The Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry Revisited

A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland. Edited by Mark Coen, Katherine O’Donnell and Maeve O’Rourke.

By Eoin Meegan

The Magdalene Laundry system which operated in this country for over 150 years will forever remain a stain on the Irish psyche, and one that cannot easily be expunged. Now a new book has emerged which deals specifically with one of these laundries, the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry (DML), unique in certain aspects, and perhaps the template for the entire iniquitous system. As the book points out it was the first to transition from lay management to being governed solely by a religious order. Also, unlike many of these nefarious institutions, it was not hidden away in some remote misty corner of Ireland, but situated right in the heart of affluent Dublin, in one of the most sought-after addresses. And, as is common knowledge, it provided a laundry service to many of the most prestigious hotels and businesses in the city, including Aras an Uachtarain, the home of the President.

Written as a series of essays by top academics, A Dublin Magdalene Laundry deals comprehensively with every aspect of the laundry. Mark Coen, one of the book’s three editors, traces the history of the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC) from its foundation by Mary Aikenhead and archbishop Murray in 1815 to the present day, its gradual acquisition of property, and the multifarious controversies it became embroiled in. Chris Hamill examines the physical structure of the building itself, looking at its internal configuration as a confined space, one designed as a long-term carceral institution rather than a temporary asylum, along with its ad hoc development. While Lindsey Earner-Byrne discusses the historical role of respectability as a social norm in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its impact on the laundry institution.  

Katherine O’Donnell argues this faux respectability had its roots in colonialism, a Victorian and British construct which found fertile ground in the Catholic mindset and translated here into a very particular Irish setting. This notion of respectability was almost the raison d’etre for the laundries coming into being, and not only normalised the regime of intolerance and cruelty, but it could be argued, made it inevitable. Society saw it as its duty to reform these women, which meant institutionalising and infantilizing them. Even victims of rape or incest were incarcerated for long periods (sometimes for life) and forced to work as unpaid labour in the laundries.

Quoting the late George Mosse, Earner-Byrne writes, ‘Sexuality and appropriate gender behaviour were central parameters of respectability, and women were portrayed as both the guardians of and the biggest potential threat to this project.’ Not only was this notion of the ‘ideal woman’ artificially created, but having done so it then had to be protected. Earner-Byrne continues ‘[t]he constant discussion of the threat posed by bad women to all other men and women helped to establish communal boundaries of belonging. This was reflected in the increased focus on the so-called ‘unmarried mother problem’ in the years preceding and following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922:’ 

The important role of the Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) group is given coverage too, and we also hear the voices and first-hand experiences of former inmates and survivors of this abuse.

The book discusses the internal discrimination inherent in the RSC from its inception, how novitiates coming from wealthy families and bringing dowries were treated differently to those from less favourable backgrounds; the latter having to wear distinctive habits, carry out the domestic duties in the convents, and were even given the title ‘second degree sisters’. Also covered is the State’s withdrawal of the contract which the DML enjoyed for a period in the 1940s with the Defences Forces, as it violated the wage clause in all government contracts, a move which the nuns vehemently opposed, even trying to commandeer John Charles to their cause, but ultimately to no avail. This shows, first of all, the State’s awareness of conditions in the laundries, and its insidious compliance with same, but it also belies a tension between the State and the religious institutions that wasn’t always visible, and doesn’t get as much oxygen perhaps as it might. Do we see here the first cracks in a system that endured from the mid-19th century until its final collapse with the publication of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse (Ryan Report) in 2009? 

In the book’s closing chapters Máiréad Enright, Brid Murphy, and Martin Quinn, variously look at aspects of its status as a charity and a commercial enterprise, and show that, despite claims to the contrary, some financial records did survive and the laundry operated at a profit. Lynsey Black scrutinises the role the judiciary played in sending young girls to the laundry as an alternative to prison, which, due to an indeterminate release date proved very much to the girls’ disadvantage; they often ended up incarcerated in the laundries for life. 

Finally, the ideas of heritage and memory are examined, asking what should be done with the building now. As we all know the laundry has survived nearly intact, having operated as a commercial enterprise for some time after its closure and sale by the RSC in 1992.  We have argued previously in this paper that it could be kept as a ‘Site of Conscience’ or ‘museum of remembrance’, a suggestion mooted here too, but only time will tell. No doubt more literature will emerge on this appalling wrong inflicted on so many innocent women. In the meantime the writers and editors of A Dublin Magdalene Laundry deserve fulsome praise for a thorough and forensic expose of one of the darker episodes in our history. This is a book that needed to be written.

A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland. Edited by Mark Coen, Katherine O’Donnell and Maeve O’Rourke. Published by Bloomsbury Academic (2023) is available in all bookshops, €25.