The fate of Ireland's prisons for "fallen women" is exposing a painful history

For 70 years, unmarried mothers were imprisoned in Magdalene laundries. Today, the question of these buildings' future is forcing the past back to the surface. 

NS

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On a sweltering summer’s day in Dublin, a leisure centre on Sean MacDermott street is filled with children cooling off from a rare heatwave. The sounds of splashes and shrieks from the swimming pool echo onto the silent street outside. A blazing sun evaporates a small trail of wet footprints on the pavement. 

Opposite looms a tall, dark brown building. Innocuous at first glance and unremarkable for those who don’t know its history, the building stands in silent contrast to the rest of the street. Weeds twine around its drainpipes and sprout from its window panes and chimneys.

A pair of netted curtains lies askew, caked in filth. Crucifixes are engraved on the building’s façade, and a stone rendering of the Virgin Mary gently cradling an infant Christ stands above the entrance door. Although the street is just a few minutes away from the city centre, it’s free of the bustling tourist crowds, and is untouched by Dublin’s recent tech boom.

Until it closed in 1996, the building was the last of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, one of the many institutions where Ireland’s so-called “fallen women” were incarcerated by orders of Roman Catholic nuns acting in concert with the Irish state.

Across Ireland, from the 1920s up until the 1990s, unmarried mothers, prostitutes, or women thought at risk of promiscuity were imprisoned in laundries, stripped of their names and freedoms, and forced to engage in exhausting, unpaid work. Though supposedly taken in under the auspices of Christian ethics (“Magdalen” means a public sinner), the women served as enslaved labour for Ireland’s laundry businesses. At least 10,000 women and girls are believed to have been placed in laundries over a 70-year period. 

The Magdalene laundries were hidden in plain sight – a visible stain, if you knew where to look. Today, as Ireland becomes increasingly secular and casts a critical eye over its complex relationship with the Catholic Church, the laundries have become a touchstone for probing discussions about its history.

The country has undergone momentous social change over the last decade, from the legalisation of marriage for LGBT couples in 2015, to the vote to repeal Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion in 2018. As it breaks free from a history infused with Catholic morality, Ireland is confronted by a painful question of how it should remember this recent past – and ensure it’s not repeated. 

The laundry on Sean MacDermott street housed 150 women at its height. When it closed in 1996, 40 women still resided there, doing the laundry for the nearby Mountjoy Prison. Ownership was transferred from the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity to Dublin City Council at the time of closure; since then, the building has lain empty and abandoned. Where other former laundries remain in Church hands, or have since been sold to the private sector, this is the only one still in public ownership. 

In December 2017the Japanese hotel company Toyoko attempted to purchase the site for €14m, with a view to transform the former laundry into a 300 bedroom luxury hotel. The move ignited an intense debate about what should happen to the decaying building.

Earlier this year, private developers purchased a former children’s orphanage in Dún Laoghaire, a port town not far from Dublin, and turned it into a luxury co-living space. Its insensitive branding – the space was named “The Orphanage”, with the tagline “your adopted home” – provoked outcry among former residents of children's homes, some of whom accused the company of being “tone deaf”.

Campaigners fear that the Sean MacDermott street building could meet a similar fate. Local residents and survivors of the Magdalen institutions contacted local councillor Gary Gannon, who launched a campaign to halt the sale of the site to Toyoko. An online petition gained 10,000 signatures, and Gannon submitted a motion to block the sale, which passed in September 2018. Dublin City Council have since pledged to create a “site of conscience” at the former laundry.

In one of the City Hall’s meeting rooms, decorated with chandeliers and a framed copy of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, Gannon flicks through photos on his phone of the abandoned building and recalls his own family taking their laundry there to be washed when he was a child. 

“I grew up in the shadow of the building. There are walls 20 feet tall with crucifixes... It is the darkest looking place you’ve ever seen in your life,” he tells me. “It’s the definition of grim and it was designed to be that way to send a message… where people who didn’t fit into an idea about what it means to be Irish and Catholic and good ended up.”

“These laundries are not ancient history. I know women currently in their thirties who were incarcerated there."

Gannon became involved in the campaign to stop the sale of the laundry after he was contacted by survivors. “[It] became almost a battle ground to decide that if we are going to remember these darker parts of our history, these really horrific parts, then [Sean MacDermott street] was where we were going to make that stand”, he tells me.

But opinion is divided over what a site of conscience should include. Katherine O’Donnell, an associate professor at University College Dublin and member of the group Justice for Magdalenes Research, conducted a listening exercise last year with more than 200 women who were imprisoned in laundries and mother and baby homes across Ireland. 

O’Donnell and fellow researchers asked the women what they wanted to see happen to the buildings. Their opinions were mixed, she says; some women wanted to see Sean MacDermott street demolished, while others suggested it be turned into social housing. Some said it should be used as a memorial site, with a peaceful space for reflection – such as a garden.

“Others said an educational facility so people could have the opportunity to learn about what happened. There’s an optimism that young people, if they know about this, won’t let this happen again,” she says.

Many women desperately want to meet other survivors to talk about their experiences together. “So many of them felt they had really made connections with other girls while they were inside and they wanted to know what had happened to them, but they didn’t know their real names because they were given these religious names or numbers,” O'Donnell tells me. 

Mandatory silent meditation within the laundries also limited opportunities to exchange details. Persistent stigma meant many women and girls avoided mentioning any personal information about their lives, she says.

And although memorialisation is important, women also need greater transparency. As Caelainn Hogan, author of the recent Republic of Shame tells me, many continue to be denied access to documents about their past lives inside the walls. 

“One woman who was sent to the Magdalene Laundry in Galway after giving birth twice in Tuam wanted to apply for her records from her time in the institutions. I helped her contact the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the laundry. They could only offer her a single line from a ledger for the years she spent there."

Many of the women and girls imprisoned in the laundries received little or no education; today, some face barriers to accessing information due to their limited literacy, or unfamiliarity with bureaucracy. “It can be challenging as a journalist to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to access records.

“It is nearly impossible for many elderly survivors, some of whom were institutionalised for a long time and still do not have access to adequate supports, to easily apply for access to their own information,” Hogan says.

Where memorials remember the past, a site of conscience is different – “it resists relegating the experiences of survivors to the past or pretending that our society today somehow has a clear conscience, with survivors still being denied redress and facing challenges accessing their own records,” Hogan says. Far from being firmly in the past, a legacy of shame still affects many women today.

The council is planning to submit proposals to Ireland’s central government for the funding to support a site of conscience in the coming months. Sitting in Dublin City Hall, Garry Gannon tells me: “Our history can’t just be about that time we had a fight with the English, our history has to be a lot more broad and substantial. We need to address this in the way we address the famine, Irish independence, immigration. These are all as much part of the Irish story as anything else.”

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.