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The Magdalene Laundries - Where were the Christians?

The Magdalene Laundries - Where were the Christians?

Gerry O'Shea

Recently, 220  former  Magdalenes were guests of Irish president, Michael D Higgins, at a gala dinner in Dublin. These women were invited by the Irish government which has admitted that grievous wrong was done to the 11,000 or so women who spent time in these Magdalene institutions from the foundation of the Irish State in 1922 until the last laundry was closed in 1996.

In his address to the women, President Higgins said that the way they were treated by successive Irish governments and by the four orders of nuns who ran the institutions "was a deep stain on Ireland's past."  Steven O'Riordan, the producer of the powerful documentary, "The Hidden Maggies," went further; he was so impacted by the women's stories of maltreatment and denigration that he wrote that he was ashamed to identify himself as Irish.

The Magdalene Laundries or Asylums go back to the 18th century where they were used to rehabilitate "fallen women," mainly prostitutes. By the early 20th century in Ireland, these places, all but one run by nuns, were homes for unwed mothers, for women with special needs, for victims of rape and sexual abuse and, amazingly, some  young flirtatious women were consigned to one of the laundries because they were deemed to be a possible occasion of sin for  local males - guilty because of what they might cause someone else to do! There was no court procedure; the so-called wayward women were confined on the word, usually, of a local priest.

A verse from Joni Mitchell's song "Magdalene Laundries" speaks volumes about these terrible places and how they operated.

Most girls came here pregnant

Some by their own fathers

Brdget got that belly

By her parish priest

We're trying to get things white as snow

All of us woe-begotten daughters

In the steaming stains

Of the Magdalene Laundries.

The women were incarcerated, forced to work at menial tasks, often beaten and half-starved. All the women's statements and memoirs highlight the daily demeaning and humiliating treatment by the nuns, who viewed them as non-entities and imposed a regime of monastic silence as the women laundered and scrubbed for ten hours a day.

To reach some understanding of these gulag conditions, one must come to some terms with the prevailing negative attitude to sex in the Catholic church in those years. John Charles McQuaid , a Holy Ghost priest who  served as the archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, was the most powerful man in Ireland during those years.  No politician dared to cross him and, anyway, they were nearly all Catholics who were subservient to church thinking - or at least, John Charles' version of it.

The archbishop's attitude to sex was stuck in the Victorian era.  He wrote that "Any public airing of issues to do with the female body and reproduction is distasteful." He believed that women competing in the same sporting arenas as men were "un-Catholic and un-Irish."

He held forth against the use of tampons for many years, warning that they could be a source of sexual gratification, especially for young women. It is reliably reported that the first time he saw a mannequin in a store window, he thought he was looking at a nude woman - and he fainted.

Although these stories are particularly negative, they do give a context to the Neanderthal attitudes to sex that prevailed in the laundries and indeed in the wider community.

The core Judaeo-Christian belief is that all human beings are God's children and equal in the sight of the creator. There is no more basic and bedrock religious tenet than that. The four orders of nuns - the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Good Shepherd nuns -  responsible for the hellhole buildings that housed and abused, humiliated and denigrated, thousands of women since the 1920's all were trained in Catholic novitiates.

 This training in the religious life usually lasted two years during which the novices supposedly learned about Christian virtues and the highest moral values. All novices are taught to meditate regularly on living worthy lives, mindful  that  eternity beckons.

What went so horribly wrong that instead of living Christian lives they devoted their energies to beating and abusing vulnerable women, treating them as worthless non-entities? Did any of the sisters from any of these religious communities  cry stop?

 Where were the priests and the bishops, the abbots and eminent theologians, professors esteemed for possessing exceptional gravitas in their comments on moral issues? Where were the government ministers who arranged for monthly  payments to the nuns and then washed their hands of any responsibility for what went on? In all those years, three quarters of a century, nobody spoke for those women. Very sad.

Joni Mitchell again:

Peg O'Connell died today

She was a cheeky girl

A flirt

They just stuffed her in a hole

Surely to God you'd think that at least some bells should ring!

Gerry O'Shea blogs at






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