The Magdalene Laundries

“The only thing really new in the world is the history we do not know.” – Anonymous

From the time of what is referred to as the Great Famine and well into the 1990s, there existed in Ireland the practice of forcing unwed mothers or women deemed immoral, into Catholic convent-run laundries to repent for their “sins.” Many were sent to the laundries for merely complaining about an abusive husband. Many were sent there for being too pretty or too “simple”. In prison-like conditions, the women performed the symbolic labor of laundering to “cleanse their souls.” They were forbidden to have all but minimal interaction with each other. Unwed mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption, often to families in the United States who had to sign a contract promising to raise the child Catholic. Many women were forced to change their names while inside, and were cut off from the world, unable to leave. They were often both physically and psychologically abused. It was not uncommon for the women to be restricted from contact with their families, or have any knowledge of when they would be allowed to return home. Some women were never even told what sin it was that sentenced them to the laundries. The women were called “Magdalenes”, and were named for the reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus offered protection and love. What had begun as a reform movement for prostitutes in Britain in the 1700s evolved into a lucrative business for the Catholic Church in Ireland, and a way to deal with women considered to be “social problems”. This practice existed on a smaller scale in other countries.

The conditions under which the Irish Magdalenes lived and worked left many so stripped of self-worth that many remained in the laundries well past their service time. Some women became completely institutionalized, unable to function in the outside world, grateful for any kindness shown: perhaps the Christmas gift of a carefully placed orange on the bed, or a word of praise for  being obedient. To this day, many children of the Magdalenes continue to look for their mothers and find obstacles in identifying them. To this day, elderly Magdalenes continue to languish unclaimed in convents that no longer house the laundries. While it is estimated that approximately 30,000 women passed through the laundries, some of their stories are just beginning to come to light.

A Secret Once Buried

In the early 1990s, church property in Dublin, previously owned by the Sisters of Charity, was sold to a developer. The bodies of 133 Magdalenes and their children were discovered buried there without gravestones or notification of their families or the government. After a public outcry, the bodies were interred to Glasnevin Cemetery. Survivors of the laundries finally began coming forward to tell their stories about what had been happening behind those high walls, confident that now the public would believe them. A movement in Ireland began gathering momentum to demand a full investigation into the history of the laundries, assistance in reuniting families, and an official apology from the Catholic Church. To this day there has been no apology.

Attempts to motivate Ireland’s leaders to confront what happened in the Magdalene Laundries were largely ignored but the new government has shown more willingness to deal with Ireland’s tragic history. In June of 2011, the UN Committee against Torture gave Ireland one year to investigate and report on “all allegations of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” allegedly committed at the Magdalene Laundries. It is setting up a committee to investigate the state’s role, which could lead to reparations and acknowledgement of the abuse that is so important to the survivors.

The government has been urged to issue an official State apology and provide financial compensation for pensions and lost wages to survivors. Advocates for the Magdalenes are insisting this be done soon; the survivors are elderly and time is of the essence. It is also important that funding for the historical preservation of what took place in the Magdalene Laundries be included in any redress. The creation of a national museum would be one way for the Catholic Church and Irish State to confront a painful past. For survivors, it would ease some of their pain. “We were classed as nothing,” said Josephine Meade. “We were told that we came from nothing, we never would be anything, and we would always go back to being nothing. That was our life summed up.”

The poet, Czeslaw Milosz, spoke to the idea that the purpose of art is to “…remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.” From the time in 2002 when I first learned of what happened there, the women in the Magdalene Laundries have been invisible guests in my house.


San Diego Visual Arts Program (San Diego – CA)

This exhibition featured choreography by Patricia Maldonado, and dancers Kristine Bonner, Katherine Cordova, Mira Ruotsalainen-Cook, Kristina Sloan, Michelle Yépiz as well as myself.

Mira Costa College (San Diego – CA)

Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center (New York – NY)

This exhibition featured choreography by Mary-Clare McKenna, and dancers Janet Aisawa, Kristin Hatleberg, Muriel Ote, and Emily Winkler-Morey. The performance artist, LuLu LoLo performed a one-act monologue.

 Cheryl Parry All Rights Reserved. © 2018