The Magdalen Laundries: an important corrective

A scene from the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters

Reading through Personal Update, the newsletter of the Irish ‘Family & Life’ movement for May 2013, which has just arrived in the post, I see it includes an article entitled, A very brief reflection on the Magdalen Laundries. I think this article is worth a mention because even though the subject has already passed through media spin and pseudo-scrutiny, old prejudices die hard and it could always emerge again. It is the kind of “scandal” that those outside the Church are always happy to hurl at us, so it is good to have a reasoned response at the ready.

The article speaks highly of the report by Senator Martin McAleese, which it describes as “conscientious and respectful of the facts and [which] should have been a corrective to untruths and exaggeration”, both of which were very evident in the media coverage of the subject. For instance, the number of women who worked in the laundries is approximately 10,000, not the 30,000 alleged to have done so. Nor were the laundries seen as a way of making money out of exploitation; most depended on donations and outside finance to survive.

When the modern Magdalen movement began it was a Protestant rather than a Catholic initiative. The first was opened in London in 1758 for the reform and rehabilitation of prostitutes. The idea then spread to Protestant Dublin, with Catholic initiatives soon to follow. Why choose prostitution as a cause among all the social ills of society? The author comments sensibly that “The marriage options for a woman who wanted to leave prostitution were nil in the 18th century. Whatever the reasons that drove a woman to sell her body… there was little chance of escape. She had a poor life expectancy, faced violence, disease and social ostracism, and many women resorted to cheap gin and opium to ease the pain.”

The article emphasises that the Magdalen Refuges or Asylums “were intended to provide an opportunity for a woman to reform herself” and achieve a better life. She escaped the power of a pimp and learnt a useful trade. Most stayed for about three years. It is worth pointing out that WE Gladstone, the great evangelical Christian prime minister of the Victorian period, as well as several of his high-minded contemporaries, was a keen supporter of these laundry refuges for “fallen women” as they were called. Problems arose later on, when the lay patrons died. In Ireland the laundries were then taken over by religious orders “even though this kind of work might not have been within the apostolate of the order of sisters.” By the beginning of the 20th century, prostitutes had been joined by girls convicted of petty crime, as well as “difficult children” dumped in the laundries by their families.

The author explains that in the newly-established Irish State, “the Magdalen Laundries and the Industrial Schools were a convenient solution for dealing with young offenders and problem children”. It points out that “Today, the religious orders have taken most of the blame for the unacceptable practices of this system of social control” – even though the Irish state was clearly in collusion with the system. The article concludes: “Despite the failings of the system, I have no doubt that, over 200 years, many young Irish women were rescued from a life of prostitution or crime, and given the chance of a better life through the dedication of the religious orders, now so thoughtlessly excoriated.”

In these modern times, it would probably be thought “judgmental” to try to help prostitutes abandon their way of life. And in this country the social services have taken over the care of problem teenage girls; but given recent news of the sexual exploitation of young girls in care by older men in the community, it is debatable whether these very vulnerable young women are better served in our modern welfare state. We have to be careful not to make quick judgments of past practice through our own more liberal eyes, especially when they blind us to other forms of systemic neglect of young people today.