Pilar Iglesias
Independent Scholar

Creative Commons 4.0 by Pilar Iglesias. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Mark Coen, Katherine O’Donnell, and Maeve O’Rourke, eds.

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023. 288 pages.

ISBN: 9781350279063

The reader unfamiliar with other studies about Ireland’s institutional abuse may find in this volume’s thirteen-page introduction: general information about the Magdalene Laundries in operation both in the Republic and Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1966, as part of a cross-border network for the control and internment of girls; the history of the asylums for women whose existence may be dated back to medieval times throughout Europe, America and Australia; a brief summary of the campaigns and advocacy processes carried out by Justice for Magdalenes (since 2013 Justice for Magdalenes Research) and references to the 2013 IDC Report, the Restorative Justice Scheme designed by Judge Quirk and the 2017 Ombusdman Report. The division of women into “virtuous” and “corrupt” is shown in the clear distinction between honourable institutions for virtuous women, and the Magdalene Laundries “regarded as places for the containment and punishment of women and girls deemed incorrigible and morally corrupt” (3), something of which Irish society was well aware. According to the IDC Report, “in the late 1800s there were more than 300 Magdalene institutions in England alone and at least 41 in Ireland”, not only Catholic or Protestant-run but also run by lay Committees. After this general view, the introduction concentrates on the asylum initially located at Townsend Street, Dublin, and later moved to Donnybrook in 1837 under jurisdiction of the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC), “the first Magdalene asylum in Ireland to change from being an institution under lay management to one located within, and controlled by, a convent” (6), a model “for what would be the archetypal Irish Magdalene laundry; owned and overseen by nuns” (6). As chapter 5 extensively documents, the building was “designed to be carceral” (6). Reference is also made to actions by Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke and Mark Coen, following the publication on the Dublin Council website of a planning application seeking permission for a luxury development on an area which made part of the original Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry (DML) site. As a result, the developers agreed to support the research work, carried out by Laura McAtackney, and consented to the National Museum of Ireland buying the contents of the site, including correspondence, while the rest of the documents have been kept at the University of Galway Archives. The book is based on this material together with the transcripts of oral testimonies gathered at the 2018 Dublin Honours Magdalenes (DHM) Listening Exercise. RSC denied their collaboration, neither were the editors allowed to get access to the records consulted by the IDC Report. Chapter 1, “The Religious Sisters of Charity: Origins, Developments and Controversies”, by Mark Coen, offers a brief history of the foundation of the RSC by Mary Aikenhead (1787-1858), its internal structure and hierarchical organization, and its expansion within Ireland and abroad, since its first foundation, with the establishment of the orphanage of North William Street, Dublin, in 1815. The main differential and innovative characteristic of the RSC, together with the Sisters of Mercy, founded by Catherine McCauley in 1828, was the fact that their members were not enclosed. “Visiting the poor and the sick in their homes was to be a central task of the sisters” (22), which made it difficult to gather for praying at several fixed times during the day. Nuns in both congregations took a fourth vow, “to devote themselves perpetually to the service of poor” (24), including the “rescue” of unmarried mothers, and, in contrast with other more specialized orders, both run a variety of institutions: schools, orphanages, industrial schools, hospitals and Magdalene asylums. In spite of their fourth vow, the RSC ran both public and private hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, generating important financial benefits as shown in chapter 7. Since the nineties, the congregation has been involved in various controversies, including accusations of property speculation: in 1997 “the RSC admitted that it had deliberately provided false and misleading information to people adopted through St Patrick’s Guild (SPG), an adoption society it controlled” (36); two industrial schools run by the RSC were included in the 2002 Residential Institutions Redress Scheme; the congregation pledged to contribute €5 million euros to the Scheme but contributed only €2 million and refused to contribute any money for the Magdalene Restorative Justice Ex-gratia Scheme, which affected three laundries run by them.

Chapter 2, “Donnybrook Magdalene Asylum and the Priorities of a Nation. A History of Respectability”, by Lindsey Earner-Byrne, contextualizes DML “in the history of modernization and nation-building, one in which Irish women paid a high price for ‘threatening’ the emerging social order” (47). Women would be considered “both the guardians of and biggest potential threat” (49) to the project of building a respectable society and unmarried mothers would become the main problem of the Irish nation, which would justify sending them to the Workhouses first and, then later, to the Mother and Baby Homes and the Magdalene Laundries, classifying children as “legitimate” and “illegitimate”. Chapter 3, “‘Cheap in the End’: A History of Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry”, by Mark Coen, provides deeper insight into the history of DML, its origins, and the conditions for admission, duration of stay, including institutionalization for life, involuntary detention, living conditions, and some sporadic forms of entertainment for the inmates, together with information about the organization of the religious community living in and running the convent, the operation of the laundry itself, and the relation of DML with the Archbishops of Dublin, the Gardai and general society, up to the closing of the laundry in 1992. Chapter 4, “‘Magdalene’: Testimony from the Donnybrook Laundry”, by Katherine O’Donnell, highlights how several factors would reinforce the role of Catholic institutions as “voluntary” bodies to run educational, health, social welfare, and carceral establishments in a subsidiary system in operation since the second half of the nineteenth century, well before the constitution of the Irish Free State, strengthened by the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Laundries and needlework enterprises run by religious sisters were not subject to state oversight and regulation, which allowed them to profit from women’s unpaid labour. The carceral and punitive character of the Magdalene Laundries was considerably reinforced during the revolutionary period and after the establishment of the Irish Free State, as evidenced in the survivors’ testimonies gathered by the author for the Oral and Archival History Project in 2012 and the DHM Listening Exercise in 2018. Chapter 5, “Designing Donnybrook: Conceiving Ireland’s ‘Architecture of Containment’”, by Chris Hamill, analyses how the architectural design of the Donnybrook convent, church, laundry and nuns and inmates’ rooms, evidences the institutions’ tendencies towards “imprisonment, segregation, surveillance and control” (145). Chapters 6, “‘Benefactors and Friends’: Charitable Bequests, Reparation and the Donnybrook Laundry”, by Máiréad Enright and 7, “Accounting at the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry”, by Brid Murphy and Martin Quinn, deal with the economic and entrepreneurial character of the institution. Charity, in the form of donations and bequests was an important source of income for the RSC, together with wealth accumulated by investing in property and the laundries’ benefits. According to the IDC Report no financial records of the DML have survived; however, accounting records for the period 1962 to 1990 were found at the site and constitute part of the documents donated by the new owners to the University of Galway Archives. They are analysed in Chapter 7, providing information about customers, expenses, revenues, and the fact that the women and girls who worked in the laundry were unpaid. DML was not only a viable enterprise, thanks to zero labour costs, but it also “contributed funds over the years to the order in pursuit of its charitable/religious objectives” (181). Ironically, women’s slave labour financed the nuns’ expenses and the congregation charitable work. Chapter 8, “‘Women of Evil Life’: Donnybrook Magdalene and the Criminal Justice System”, by Lynsey Black, presents several cases of women prosecuted for different crimes, including infant murder, who were sent to Donnybrook and other Magdalene Laundries. In fact, “female offenders were regularly subject to religious rather than state control” (187), which caused a reduction in the numbers of women in state-run prisons while the slave labour force at the Magdalene Laundries increased. Chapters 9, “Contemporary Archaeology and Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry: Working with the Material Remnants of an Institutionalized Recent Past”, by Laura McAtackney and 10, “The Material Evidence of Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry”, by Brenda Malone and Barry Houlihan, show the importance of contemporary archaeology, material culture, and human rights museums and archives in the recovery and analysis of historical institutional abuse memory. The final Chapter, “Guerrilla Archive: Donnybrook and the Magdalene Names Project”, by Claire McGettrick, provides information about the Magdalene Names Project (MNP), which acts as “an accountability mechanism, providing evidence, documents and resources to survivors, relatives and advocates who are denied access to the records of both Church and State” (255), concentrating mostly on cases related to Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry.

A Dublin Magdalene Laundry is not only an excellent, well-documented account of one of the biggest Magdalene Laundries in Ireland; it also constitutes an account of the Irish system of institutionalization since its origins in the nineteenth century up to the closure of the last laundry in operation in 1996, showing how Magdalene Laundries were both carceral establishments and commercial enterprises obtaining benefits thanks to the unpaid forced labour of women and girls. It analyses the social, cultural, religious, and political ideologies, as well as the class and gender biases that contributed to the construction of a deeply patriarchal society which defended a national identity based on sexual morals that placed a burden on women’s lives, bodies, and sexuality. The alliance between the State and the Catholic Church is also well illustrated, as is society’ s complicity. The Magdalene Laundries were not places hidden in the dark. Commercial advertisements offering the laundries’ services with no mention of the slave labour carried out by the “penitents”, as well as those ads asking for charitable donations, which appeared in common newspapers and religious publications, made the DML, as well as the rest of the Magdalene Laundries, a common feature of Irish society for decades. The book also gives a voice to survivors, something that official enquiries have denied them. For all these reasons, it constitutes an important contribution for those researchers, survivors, and members of the general public interested in Irish history, historical abuse, institutional violence against women and children, and processes of transitional justice.