Monday, 27 October 2014

Madness Monday - Magdalene Asylums

Asylum - late middle english (in the sense of 'place of refuge', especially for criminals): via Latin from Greek asulon 'refuge', from asulos 'inviolable', from a-'without' + sulon 'right of seizure'. Current senses date from the 18th century (Oxford Dictionary).
The obvious asylums are those for the mentally ill, the large institutions we have all heard about, e.g. Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital in London. But those are for another day. Today I am going to write about the Magdalene Asylums.
Magdalene Asylums, you say, what are they? Well, read on and I will try to paint a picture for you.
Magdalene asylums, also known as Magdalene laundries, where institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house 'fallen women', a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution. The institutions were named after the Biblical character Mary Magdalene, in earlier centuries characterised as a reformed prostitute. (Wikipedia)
Magdalene Asylum, Cork Ireland


Four religious orders, the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity ran the eleven Irish Magdalene laundries for 70 years; the last one unbelievably closed in 1996. It is said some 10,000 girls passed through these institutions; they worked for no pay and were known as the Magdalenes - fallen women. Some had been sent after police raids on brothels but most from different routes: some by the courts, some from orphanages. Still more came from Mother & Baby Homes and had their babies given away for adoption. Some were even consigned from their own families, the prettier girls considered a risk to morality. This was vividly portrayed in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters that portrayed life in one of the laundries in 1960's Ireland. A sobering film indeed.
Twenty years ago, 1993, the Dublin convent, High Park, that had housed the largest of Ireland's laundries sold some of it's land to a property developer. When work started, a mass grave was uncovered containing the remains of 133 women - many of whom could not be accounted for in the convent's records. Chilling. Perhaps my missing Dublin ancestor was one of those women.
There is a website called Justice for Magdalenes where there is information of the eleven Irish Magdalene asylums. By the way, yesterday was the eighteenth anniversary of the last Magdalene asylum closure.


Australia had eight Magdalene laundries - all at the Sisters of the Good Shepherd convents - from the 1930s until the 1970s. There is no data on the number of girls held but it is estimated to be several thousand. As in Ireland, the girls were wards of the state or deemed delinquents but often were themselves victims who had committed no crimes.
I have a friend who was sent to the Mitchelton Good Shepherd laundry in 1961 when she was under a 'care and control' order from the state. She has lived with the consequences of her stay there all of her life. She has suffered severe depression for most of her life and thankfully is now in recovery with the help of friends and loved ones.

A vivid story called Lily's Story can be read here. This tells of Lily's time in the Wooloowin Sisters of Mercy laundry in late 1967. This laundry known as Holy Cross Retreat is little known outside Brisbane and is not listed on the list of the eight Magdalene laundries in Australia. It opened in 1889 as a home for unmarried mothers and operated until 1978 when it no longer took in unmarried mothers, possibly as there where now social security benefits for single mothers.

In Australia, the 2004 Senate Report, Forgotten Australians, led to a national apology from then PM Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 which described the laundries as 'prisons for girls forced into labour with poor living conditions and scant education'. 

As it has been said: the past is never past nor is it ever dead. We must look it in the face and ask ourselves why we choose to look away when we see evident suffering today. What can we do?

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