Irish society owes apology to Magdalene women
In 1862 the Westminster parliament established a committee to inquire into the prevalence of venereal disease in the British armed services and this resulted in the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864.
There was popular sympathy for the male members of the armed forces who contracted the disease for they were celibate, in the main, confined to fairly awful barrack conditions and, anyway, what was a man to do? The problem was the women prostitutes who infected them and there were tens of thousands of them around in Victorian Britain – according to some claims, hundreds of thousands.
The 1864 Act sought to deal with the problem by requiring these women to be subjected to compulsory examination and, when found to have venereal disease, forced incarceration in what was known as a “lock hospital” for up to three months and later for up to a year, or until “cured”.
In one of the first feminist campaigns in Britain, a movement known as the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (there were subsequent amendments to the 1864 Act), secured the repeal of the Acts in 1886.
There had been religious movements – Anglican and Catholic – concerned about “fallen women” from the previous century but they got a new energy in the Victorian era, where there was much moral agitation about the iniquity of women in prostitution but little about the male clients of these women and hardly any agitation at all about the social and economic conditions that drove so many women into prostitution.
‘Children’ and ‘mistresses’
The first Magdalene asylum was opened in Limerick in 1848, followed by houses in Waterford (1858), New Ross (1860), Belfast (1867) and Cork (1869). They catered, in the main, for women in prostitution, known as “children”, while the nuns were referred to as “mistresses”.
Central to the operation of these houses was the “rule of silence”, regarded as “a necessary condition for the surveillance of good order” to be respected with “scrupulous care”. Silence was enforced for most of the day and throughout the night and was found to be an effective control mechanism. In addition there were long hours of prayer and devotion.
The wearing of drab and shapeless uniforms was obligatory to discourage vanity and improper thoughts. In some of these houses women’s hair was cropped. This practice was carried out in the Limerick house up to the late 1950s. Visits from family or friends were discouraged and correspondence was restricted and then scrutinised. The women in the laundries got little or no education and many were unable to read or write.