‘Are the girls free?’: Containing Ireland’s ‘Fallen’ Women

‘Are the girls free?’: Containing Ireland’s ‘Fallen’ Women

This week, Lucy Simpson (Institute for Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) discusses the role of the Irish Magdalen laundries in the physical and moral ‘policing’ of Irish women.

From their establishment in the late-1700s until the final decades of the twentieth century, Magdalen laundries existed alongside prisons and reformatories, industrial schools for abandoned children, and mother and baby homes for single mothers, as part of Ireland’s ‘architecture of containment’.[i] The laundries received ‘fallen’ women, including prostitutes and, in the twentieth century, women on remand from court, but also many others who, having committed no criminal offence, were confined to such institutions as unmarried mothers, or because they were deemed ‘bold’ or ‘backward’. As penance for their supposed sins, the women were subjected to a strict and monotonous regime of prayer and work without remuneration. Though initially managed variously by Catholic, Protestant and lay-organisations, by the beginning of the twentieth century the majority of the country’s laundries were operated by orders of Catholic nuns. Similar homes for ‘fallen’ women were established across the United Kingdom and much of Europe during the nineteenth century. Yet the Irish laundries remain remarkable for their longevity, with the last closing its doors in 1996.

Although Ireland’s Magdalen laundries were initially intended as sites of temporary refuge, many women admitted to these institutions in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries remained for a number of years, and often for life. As such, the laundries are now widely considered to have been prison-like institutions. However, as a Dominican Father noted in 1897, ‘one would form a very false notion [of the Magdalen laundries] were one to expect to find barred doors, small narrow spiked windows, or anything approaching to the semblance of a prison’.[ii] Almost sixty years later, the Sisters of Mercy similarly reassured Halliday Sutherland, a British doctor, author and rare visitor to the Magdalen laundry in Galway, that ‘the girls’ entering the institution were, in fact, ‘free’.[iii] This response is, of course, understandable from members of the Catholic Church, but it is also supported by the testimony of a former inmate of St Mary’s Stanhope Street.[iv] As Kathleen Legg explained, ‘the door to the outside was never locked; we could have walked out of the gates easily if we had wanted to’.[v]

For the system’s advocates, it was the nuns’ ‘wholesome influence’, and their use of ‘mild persuasion’, that helped to maintain the laundries’ populations.[vi] The nuns sought to present themselves as surrogate mothers to the inmates who, referred to as ‘girls’ regardless of their age, were in turn largely infantilised. Former inmates recalled how the nuns were keen to convince them that they would not cope in the ‘big bad world’ outside.[vii] The laundry managers were, indeed, quick to remind them of cases where inmates had been allowed to leave, only to return the same night ‘ringing the bell and begging to be readmitted’. If an inmate was to ‘run away’, the Sisters of Mercy insisted that the Garda (Irish police) were in no position to capture and return them.[viii] However, the Garda have since acknowledged their role in returning those ‘escapees’ who, in leaving the laundry, had broken the terms of their probation. Regardless of whether such arrests were justified under Irish law, it is likely that they appeared arbitrary to the women in the laundries, convincing many that there was little point in attempting to leave. Dressed in plain matching uniforms, constantly supervised, and expected to adhere to a strict timetable of work and prayer, the inmates forfeited control of all aspects of their lives to the laundry managers. In time, as Legg reflected, the inmates became ‘so passive’ that they believed their lives in the laundries were ‘normal’, and consequently did not seek to leave.[ix]

The nuns of the Galway laundry noted in 1956 that they would, in fact, only allow an inmate to leave if a suitable position had been made available for her, or if she was collected by a member of her family. Yet the inmates’ ties to their families and friends were severed upon entering the laundry. This was partly due to the fact that the nuns restricted visits and censored correspondence between the inmates and those outside. But Irish state and society must also be held to account. Women and girls were often admitted to the laundries by their families keen to distance themselves from the ‘scandal’ of an unplanned pregnancy, or the objectionable behaviour of a ‘wayward’ daughter. The inmates were rejected by their families and by a society preoccupied with maintaining a particularly ‘Irish’ brand of moral purity. As Mary Costello observed in 1897, there is not ‘in all the world’ a boycott ‘so remorseless as the boycott of the Irish lower classes when one of their kind falls away from virtue’.[x] With the exception of the nineteenth-century workhouse and, eventually, limited outdoor relief, the state failed to offer an alternative to the Magdalen laundries. Consequently, many vulnerable women had little choice but to seek relief in such institutions. In the Magdalen laundries, these women found a home ‘when all other doors [had] been closed against them’.[xi] As such, many women remained in the laundries simply because they believed they had nowhere else to go.


[i] J. M. Smith, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007), p. 2.

[ii] Anon., ‘The Magdalens of High Park’, The Irish Rosary, vol. 1 (1897), p. 176.

[iii] H. Sutherland, Irish Journey (London, 1956), p. 82.

[iv] Though officially referred to as a ‘training school’, this institution is widely acknowledged as a Magdalen laundry.

[v] S. O’Riordan & S. Leonard (eds), Whispering Hope: The True Story of the Magdalene Women (London, 2015), pp 43-4.

[vi]‘Magdalens of High Park’, p. 180.

[vii]M. McAleese, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries (Dublin, February 2013), p. 956.

[viii]Sutherland, Irish Journey, p. 82.

[ix] Legg, Whispering Hope, p. 44.

[x] Costello in Smith, Architecture of Containment, p. 33.

[xi] ‘Magdalens of High Park’, p. 178.

Having previously studied History at the University of Leicester, Lucy Simpson completed an MA in Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool in 2013. She received the Institute of Irish Studies MA Dissertation Award for her thesis which offered a critical analysis of the 2013 McAleese Report on state involvement with the Magdalen laundries.  Lucy returned to the University of Liverpool in 2014 as a PhD candidate to continue her research on the recent investigations into clerical and institutional abuse in twentieth-century Ireland.



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