For more than two centuries, women in Ireland were sent to institutions like Donnybrook as a punishment for having sex outside of marriage. Unwed mothers, flirtatious women and others deemed unfit for society were forced to labor under the strict supervision of nuns for months or years, sometimes even for life.
…When the Magdalene Movement first took hold in the mid-18th century, the campaign to put “fallen women” to work was supported by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, with women serving short terms inside the asylums with the goal of rehabilitation. Over the years, however, the Magdalene laundries—named for the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene—became primarily Catholic institutions, and the stints grew longer and longer. Women sent there were often charged with “redeeming themselves” through lace-making, needlework or doing laundry.
Though most residents had not been convicted of any crime, conditions inside were prison-like. “Redemption might sometimes involve a variety of coercive measures, including shaven heads, institutional uniforms, bread and water diets, restricted visiting, supervised correspondence, solitary confinement and even flogging.”
…Initially, a majority of women entered the institutions voluntarily and served out multi-year terms in which they learned a “respectable” profession. The idea was that they’d employ these skills to earn money after being released; their work supported the institution while they were there.
But over time, the institutions became more like prisons, with many different groups of women being routed through the system, sometimes by the Irish government. There were inmates imported from psychiatric institutions and jails, women with special needs, victims of rape and sexual assault, pregnant teenagers sent there by their parents, and girls deemed too flirtatious or tempting to men. Others were there for no obvious reason.
…Often, women’s names were stripped from them; they were referred to by numbers or as “child” or “penitent.” Some inmates—often orphans or victims of rape or abuse—stayed there for a lifetime; others escaped and were brought back to the institutions.
…Babies were usually taken from their mothers and handed over to other families. In one of the most notorious homes, the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, scores of babies died. In 2014, remains of at least 796 babies were found in a septic tank in the home’s yard; the facility is still being investigated to reconstruct the story of what happened there.
…Estimates of the number of women who went through Irish Magdalene laundries vary, and most religious orders have refused to provide archival information for investigators and historians. Up to 300,000 women are thought to have passed through the laundries in total, at least 10,000 of them since 1922. But despite a large number of survivors, the laundries went unchallenged until the 1990s.
…the last Magdalene laundry finally closed in 1996. Known as the Gloucester Street Laundry, it was home to 40 women, most of them elderly and many with developmental disabilities.