Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: How to honour our unshamed Magdalenes

The last Magdalene laundry, which shut only in 1996, should become a memorial centre

In September 1966, one GC Duggan of Killiney wrote a letter to The Irish Times reminiscing about the old shops in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Donnybrook: "Field, the butcher, was there too, and in a side-street, Darcy the dairyman. A post office at the Donnybrook fair end, the Magdalen (sic) Asylum, and Cornelius Kennedy's public house round off my memories."

The butcher, the dairyman, the post office, the pub – oh, and the huge institution in which women were incarcerated, shamed and forced to do menial and unpaid labour.

St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum, as it was formally called, was run by the Religious Sisters of Charity. Typically, more than 100 women were locked up in it at any given time.

The casual mention of the laundry as an insignificant shard of local memory is emblematic of our difficulty in remembering what was hidden in plain sight

Mr or Ms Duggan’s letter is telling in so many ways. The male shop owners have names: Field, Darcy, Kennedy. The female inhabitants of the asylum do not.


The men’s commercial businesses are remembered – butcher, dairyman, publican. The fact that the “asylum” was actually the biggest local business, a thriving commercial laundry, is brushed over.

Above all, the casual mention of the institution as an insignificant shard of local memory is emblematic of the strangeness of Irish public memory itself – the difficulty of remembering what was hidden in plain sight, of acknowledging our great unknown known: the hulking, visually domineering institutions – laundries, mental hospitals, mother-and-baby homes and industrial schools in which an astonishing 1 per cent of the population was incarcerated, often without legal process or appeal.

The gathering of former Magdalenes in Dublin this week, and President Michael D Higgins’s eloquent denunciation of their treatment, was a hugely important public occasion. It was an unshaming.

In July 1960, as minister for education, Oscar Traynor, told the Dáil that "in regard to the criticism about remanding young girls to the Magdalene home, he was very much in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities … He had made it clear that girls should be remanded to a portion of the convent where they would not be in contact with the type of person members of the House had in mind."

The “type of person” – the fallen, the unclean, the social contaminant – could not even be specified. The State’s open honouring of the survivors comes way too late, but late really is better than never.

This week’s gathering also brings us back to an unresolved question: the creation of a permanent memorial to those incarcerated in this archipelago of repressive institutions.

The Quirke report, in 2013, which led to the redress scheme for the Magdalenes, recommended, rather vaguely, “the acquisition, maintenance and administration of [a] garden, museum or other form of memorial”.

In 2009 the Ryan report on the abuse of children in industrial schools recommended that the “following words of the special statement made by the Taoiseach in May 1999 should be inscribed on a memorial to victims of abuse in institutions as a permanent public acknowledgement of their experiences. It is important for the alleviation of the effects of childhood abuse that the State’s formal recognition of the abuse that occurred and the suffering of the victims should be preserved in a permanent place: ‘On behalf of the State and of all citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse, for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.’”

None of this has been done. In part, I think, this is because the contemporary public record of these systematic crimes is contained in the voices of voiceless people. It belongs with the silenced, the occluded, the unnamable.

Mere fragments of public utterances can be mined from The Irish Times archives, usually from court reports.

In April 1954 a man called Hugh Leggett from Donnycarney was up in court in Dublin for refusing to pay for the upkeep of his son in an industrial school. He had written a letter to the district judge saying "There is nothing but dirt and corruption behind your handling of children; both you and the Guards." He was sentenced to a week in prison for contempt of court.

In 1961 a 13-year-old girl was sent from Dublin to St Joseph's industrial school in Clifden. Her crime was that she was unable to read or do simple arithmetic

In the same month, another Dublin working-class man, Ambrose Leonard, a bus driver from Cabra, made an application in the Children's Court. His wife had died in March, leaving him with 10 children to care for. His application was to have three of those children released from St Kiernan's industrial school in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. He alleged in effect that they were being starved: "Just the frames of the three boys in the Wicklow school were left, and they were grand healthy boys when they were sent away."

His appeal was dismissed by the judge, who said the industrial schools were approved by the Department of Education “and as far as he knew they had been run very well”.

On January 5th, 1961, an unnamed 13-year-old girl was sent from Dublin to St Joseph's industrial school in Clifden. Her crime was that she was "unable to read or do simple arithmetic". The court was told that she had twice escaped from another institution in Dublin.

Her mother created, according to the court report, a “scene of protest”. The judge told her that “it would be to the child’s advantage from the point of view of teaching and supervision to be in the country, where she would benefit in health and training”.

These are the subterranean sounds of the State’s history: “nothing but dirt and corruption”; “just the frames of the three boys”; “a scene of protest”.

These are the parents whose crime of poverty brought the punishment of having their children snatched by church and State: Hugh Leggett, Ambrose Leonard, the unnamable mother whose daughter was being exiled for illiteracy by those who knew that the country air of Connemara would do her good.

It is up to this generation to inscribe their memories, and the memories of all the men, women and children who were so cruelly imprisoned, enslaved and tortured, in a dignified and permanent national memorial centre. The obvious place for it is the still-existing Monastery of Our Lady of Charity on Sean McDermott Street in the heart of Dublin city – the site of the last of the Magdalene laundries that closed only in 1996.

The National Archives of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland should be tasked (and properly resourced) with creating a documentation and research centre and an exhibition space. The oral histories of the surviving victims should be recorded and preserved. A performance space should also be created – Anu's stunning site-specific piece Laundry, made for the convent, showed the potential for an imaginative occupation of this haunting place.

It will take money to refurbish and adapt the building. It will require legislation to take into national ownership the records of the religious orders relevant to the institutions. It will take careful listening to the survivors. It will take imagination to integrate the artistic with the documentary. It will take a long-term commitment of a decent annual budget to run the place properly.

But if it were to be open by 2022 it would mark the centenary of a State that is at last no longer dominated by its silences.