Revisiting the laundries and recognising those kept within
Fr Kevin Hegarty
On Tuesday, June 5, a cathartic event took place in Dublin. Two hundred and thirty women, many old and feeble, were honored at Áras an Uachtaráin by President Higgins before attending a dinner in the Mansion House.
Crowds gathered to welcome the women and give them the recognition they had been denied for so long. The women were former inmates of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.
The Magdalene asylums have a history going back to the 18th century. Initially they were places of refuge for penitents (usually prostitutes) where they were encouraged to remain ‘until their characters were reformed’.
By the 20th century in Ireland they had largely become homes for unmarried mothers. Other residents included orphans who were transferred there on reaching adulthood and teenage women, considered sexually precocious by the narrow standards of the time, who were incarcerated, ostensibly for their safety. By 1922 there were ten such laundries in Ireland, run by religious orders. The last one on Seán McDermott Street in Dublin only closed in 1996.
Up to the 1980s Ireland was a cold house of Siberian asperity for unmarried mothers. In 1922, contemporary observer James F Cassidy wrote that ‘whenever a child is born outside wedlock, so shocked is the public sense by the very unusual occurrence, that it brands with an irreparable stigma, and to, a large extent, excommunicates the woman guilty of the crime’. Note the harshness of the words.
Unmarried mothers were often deserted by the fathers of their children, rejected by their families, spurned by their neighbours and often condemned from church pulpits.
A conference of clergy of the archdiocese of Tuam in 1934 stated:
“Whenever an illegitimate birth occurs in a parish, and is publicly known, the scandal ought to be denounced without mentioning names, with a view of calling the guilty to repentance and as a deterrent to others. The denunciation ought to be in sorrow more that in anger and the preacher ought to point to the scandal as a grave sin against the sixth commandment, a degradation of the soul, as a disgrace to the family and as a sin against the good name of the locality.”
For most unmarried mothers the only alternatives were incarceration in the Magdalene laundries or forced emigration.
In the poem ‘Unmarried Mothers’, Austin Clarke captures their trauma:
In the Convent of the Sacred Heart
The Long Room has been decorated
Where a Bishop can dine off golden plate
As Oriental Potentate.
Girls who will never wheel a go-cart
Cook, sew, wash, dig, milk cows, clean stables
And twice a day, giving their babes the teat,
Herdlike, yield milk that cost them dearly,
When their skirts were tossed up above their haunches
Hook or zip has warded them at Castlepollard
Luckier girls on board a ship
Watch new hope spraying from the bollard.
James Smith, Professor of English at Boston College has written a powerful book, ‘Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nations Architecture of Containment’, where he documents some of the stories of those who endured the experience. Christine Mulcahy’s story is particularly poignant.
Born in 1918 in a Galway village she became pregnant outside marriage. She gave birth to a boy in a mother and baby home. Somewhat unusual for the time she was still in contact with the father, and they hoped to marry. The nuns in the home censored their letters and discouraged him from visiting his son.
The relationship petered out. When the baby was ten months she was told to leave the home without him. She did not even get the chance to say goodbye. On arriving home her father refused to let her into the house, saying “You’ve disgraced us. You’re not right in the head. You deserve punishment.” He then signed her into the Magdalene Laundry, where she remained for several years.
The so called good old days in Ireland are often a figment of the imagination.