meant women who became pregnant outside of marriage, women who were seen as promiscuous or wayward, etc.
Not only did this open up a larger labor pool for the laundries, but promoted a Catholic viewpoint and removed undesirables from the wider populace. Following Irish independence in 1922, there were 10 Magdalene laundries throughout the country run by the 4 orders.
They operated with quiet support from the state and even received lucrative laundry contracts from the army and other government departments. The judicial system even sentenced women to the laundries.
It would make sense that some penitents of High Park ended up buried on the covnent grounds. However, instead of the 133 bodies the nuns claimed were buried, there were 155 bodies exhumed.
22 women were unlisted.
Also, despite it being a criminal offence to fail to register a death which occurs on one’s premises, only 75 death records were found.
Many records were missing names, the penitents were listed as Magdalene of St Cecilia, Magdalene of Lourdes, etc.
The discovery of the extra bodies in the mass grave not to mention the shoddy records ripped open a poorly healed wound in Irish society, creating a public scandal. How could the Magdalenes have received proper care in these institutions, yet their burial records didn’t even state their names?
Survivors began coming forward telling stories of what their lives were like in the laundries. It wasn’t pretty; many described harsh conditions, enslavement, starvation, severe psychological and physical abuse.
The Magdalenes’ reasons for ending up at the laundries were varied and in many cases arbitrary.
Unwedded mothers, promiscuous women, outspoken women, women deemed too pretty, orphans, women
who had been sexually abused, women who had broken the law and on and on.
All were neatly tucked away in laundries out of the view of regular society.
Unwedded mothers were especially harshly treated.
In many cases the women were separated from their newborns.
Their babies were adopted out or sent to orphanages.
After a short stay in the infirmary, new mothers would quickly be sent back to work. One woman recalled being warned by other penitents to pad her chest, the nuns hated any evidence of unwed mothers and she would be singled out for punishment if she leaked milk—a common problem for new mothers.
Some mothers were punished by the nuns for begging to see their babies one last time before the child was adopted.
In other cases the nuns ran orphanages, industrial schools and Magdalene laundries all on the same plot of land.
Though they lived but few buildings away, mothers were not allowed contact with their illegitimate children.
Many survivors spoke of being held prisoner.
Some had their names changed or were assigned and called by a number when they entered the institution.
Also the women were forced to cut their hair and give up personal mementos.
Their clothing was replaced with coarse, drab dresses in dull colors such as gray or brown. Magdalenes were not permitted to make friends with their comrades; they were only there to work.
Their correspondence with the outside world was limited and in some cases nuns hid or stole letters from family or sweethearts.
The women were made to work 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Schedules mentioned by the survivors varied, but generally they involved waking very early in the morning, going to morning prayers, then a quick breakfast, working a 12 or 13 shift before dinner and having an hour or so afterwards for more prayers or quiet contemplation before lights out.
The dormitories had bars on the windows, and the women were locked in at night. When penitents were allowed outside, they were confined to the grounds of the laundries by high bricked walls topped with glass or barbed wire.
When women did escape, if caught they were sent back to the institution.
Girls as young as 12 or 13 were sent to the laundries.
One girl was only 8 when she entered.
Some Magdalenes ended up functionally illiterate because they were pulled out of school and sent to the laundries.
Even when women were of legal age, they were not allowed to leave.
Some Magdalenes were poorly fed, bread and water was a common diet.
They were kept just shy of malnourishment while the nuns allegedly ate well.
The laundry work was hot, tedious and dangerous.
Many survivors described being burned by steam or hot irons. The long hours spent standing or bent over sewing caused varicose veins and lifelong back problems in young women.
All the while, nuns would watch the women work and hit them with straps if they were too slow or made mistakes.
After their laundry shift, a penitent might have had further chores contributing to the upkeep of the institution.
Every moment of their waking hours, the penitents were governed by the nuns.
Verbal abuse and beatings were common.
Many Magdalenes also experienced religious, emotional or sexual abuse.
Nuns shamed them for vanity, being wicked and their burgeoning bodies.
Some penitents were made to bind their chest because they had large breasts.
Some were made to feel useless, worthless and that the world didn’t want them. Many nuns took delight in their positions of power, punishing every little infraction including Magdalenes looking them in the eye and not showing proper authority. Most penitents ended up staying at a laundry for an average of 3 years. Rules stated that a woman could only be released if someone, generally a family member, requested their release.
When the women left, they were not given wages or were given an insultingly small amount of money for their years of hard labor.
Long after they had left the laundries, the memories heavily affected some Magdalenes. Many women suffered nightmares or struggled with healthy sexual relationships when they married because ideas of purity and sin were so ingrained.
After the initial scandal over the mass grave of High Park, several Magdalene survivors bravely provided their testimonies for documentaries and other media. This helped to alert the public about the abuses that had happened at the laundries. After several years of lobbying, in 2001 the Irish government acknowledged that the women enslaved in Magdalene laundries were victims of abuse.
Despite calls for a thorough investigation the Irish government refused, claiming that the institutions were privately run and it would be outside the bounds of the state to probe their history, completely ignoring the fact that the government repeatedly awarded lucrative contracts to laundries with no oversight of how their operations were being run. Furthermore, it was an open secret that the state even used the laundries as a de facto jail or halfway home.
In 2001, an advocacy group called Justice for Magdalenes presented its case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
They claimed that the exploitation of women that took place at the Magdalene laundries amounted to human-rights violations.
At the urging of the UN panel, the Irish government finally created an inquiry into the laundries. After an 18 month investigation, the government issued a report that found considerable state involvement in the admission of thousands of women into the laundries. The report also found that while the penitents suffered significant levels of verbal abuse, there wasn’t evidence of physical and sexual abuse.
Some survivors felt that the report swept some of the abusive treatment they endured under the rug.
The nuns in the Catholic Church felt vindicated, sure maybe the institutions were overly strict, but they provided a service, taking in women who had nowhere else to go. About 2 weeks after the government report was issued, the government bowed to pressure from the survivors and advocacy groups and the Irish prime minister issued a formal state apology.
The government also created a £50 million victim’s compensation fund. Most of the laundries closed in the early 1970’s; Irish society was changing and new advanced and cheap technology for laundering was making the institutions obsolete. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996.
It was a small institution with only 40 women.
The women were mainly elderly or developmentally disabled and chose to stay with the nuns despite the closing of the laundry.
The horrors of the Magdalene Laundries will never be fully known.
Many of the victims passed away long before any inquiries began.
It’s estimated that some 11,000 women were confined to these institutions in the 20 century. Today, various historical and media groups continue to collect the stories of survivors and delve into the history of the Magdalene Laundries.
The Catholic Church is adamant that it did nothing wrong and that the institutions were run as non profits.
As a result, the church has refused to contribute to any victim’s compensation fund. Also the religious orders have declined to provide records and archival information for investigators and historians.