Magdalene asylums, also known as ‘Magdalene laundries’, emerged in the late 18th century to house “fallen women”. Originally this meant women who worked in prostitution, but this term gradually expanded to include women classed as sexually promiscuous, unmarried mothers, women considered too tempting to men, and women who were considered a family burden. They were sent to the convents by their families or the state and were trapped in these institutions as slaves; sometimes they resided there for a number of years, but more commonly they were trapped for life.
The first Magdalene asylum in Ireland arose in 1765, following the founding of the very first asylum in 1758 in Whitechapel, England. These institutions were named after Mary Magdalene, a biblical character who was wrongly thought to be a prostitute. They were ran by the Roman Catholic Church In Ireland, and the young women were guarded by Sisters of a number of different orders.
When women were imprisoned by these institutions they were given a new name and identity. Despite having committed no crimes, women of the Magdalene Laundries were locked away; they had no rights, no visits, and no independence. The little family they did have were not told about their whereabouts. They worked long hours without pay, performing gruelling manual labour six or seven days a week, and suffered severe emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those running the laundries.
It is estimated around 30,000 women were incarcerated in Magdalene asylums between 1765 and the late 1990s. Yet the truth of these institutions was not uncovered until 1993 – 228 years after their inception. A convent named High Park in Dublin, one of the largest asylums in Ireland, sold part of their grounds to a commercial property developer. Unbeknown to the developer, this land actually contained a mass grave of 155 women’s remains, most of which were unnamed, which was discovered upon beginning the construction dig.
Upon uncovering this mass burial, a long campaign for justice began for the victims of the Magdalene Laundries. The last Magdalene asylum shut its doors in 1996, and in 2001 the Irish Government formally acknowledged that the institutions were places of abuse. In 2013, a formal state apology to the women of the Magdalene Laundries was issued, and a £50 million compensation scheme put in place for the survivors. Yet, despite their exposure and calls from the UN and the Irish government, the Catholic Church has refused to compensate the women whose lives they have destroyed.