Subscriber OnlyIreland

A Magdalene laundry and its clients: Holles Street, Fitzwilliam Tennis Club, Captain Americas

Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry’s books include Blackrock College, Switzers, embassies and hospitals

Records for the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry covering large parts of the period from the 1960s to the 1990s showed that it 'generated a good financial surplus annually'. Photograph: Mark Coen

Babies born in Holles Street as recently as 1992 were swaddled in blankets washed in a Magdalene laundry. Past presidents of Ireland may not even have been aware of it, but their dirty linen was laundered by the women and girls of the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry.

Members of elite sports clubs such as the Fitzwilliam Lawn and Tennis Club or the Elm Park Golf Club in the early 1980s, or patients in several Dublin hospitals, or patrons of some of the city’s landmark hotels, each benefited from the unpaid labour of the women and girls locked up in the Religious Sisters of Charity-run Donnybrook institution – one of them for stealing an orange and a pencil.

A new book, A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland, challenges the idea of laundries which operated behind high walls without the knowledge of broader society, limping along on a shoestring budget and handouts from the religious orders. In fact, the laundry in Donnybrook was a lucrative venture that operated until 1992, when the Religious Sisters of Charity sold it to a private company; at the time it had an average annual revenue of the equivalent of €826,000 in today’s money.

Its clients included semi-state companies, third-level institutions, private schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, shops, elite sports clubs, law and accounting firms. “Can we even call it history? This was happening until the 1990s,” says Katherine O’Donnell, professor of history of ideas at UCD, and one of the book’s editors.


State accused of ‘stonewalling’ and ‘hiding evidence’ over Magdalene laundriesOpens in new window ]

The laundries operated in plain sight with the tacit support and patronage of middle-class society; even large sections of the population preferred not to know the finer details. The Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry was the beneficiary of frequent bequests in Irish people’s wills. Sermons from charitable masses held for it were broadcast on Radio Éireann. It ran ads in newspapers, including The Irish Times. Ledgers from the years 1978 to 1980 reveal that among its 900 clients were around 300 contract accounts that included some of the pillars of middle-class Ireland.

The names listed in the red, leather-bound books include Blackrock College, Switzers, Elm Park Golf Club, Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, CIE, the Commissioner for Irish Lights, the Blood Transfusion Service Board, hotels including the Grey Door guesthouse and the Royal Dublin Hotel, Captain Americas restaurant and the French, Argentine and Canadian embassies. Hospitals including the Mater Private, Holles Street and St Vincent’s were also clients. Private addresses in Dublin 4, including on upmarket Eglinton Road, Shrewsbury Road and Wellington Road, feature in the typed customer lists.

We have nothing to hide. We are not riding around in big limousines or drinking champagne

—   Sr Lucy O’Sullivan

There is no suggestion that these organisations or individuals did anything wrong. But their use of the laundry’s services is an indication of how they were seen as an unremarkable, if awkward, facet of Irish life.

O’Donnell characterises the laundries as a “class act. This was middle class Ireland using a neo-colonial enterprise, a system that had been established to mop up the hordes of Irish poor at the end of the 19th century”. It was an Ireland in which there was “no separation between Church and State”, and “the real currency is how respectable you are”. The mother superior of the Donnybrook convent in the late 1950s was Mother Senan Mulcahy, whose brother Richard was Fine Gael leader and a government minister.

The Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry. Photograph Mark Coen

The girls and women who were held behind locked doors and barred windows in DML were generally young and motherless. Some went there for stealing trinkets. Some were transferred from industrial schools. Some were intellectually disabled. Some were incarcerated as a preventative measure: one woman described how she was kidnapped at the age of 15 by the Legion of Mary while working in a B&B. Some were there because they were victims of incest, sexual assault and rape.

Physical punishment was common – beatings were threatened and frequently delivered. Survivors describe getting “a belt of the keys” on the head, or being locked up with only dry bread and tea. Some have spoken about the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of van drivers. “They would touch you up and ask you for favours,” one woman quoted in the book recalls.

For society at large, however, there were “real incentives ‘not to know’. Making a critique of Catholic Church hierarchy and doctrine would entail a risk of losing cultural and social capital,” O’Donnell writes. “Acknowledging how abusive the institutions were would have entailed making a profound moral criticism of the religious orders, congregations and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which was the most powerful hegemonic force in the land.”

Justine McCarthy: Don’t reach for Zovirax, Aquafresh and Sensodyne until GSK compensates mother-and-baby-home childrenOpens in new window ]

After the DML site was bought by a private developer who intended to turn it into a luxury apartment block, the editors were able to gain access and recover financial records and ledgers. Included in the documents is correspondence between the National Maternity Hospital and DML, in which they agree quotations and prices. In the year 1989 alone, DML expected to launder more than 75,000 items on behalf of NMH.

Dr Mark Coen, co-editor of a book on the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry, holding copies of a Ledger from the laundry from the 1980s. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dr Mark Coen, a lecturer in law at the Sutherland School of Law at UCD and an editor of the book, points to the irony in the fact that the name of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president and a champion of women, is emblazoned on the letterhead of the NMH as its patron in correspondence from the early 1990s, such as a note demanding a refund for items which were returned still soiled.

“We have nothing to hide. We are not riding around in big limousines or drinking champagne,” Sr Lucy O’Sullivan told a journalist, Alan Sinclair of the Donnybrook Review, who went there in 1987 to investigate “adverse criticism of the working conditions” but found nothing to unduly alarm him. However, Sinclair did report that the Religious Sisters of Charity received a grant from the Health Board for each woman, and part of the older women’s pensions.

During that period, DML was on contract to clean the laundry for St Vincent’s Hospital, which was also owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity. Letters of complaint were sent from the laundry to the hospital about the “foul” condition of the laundry. In one revealing exchange, published in the book, Sr Peter Ignatius wrote: “Our girls are by no means fastidious, but one man complained that union workers would refuse to handle this laundry and I fear this spirit might spread.”

The legacy of the complex, murky, secretive relationship between official Ireland, the religious orders who operated the laundries, and the question of the role played by broader society, perseveres. The researchers describe how the Sisters of Charity declined to open up their archive or contribute to the book. Government efforts to “stonewall” continue, says Dr Maeve O’Rourke, an assistant professor of human rights at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in the School of Law at University of Galway and another of the book’s editors.

Its opening chapter recounts the lengthy, costly and eventually futile attempts made by researchers to access the records relating to Donnybrook that were available to the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (IDC), which was chaired by Senator Martin McAleese.

O’Rourke explains how she made a Freedom of Information request for all records relating to DML to the Department of the Taoiseach, where the records are now held. This was refused, on the grounds that it would exceed the costs allowable, and the Taoiseach’s department recommended that the editors instead make individual FOI requests of all original sources of State records. A researcher was tasked with doing this – but yet again, all but one of these requests were refused. The Government “keeps trumpeting its commitment to a National Centre for Research and Remembrance. But what exactly is going to go in it?” O’Rourke asks.

Instead, the researchers relied on newspaper articles, planning files, financial accounts, oral histories, the Dublin Diocesan Archives, electoral rolls as well as a range of other sources and previously published material.

What they found challenges some of the key findings of the inter-departmental committee, which published its report in 2013. Sometimes referred to as the McAleese report, it provides some revenue figures for other laundries but claims that “financial records for the Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry did not survive”. One of its conclusions was that “the Laundries operated for the most part on a subsistence or close to break-even basis”.

In fact, records do survive for the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry. Accounts covering large parts of the period from the 1960s to the 1990s retrieved from the site of the former laundry show it “generated a good financial surplus annually”, according to research by Dr Bríd Murphy of Dublin City University and Professor Martin Quinn of Queen’s University Belfast.

Religious Sisters of Charity buildings on the site of the Donnybrook convent and near the buildings of the Magdalene Laundry. Photograph: Alan Betson

Between one-half and one-third of the surplus was diverted to the Religious Sisters of Charity every year. In 1975, for example, the surplus was £59,332. A “contribution” of £31,000 was made to the religious order – this would have been enough at that time to buy two seaside bungalows in Bray, with change left over to redecorate and furnish them. Since the records show no wages paid to anyone other than van drivers, this surplus was at least partly made possible by the unpaid labour of girls and women, the researchers point out.

The McAleese report was also unable to verify a claim that the Donnybrook laundry won a Deartment of Defence contract to do military laundry during the Emergency. However, Coen uncovered documents in the Dublin Diocesan Archives that not only prove the contract existed, but that it was later revoked over the fact that the women were not paid a wage.

A nun at the laundry wrote to the Department to vigorously defend the practice of not paying the women, which was in breach of the fair wages clause in state contracts, referring to them as “inmates” and “penitents”, arguing that their food, bedding and weekly doctor visits had to be paid for. “All they earn is spent on them and a good deal more,” Mother Frances Eucharia insisted.

In addition, she wrote, “many of them are mentally deficient” and if they were not in the laundry, they would be in the county home or on the streets. “Surely it is not too much to expect our own Catholic Government will give some helping hand to a charitable Institution.”

This episode makes clear that as early as the 1940s, there was awareness in official circles that the Magdalene laundries did not pay wages and that their labour practices were suspect, Coen notes.

Despite this, successive governments have consistently maintained the position that there was no evidence of torture or criminal ill-treatment of the women. In a 2019 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the Department of Justice stated: “The Irish Government is satisfied that the findings of the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with Magdalen Laundries – the McAleese Report …[which] showed that many of the preconceptions about these institutions were not supported by the facts…No factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions was found.”

One survivor of three Magdalene laundries, Elizabeth Coppin, recently took a case to the UN Committee Against Torture. In October, the committee found there had been no violation of the Convention. One of the Government’s defences had been that Coppin could use the FOI Act 2014 to try to piece together the McAleese Commission archive herself by making individual information access requests to all original holders of state records – something the researchers have attempted to no avail.

In a statement after the decision, Coppin said: “It was “respectable people” who were our abusers. They made a profit from us.”

A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland, edited by Mark Coen, Katherine O’Donnell and Maeve O’Rourke, is published by Bloomsbury