Magdalen laundries: a brief history of the institutions

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The first Magdalen laundry opened on Dublin’s Leeson Street in 1767. After the Famine, four female Catholic religious congregations came to dominate the running of the laundries.

These were the Sisters of Mercy (SM), Sisters of Charity (SC), Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge (SCR), and the Good Shepherd Sisters (GSS).

The latter congregation operated a Magdalen laundry in Belfast until 1977.

Altogether there were 10 Catholic Magdalen laundries in the Republic following independence. These were at Waterford (GSS), New Ross (SC), two in Cork (GSS and SC), Limerick (GSS), Galway (SM), and four in Dublin at Dún Laoghaire (SM), Donnybrook (SC), Drumcondra (SCR) and Gloucester/Seán MacDermott Street (SCR).

The last one in Ireland ceased operation at Gloucester/Seán MacDermott Street 13 years ago, in October 1996.

There was one Protestant-run “Magdalen Asylum” at Leeson Street in Dublin, which ceased to function as such in 1918/19 (though continuing as a baby home) and one in Belfast which operated until the 1960s.

Although there is dispute as to whether the (privately) Protestant-run Bethany House in Dublin’s Rathgar was a “Magdalen Asylum”, there are records of women being referred there by the courts.

It is not known how many women passed through these laundries, but as many as 10,000 passed through them in the 19th century, some of whom may have re-entered the laundries on a number of occasions.

Figures for the 20th century are unknown.

The religious congregations have not released any records for women entering the laundries after 1900.

However, hundreds of Magdalen women were interred in mass-burial plots at Glasnevin (115), St Laurences in Limerick (265), Bohermore in Galway (118), with a further 72 “consecrated Magdalen’s” buried at Forster Street there.

Many more are believed buried at the convent sites of other former laundries.

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