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Sisters who ran Magdalene laundries are being treated unjustly

Over the last several decades, awareness of the severity of pedophilia and sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church has become widespread.After years of revelations of sexual predation by priests upon children and the growing public attention paid to the #MeToo movement, Pope Francis and the church are being forced to address persistent reports of abuse of members of its own hierarchy: the nuns who serve the church in a secondary capacity to men.[1]

In June 2019, Pope Francis’ Motu proprio, “Vos estis lux mundi“, established new procedures for reporting abuse and violence, and ensuring that Bishops and Religious Superiors are held accountable for their actions, while whistle- blowers are shielded.[2] The pope’s definition of sexual abuse is expansive enough to cover children, seminarians, nuns and women in religious orders, as well as those with mental disabilities—all of whom have been victimized by Church leaders.[3] (It also condemns the possession or production of child pornography.) Perhaps most important, it demands that alleged victims are offered support services ranging from therapy to spiritual counseling, and promises to protect their confidentiality.[4]

Yet there still.remain several communities whose claims of prolonged and continuous abuse by church representatives continues to be ignored and denied. When Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters was released in 2002, it exposed a diabolical truth the Roman Catholic Church had long tried to keep under wraps: the horrific reality of Irish “Magdalene” laundries.[5] Though advertised as charitable safehouses where socieities fallen women could find guidance and good cheer (along with employment as laundresses), these institutions were actually rife with cruelity, deprivation and human right’s abusers..[6] As the Oscar-nominated 2013 film Philomena portrays, their destructive legacy went on well into 20th century, long after the western world had supposedly emerged from the veil of religious superstition and ignorance.[7]

Development property sold by Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, Dublin, Ireland (Irish Laundries Tortured Women And Separated Families, But The Church Denies It)

Twenty years ago, shock washed over Ireland. In 1993, a mass grave was found on land owned by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge in Dublin that had been recently sold to commetcial developers.[8] Inside were the remains of hundreds of “penitents” who had once been inmates at High Park, the largest laundry in Ireland. The final body count was 155.[9]

All the corpses were cremated and reinterred in a different cemetery, but most of the deaths had not even been officially logged or certified, so it wasn’t possible to notify relatives or provide closure of any kind.[10] The general consensus, though, was that the bodies represented women or girls who had been neglected to death, mistreated to death, or some combination of both.

To be sure, the horror stories of Magdalene laundry survivors are legion. Few things are black and white, and there are a few individuals who take issue with the brutality the insitutions and nuns are charged with.[11] Worked to the bone, beaten and abused, the experiences of women held in the ‘care’ of the nuns in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, is the stuff of nightmares.

Labelled the “Maggies”, the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.[12] Mary Norris was committed to a laundry for taking “a forbidden night off” from her job as a servant. She spent two years in hell before her aunt finally tracked her down and negotiated her release.[13]

They were women who didn’t know their place in a ruthless Catholic hierarchy. Over 74 years, 10,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, mostly in laundries run by nuns. At least 988 of the women who were buried in laundry grounds are thought to have spent most of their lives inside the institutions.[14]

Marina Gambold was orphaned when she was eight years old after both her parents died.[15] She lived with her grandmother for a couple of years but when she was 16 she found she had nowhere to go.

“I walked up the steps that day and the nun came out and said your name is changed, you are Fidelma, I went in and I was told I had to keep my silence. I was working in the laundry from eight in the morning until about six in the evening. I was starving with the hunger, I was given bread and dripping for my breakfast every morning,”[16]

Eerie photos from the Magdalene Laundries show ‘fallen women’ put to work and grim-faced nuns watching over crowds of kids

The young woman scrubbed corridors, acquiring housemaids’ knees, from working all day in the laundry, doing the white coats and the pleating.[17]

“One day I broke a cup, and the nun said, ‘I’ll teach you to be careful’. She got a thick string, and she tied it round my neck for three days and three nights, and I had to eat off the floor every morning. Then I had to get down on my knees, and I had to say, ‘I beg almighty God’s pardon, Our Lady’s pardon, my companion’s pardon for the bad example I have shown.”[18]

Ms Gambold was in the laundries for about three years. She left Ireland when she was 19.

“When I came out of the convent I was determined to get out of Ireland. I was 19 years of age then and had a nervous breakdown. I lived in England for almost 30 years before I moved back with my husband. “Most of the time I have cried bitter tears, especially when I had nobody, pain never goes away.”[19]

Another survivor, Kathleen Legg, now 80, recollects:

“Every morning you would wake to the sound of a bell. You operated like a robot, and you did not dare question a nun. We bathed once a week, and I remember the lice from our hair used to float around the top of the water, so if you were one of the last ones to get washed, it was horrific.”[20]

Magdalene Asylum Dublin, Ireland (Eerie photos from the Magdalene Laundries show ‘fallen women’ put to work and grim-faced nuns watching over crowds of kids)

The sordid history of laundries is an extraordinarily long one; the first Irish foundation accepted only Protestant womem, founded by philanthropist Lady Arabella Denny, opened in 1765.[21] Known as Magdalene Asylums (after the “redeemed” Biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene), the homes purported to be sanctuaries for “fallen” women… i.e., unwed mothers, abused girls, girls who had been cast out by their families, and your run-of-the-mill freethinking feminists who were too eccentric, original, and “troublesome” to fit into the strictures of their communities.[22]

In the late 18th century, the term “fallen women” primarily referred to prostitutesl, but by the end of the 19th century, Magdalene laundries were filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who were “not prostitutes at all,” but either “seduced women” or women who had yet to engage in sexual activity. Missionaries were required to approach prostitutes and distribute religious tracts, designed to be read in ‘sober’ moments and divert women from their vicious lives.[23] Furthermore, the consignment even of genuine prostitutes” to these laundries seldom reduced their numbers on the streets, any more than did an individual prostitute’s death. So long as poverty continued, and the demand for public women remained, such losses were easily replaced.[24]

When the Magdalene Movement first took hold in the mid-18th century, the campaign to put “fallen women” to work was supported by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, with women serving short terms inside the asylums with the goal of rehabilitation. Over the years, however, the Magdalene laundries, became primarily Catholic institutions, and the stints grew longer and longer[25] . Women sent there were often charged with redeeming themselves through lace-making, needlework or doing laundry.

Though most residents had not been convicted of any crime, conditions inside were prison-like. Redemption might sometimes involve a variety of coercive measures, including shaven heads, institutional uniforms, bread and water diets, restricted visiting, supervised correspondence, solitary confinement and even flogging.[26] The institutions failed to achieve their supposed objective: they had little impact on prostitution over the period, and yet they were continuing to multiply and expand due to their self-supporting free labour.[27]

Laundries & Schools

Several religious institutes established even more Irish laundries, reformatories and industrial schools, sometimes all together on the same plot of land, with the aim to “save the souls primarily of women and children”.[28]

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy ran the largest laundries in Dublin.[29] These large complexes became a massive interlocking system, carefully and painstakingly built up over a number of decades. Consequently, Magdalene laundries became part of Ireland’s superseding system for the control of children and women. Women and illegitimate children were both incarcerated for transgressing the narrow moral code of the time and the same religious congregations managed the orphanages, reformatory schools and laundries.[30] Thus, these facilities all helped sustain each other – girls from the reformatory and industrial schools often ended up working their entire lives in the Magdalen laundries.

Almost all the institutions were run by female religious congregations, i.e. sisters, and were scattered throughout the country in prominent locations in towns and cities.[31] They were powerful and pervasive, able to effectively control the lives of women and children from all classes. This second incarnation of Magdalene laundries vastly differed from the first incarnation, due to their longevity and their diverse community of female inmates, including hopeless cases, mental defective and transfers from industrial and reformatory schools.[32]

These particular institutions intentionally shared overriding characteristics, including a regime of prayer, silence, work in a laundry, and a preference for permanent inmates which contradicts the religious congregations’ stated mission to protect, reform, and rehabilitate.[33] As this expansion was taking place and these laundries were becoming a part of a large network of institutions, the treatment of the girls was becoming increasingly violent and abusive.[34] The asylums became particularly cruel, more secretive in nature and emphatically more punitive.Though these women had committed no crime and had never been put on trial, their indefinite incarceration was enforced by locked doors, iron gates and prison guards in the form of apathetic sisters.[35]

The condition of female laundry workers in Ireland 1922-1996: A cas…

By 1920, Magdalene laundries had almost entirely abandoned claims of rehabilitation and instead, were seamlessly incorporated into the state’s architecture of containment.[36] In the beginning of these asylums’ existence, because many of the women had a background as prostitutes, the women (who were called “children”) were regarded as “in need of penitence”, and until the 1970s were required to address all staff members as “mother” regardless of age.[37] To enforce order and maintain a monastic atmosphere, the inmates were required to observe strict silence for much of the day.

As the phenomenon became more widespread, it extended beyond prostitution to petty criminals, orphans, mentally disabled women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious, or too beautiful, were sent to an asylum by their families.[38] This paralleled the practice in state-run mental asylums in Britain and Ireland in the same period, where many people with alleged social dysfunction were committed to asylums.[39] Without a family member on the outside who could vouch for them, many incarcerated individuals stayed in the asylums for the rest of their lives, many taking religious vows. Mary Norris was committed to a laundry for taking “a forbidden night off” from her job as a servant. She spent two years in hell before her aunt finally tracked her down and negotiated her release.[40]

Given Ireland’s historically conservative sexual mores, Magdalene asylums were a generally accepted social institution until well into the second half of the twentieth century.[41] They disappeared with changes in sexual mores as they ceased to be profitable.[42] .[43]

Ex-Magdalene Lauren Sullivan recalled:

“I had my hair chopped off and my name changed, and when I was put into that Magdalene laundry all I remember was the door being locked. They beat, punched and tortured me.”[44]

Incredibly, the laundries continued to operate, in various stages of utilitarian bleakness (at best) and cruelty (at worst) until 1996. It’s been estimated that over 30,000 women passed through the asylums, some staying a month and some remaining for a lifetime.[45] Even that seems to be a conservative figure, though, when you consider that the time period in question spans over two centuries.

Many of the deaths that occurred at Irish laundries (which mostly came about through medical negligence) were not reported, according to sources citing 2013’s McAleese Report.[46] Though the asylums officially recorded 879 deaths, a group called “Justice for Magdalenes” interviewed survivors and collected testimonies about death and burials, gravestones, electoral registers, exhumation orders, and newspaper archives.[47] Eventually, from all of this research, they determined the number of un-reported deaths to be closer to 1,663… though this figure remains controversial.[48]

reland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.

Because so many women and girls were destitute and pregnant by the time they arrived at the laundries, many babies ended up being born in convent hospitals, where they were quickly spirited away by nuns, lest they be contaminated by their “unclean” mothers. Up to 2,000 children were illegally exported from Magdalene laundries in Ireland to adoptive parents in the U.S., mainly wealthy families.[49]

Margaret Bullen had been forced by nuns to give her three daughters up for adoption; two of whom finally tracked her down in 1995. At that time, Bullen was still institutionalized as she had been for most of her life. According to one daughter’s account:

“Margaret [spent] her childhood and puberty in these institutions, without the chance to grow up. At age 16, she was transferred to the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry… there she toiled, unpaid for the rest of her life.”[50]

Margaret Bullen and twin daughters Samantha and Etta 1995 (…)

Samantha Long and her twin sister Etta were just seven weeks old in 1972 when Margaret visited them at the St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin where they had been born and found them gone.[51] Eventually, Margaret was entrusted to the care of the Irish state, who promptly sub-contracted that duty back to the Catholic Church.

Margaret, who had blocked out many of her traumatic experiences, claimed to have no memory of having given birth at all,[52] though she did manage to enjoy a relationship with her daughters for a couple of years. She died at the age of 51 by Goodpeace Syndrome, end-stage kidney and liver failure brought on by the chemicals she’d inhaled while working in the laundries.[53] People who smoke or use hair dyes appear to be at increased risk for this condition. Exposure to hydrocarbon fumes, metallic dust, and certain drugs, such as cocaine, may also raise a person’s risk.[54]

The Magdalene laundries were not without their courageous heroines. Numerous inmates tried to escape or run away, and some even made it out to a better life. One survivor, Elizabeth Coppin, remembered that:

“One of the nuns came down and accused me of stealing someone’s sweets. Two of the women dragged me up to a dark cell. I stayed [there] for three days and three nights, and… that was when I realized two things: no one was coming to help me, and what they were doing was wrong. I decided to run away. There were no bars on the windows at the front of the building, so me and another girl decided to jump out one of them when the nuns weren’t looking. We ran into the city. We had nothing… but we were good workers, so we managed to get a job working in a hospital that trained nurses. I was 17 by then. We were happy.”[55]

However, things didn’t end well for Coppin:

“One day a man came. He was from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children… [he] brought me to another laundry. When he left, he said: ‘you run away from this place and we’ll put you someplace you’ll never get out of.'”[56]

Coppin eventually left the Magdalene laundry in Waterford in 1968 and within days she emigrated to England. During her 16 years in institutions Coppin alleges she was subjected to arbitrary detention, beatings, forced labour without pay, human trafficking, humiliation, denial of education, denial of identity, denial of a family life, neglect, starvation and religious denigration.[57] IIn a landmark decision, the United Nations Tribunal on Torture has permitted Coppin to present her case and request for restitution, despite exhausting all appeals in Irish Courts.

UN to hear Magdalene Laundries case

Irish society has begun to acknowledge the women after “State and society were complicit in terms of what happened” to them in the past.[58] In 2011, the United Nations Committee Against Torture launched a lengthy investigation into the laundries and found that their “management teams” had indeed likely been guilty of exploitation and abuse.[59] It criticised the Irish government for refusing to acknowledge the pain and abuse suffered by women incarcerated in the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996, and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme.

While many Magdalene survivors have already gone on record and become activists, many more are still coming out of the woodwork. Many of the adult children of Maggies have begun demanding justice for their birth mothers and requesting official state apologies.[60] They represent a generation displaced by the corruption of the Magdalene asylums, even though most of them went on to lead far better lives than the slings and arrows of church-sponsored child labor could have offered.

A formal state apology was issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors was set up by the Irish Government.[61] The religious orders which operated the laundries have rejected activist demands that they financially contribute to this programme.[62]

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Nevertheless, while some religious orders did offer up condolences for past evils, many of the culpable organizations have refused to acknowledge that said brutalities ever took place. Moreover, officials from the group JFM (Justice for Magdalenes) aren’t convinced that even the apologetic sentiments were sincere, claiming that:

“Rather than apologies, they used phrases such as ‘it was regrettable that the Magdalene homes had to exist at all’ and claimed the laundries were ‘part of the system and culture of the time.'”[63]

The culture of the time- a get-out-of-laundry-free card, whether the issue at hand is routine lobotomies, medieval torture devices, or just run-of-the-mill witch burning continues to be offensive to the Maggies and their offspring.

But what is to be considered adequate recognition and compendation for women whose lives were destroyed- physically, mentally and emotionally during their time in the Magdalene laundries? What is to be done for the more than 2000 children who were sold as part of an adoption trade between the laundries and Irish Catholic families in the United States? Is the 53 million dollars earmarked as resitution adequate, without a formal recognition of the atrocities expreienced within the Magdalene laundries?

The Gloucester Street Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin 1996 (“Nuns took my childhood”: This Irish woman escaped from a Magdalene Laundry as a teen in 1993 |

In 2018, Japanese Hotel chain Toyoko Inn offered Dublin City Council €14.5 million for the former Magdalene Laundry site on Sean McDermott Street, which closed in October 1996. The chain plans to build a hotel with 350 rooms, 55 one-bedroom apartments for social housing, a supermarket and other retail outlets, and a cultural centre, as well as a laundry memorial.[64]

Despite an outpouring of outrage and over 100,000 signatures demanding the laundry be converted into a museum and living memorial to those who suffered within, both the Church and developers have moved forward with the construction of the hotel and entertainment complex.[65] This time, the government is siding with the Maggies and their descendants, ordering a temporary halt on construction until the courts can determine the fate of the old laundry.


[1] Pope Francis Acknowledges, For First Time, Sexual Abuse Of Nuns By Priests

[2] New norms for the whole Church against those who abuse or cover up – Vatican News

[3] Pope Francis Stops Hiding From the Church’s Sexual-Abuse Epidemic

[4] Bishops OK plan to implement ‘motu proprio’ on addressing abuse

[5] The Magdalene Sisters (2002) – IMDb

[6] Horrible Torture Methods That Have Been Used Primarily on Women

[7] Philomena (film) – Wikipedia

[8] Ireland’s Magdalene laundries scandal must be laid to rest | Mary Raftery

[9] Ireland finally admits state collusion in Magdalene Laundry system

[10] The Magdalen Asylum, Cork

[11] Sisters who ran Magdalene laundries are being treated unjustly

[12] Report of the Board of Trustees

[13] Ireland’s Magdalene laundries scandal must be laid to rest | Mary Raftery

[14] Ireland finally admits state collusion in Magdalene Laundry system


[16] Magdalene Laundries: Survivor stories

[17] Housemaid’s Knee (Prepatellar Bursitis) | Health

[18] Magdalene Laundries: Survivor stories

[19] Magdalene Laundries: Survivor stories

[20] ‘It will be with me until I die’: Woman haunted by Magdalene laundry

[21] 18 March 1792: Lady Arabella Denny, Founder of the Magdalene Asylums died on this day

[22] Lady Arbella Denny, 1707-1792

[23] http://Finnegan, Frances (2001)….

[24] http://Finnegan, Frances (2001)….


[26] Doing compassion or doing discipline? Power relations and the Magdalene Laundries

[27] Origins of the Magdalene Laundries

[28] http://Pogatchnik, Shawn (2013-0…

[29] Laundries & Schools

[30] New Magdalene research presents complex picture

[31] Map of Magdalene Laundries & Graves

[32] Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the nation’s architecture of containment : Smith, James M., 1966- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

[33] Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the nation’s architecture of containment : Smith, James M., 1966- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive



[36] Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the nation’s architecture of containment : Smith, James M., 1966- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

[37] http://Raftery, Mary; Eoin O’Sul…

[38] The condition of female laundry workers in Ireland 1922-1996: A cas…

[39] Misery in Ireland’s ‘massive mausoleums of madness’

[40] Ireland’s Magdalene laundries scandal must be laid to rest | Mary Raftery



[43] http://Finnegan, Frances (2001)….

[44] Irish Laundries Tortured Women And Separated Families, But The Church Denies It

[45] Magdalene Asylums

[46] 1,663 Irish women died in Magdalene laundries, correct researchers |

[47] A resource for people affected by and interested in Ireland’s Magdalene institutions


[49] 2,000 Irish children were illegally adopted in US from Magdalene Laundries |

[50] ‘Mother did not remember having us … only being hurt’


[52] ‘Mother did not remember having us … only being hurt’

[53] Goodpasture Syndrome | NIDDK

[54] Goodpasture Syndrome

[55] Survivors remember Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

[56] Survivors remember Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

[57] Magdalene survivor’s UN case of key importance, lawyer says

[58] State failed in ‘duty of care’ to Magdalene women – Flanagan

[59] http://Survivors remember Irelan…

[60] Ireland agrees compensation for Magdalene Laundries survivors

[61] The Lost Children of Tuam

[62] Magdalene compensation snub is ‘rejection of Laundry women’ | The Irish Post

[63] In full: Enda Kenny’s State apology to the Magdalene women

[64] The last Magdalene Laundry should be ‘museum not memorial’ – The Irish Catholic

[65] Attempts to stop Magdalene Laundry sale