New Magdalene research presents complex picture

Rite & Reason: Is there room for more rounded and fairer assessment?

Real efforts were made by the sisters of Our Lady of Charity to “do something” for the girls and younger women.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Real efforts were made by the sisters of Our Lady of Charity to “do something” for the girls and younger women. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Recent research in Dublin, Caen, Angers and Rome, has put into the public domain new information on the Magdalene laundries of St Mary’s High Park and Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin, both run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.

Some of the findings expand on facts already well-known from the McAleese inquiry into the role of the state vis à vis these institutions, such as the presence of former industrial school girls in Magdalene laundries. But others might give the reader pause for thought, and beyond these case studies alone.

Short-stay and emergency accommodation was in fact the principal role played by these particular homes, as revealed by analysis of the registers of entrances and exits. Some homeless women entered multiple times, others returned to spend their final months in the infirmary.

The 1957 figures for St Mary’s, High Park are typical: of the 32 women admitted that year, 15 left within one month, five within three months, seven within one year, and two more within two years (three other women simply “left”, no date of departure).

There were of course long-term residents also: even three or four staying on (for two years or more) out of each year’s intake does make, in time, for a significant core population.

Sad cycle

Passing reference to other asylums, casual hostels, psychiatric hospitals and prison shows how for some women recourse to a Magdalene laundry was part of a sad cycle of homelessness and “getting by”, with repeated spells in different places.

Real efforts were made by the sisters of Our Lady of Charity to “do something” for the girls and younger women to be found among the general intake of their adult refuges.

In line with a commitment “to organise a system of instruction and education in keeping with the modern needs, so as to fit the young persons for their life in the world”, the sisters running St Mary’s, High Park, opened a training unit in 1955 to separate teenagers and younger women from the mainstream for at least part of the day.

The sisters in Sean MacDermott Street opened a transition hostel for teenagers in the Magdalene asylum in 1966, also with the aim of preparing for independent living, with basic life skills named as “budgeting, nutrition, socialising, coping with jobs and life, self-management and responsibility”.

The small hostels, training centres and aftercare facilities for older teenagers run by these sisters with minimal, if any, State support, and the efforts made to find them employment, strike the outsider as truly innovative at the time.

The sisters were well aware of shortcomings, but it is difficult to deny the genuine interest they had in the welfare of these young persons and the efforts they made to see them safely on the way to independence.

Feel of a convent

The model for the Magdalene asylums of Our Lady of Charity (and also for the Good Shepherd) was that of Caen, founded by John Eudes in 1641. Faithful to this French tradition, the Irish asylums certainly had the feel of the convent about them in terms of daily routine and devotional life and were slow to embrace change.

But from 1950 onwards they did modernise. The ending of uniform dress, the first day-trips by bus and train to the seaside, the division of the large dormitories into “curtained cubicles” and later into single bedrooms, the ending of compulsory attendance at Mass, and the replacement of pocket money with wages for those who worked in the laundry can all be tracked and dated, elements of what McAleese recognised as the “softening” of the system over time.

Martin McAleese stated that there is “no single or simple story of the Magdalene laundries” and the documentary evidence from these two refuges certainly bears this out.

But the association of the Magdalene laundries with imprisonment, exploitation and cruelty, and with these alone, is so strongly established in the public sphere that it is difficult to know if there is space for a more rounded, fuller-informed and fairer assessment to emerge.

Dr Jacinta Prunty is head of the Department of History, Maynooth University and author of “The Monasteries, Magdalen Asylums and Reformatory Schools of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland 1853-1973”, recently published by Columba Press. She is a Holy Faith sister.

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