The Magdalene Laundry System History Essay

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The Magdalene Laundries were one of Irelands biggest scandal; they were a prison-like institution. They are now commonly known as a place where Irelands fallen women were kept. These being women that had become pregnant out of wedlock or were unmarried mothers. They unfortunately were not the only women who suffered at the hand of the Nuns, Priests and the Catholic Church who subjected women to abuse and slavery. The Laundries were named after that of Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute, who sought forgiveness and as these were supposed houses to “save fallen women” you can see why they choose the name. The work was supposed to be symbolic, that the purging of sin was by washing dirty laundries. Here, I will explain my understanding of the Magdalene Laundries from my research of the Laundries history and from the stories of the survivors of these unimaginable prisons and show that these were not charitable institutes but were there as punishment for innocent and vulnerable women.

In Ireland there was a total of 10 Magdalene Laundries which were based in counties Cork, Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick (, with the first one being set up in 1767 in Dublin(). They were run by orders of Nuns of the Catholic Church. In Ireland, the Catholic Church was seen as always being right and you were to do what they said without question. They, to an extent controlled the people of Ireland and with that indoctrination came the belief that sex before marriage was a sin, therefore contraception was illegal in Ireland and therefore sexual education was not provided for. As the Catholic Church had all this power in Ireland it is easy to understand why they had control of these Laundries. It was initially believed that the Laundries were being privately run, however it was later discovered that the State was paying the Nuns three pounds for each women or girl who came to the institute at first this source of income, which increased to eighteen pounds per week between the years 1979 to 1994. With such a powerful hold over there laundries these young women didn’t stand a chance. The Laundries were often forgotten about in the communities but would soon become one of Ireland tragic secrets. In 1993, after one of the Laundries was sold not because of closure, a heart-breaking discovery was soon made; the corpses of 155 women were buried in unmarked graves ( With this brutal discovery the story of what went on in the Magdalene Laundries began to be unveiled and even at present is still unfolding. The Magdalene Laundries were initially set up for the “rehabilitating” of women who had “sold” their bodies for sex i.e. prostitution (, however by the early 1940’s it became a place where not only “fallen women” were sent to the laundries but anyone who had disgraced their family or were suspected to have had their chastity violated were also sent. Likewise, women who were raped were often put into the Laundries as the family did not want to face the scandal, so would deal with it by sending the victim away. On the contrary to this there were also a lot of women who never knew why they were placed in the laundries and many having never found out. Many women spent their whole lives in the Laundries and sadly died there as the only way you could leave the Magdalene Laundries was too either escape or wait for a relative to come and retrieve you. Unfortunately this frequently was then used as part of the mental abuse employed by the nuns who would tell the unfortunate women that no-one could love them and that they were going to be left there all their lives.

The torture that these women were subjected to is unthinkable and disturbing to think that one human-being could feel empowered take away another human-being’s freedom and deny them of any kind of quality of life. They were treated as slaves and all were physically and psychologically abused, with some even being sexually abused by both the Nuns and Priests. There have been many brave women that have come forward to share their story of the traumatic life they were forced to endure the Laundries; these women have therefore given us an insight into how extreme the abuse was. Some ways in which the women were abused ranged from their changing appearance to just simply refusing to do the work, for example, they were not allowed to look anyway like a woman as they made many young women wear bandages to flatten their breast. They would then have to cover the rest of their bodies in very coarse brown dresses or uniforms. Their hair was cut up short to try and make them look more unattractive, as it was believed to be a sin to be vain or good looking. This also was a reason why many women were sent to the Laundries as it was feared they were too attractive and would be at risk of losing their chastity before they were married. Many of the women said the physical abuse was horrible but it’s the psychological abuse that has stuck with them. Examples of the psychological abuse was making the women strip naked and the nuns standing there looking at them criticising and laughing while shouting insults at them which made the women feel degraded. The women were given no privacy, their names were taken from them, their identity was taken this would be extremely damaging to anyone. They weren’t allowed to speak at all to each other or to anyone they came into contact with as they were consistently reminded that they were very sinful women. Other ways they were physically and psychologically abused was that after a beating they would be made look in a mirror and be told that they were “ugly and disgusting”. Many beatings were for being disobedient; not following the nun’s orders or for talking. Along with the abuse the women had to work 6 days a week from early morning to very late at night without pay. The women would develop health problems from the chemicals and from standing long hours without rest. Add in the beatings to this and you can begin to understand the pain these women had to endure. Tragically, a lot of the sexual abuse was from the Priests who visited each week to say mass. This sexual abuse would range from rape to the priests masturbating on top of the women. Needless to say, this also had damaging effects on the women who were abused.

Thankfully, the Magdalene Laundries are closed with the last one being closed in 1996; however the investigation into what happened has only started in the last decade as many women still feared the church and were afraid to come forward. The legacy that The Magdalene Laundries has left behind devastated people who are looking for justice for the abuse they had to endure for doing absolutely nothing wrong. They are fighting for an apology from both the State and the Catholic Church. Over the last few years many people have started to advocate on behalf of the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries to help to win this fight and to try bringing closure to these brave women. It has left behind many broken families and a ruined generation, as it not only affected the women but also the children that were either ripped away from them or the children that were forced into the industrial schools. It has haunted these women all their lives and has taken many women years to come to terms with what was done to them.

In conclusion, The Magdalene Laundries were one of Ireland’s most horrific tragedies, the abuse and suffering innocent women had to endure at the hands of the Catholic Church is unforgiveable and unimaginable. The legacy left behind from the Magdalene Laundries has fortunately struck up the battle for justice for these women, unfortunately the women have yet to receive any justice but this battle has only truly begun so there is hope that the women will one day get the apology they deserve. The people of Ireland need to be informed of what was happening in these institutes so that it will never happen again. It makes me ashamed of Ireland it shows we still have much to learn if we are still protecting the Catholic Church from the clear wrong they have done.

Part B:

A sociological review and understanding of the film “The Magdalene Sisters”

The film “The Magdalene Sister’s” directed by Peter Mullan portrays the psychological and physical abuse the unfortunate women suffered at the hands of the Nuns. However many of the survivors have expressed that the abuse was much more severe than that shown in the film. The film has some good point and bad in showing us an insight into the Laundries. For example, it mainly focuses on the unmarried women put into the Laundries; although it does make reference to women being “simple-minded” and “vanity” it does not go into much detail about the amount of women who were put in due to these reasons. Likewise, it clearly shows how Irish families wanted to avoid scandal after one of the characters was put in the Laundries after being raped. Furthermore it portrays how the Irish men made all the decisions for their daughters and women in their lives, showing the power men had over women back in the 20th century.

The movie does not seem to focus on any specific class; by looking at the three main characters we can see that one is from what appears to be a middle class family, one seems to be from a working class family and another is from an industrial school. This clearly shows us that not one particular class was being affected by the Magdalene Laundries, and any women was placed in if she was an unmarried women, victim of rape or even if she was a at a threat of violating her chastity. Therefore, no-one was safe from the Magdalene Laundries.

In the film there was exploitation of labourers, we can see the some of the work these women had to do every day from early morning to late at night and medical problems from the chemicals. This risk of their heath, both metal and physical was exploited as these women would work for no pay. Also, many of these women were sexual exploited, this is portrayed excellently in the film as in a few scenes we see the Priest using one of the women for his sexual pleasure, another scene is when the women are lined up naked and judged for the Nuns amusement.

To conclude, “The Magdalene Sister’s” is a brilliant yet heart-breaking film that gives us an insight into how the women suffered in the Magdalene Laundries. Although it may not portray the abuse as gruesome as it was, it does however have a shocking affect from the abuse it does show. The exploitation of these women is portrayed to such an extent that, with any luck the film will service as a reminder for the people of Ireland in the hope that this kind of horrific abuse will never happen again.

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