- Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment
James Smith’s Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment is divided into two distinct parts: a history of the magdalen asylum in twentieth-century Ireland and a critical reading of a wide array of cultural representations of the magdalen asylum (including films, documentaries, memorials, plays, and artwork). In part 1 Smith, a professor of English at Boston College, places the magdalen asylum in the framework of a so-called “architecture of containment.” Smith’s book makes a valuable contribution to what has become a controversial episode in Irish history, but his conclusions are not unproblematic. Smith alleges that the magdalen asylum was part of an institutional network used by the Irish state to “contain” sexual immorality; those who did not conform to narrowly defined codes of sexual morality that formed the cornerstone of the newly independent Irish state (including unmarried mothers and women convicted of infanticide) were locked away and essentially forgotten. In reality, the vast majority of unmarried mothers raised their children, sometimes with the help of family and friends, or made private arrangements for their children’s care and carried on with their lives. In addition, far more women convicted of infanticide were freed than were sent to magdalen asylums. If there was an architecture of containment in postindependence society (and Smith has not convincingly shown there was), it was more rhetorical than real.
Historians reading this book may be disturbed by Smith’s tendency to make substantial allegations based on scant evidence. He accepts at face value the testimony of the nine women whose stories of confinement in magdalen asylums have been chronicled in the media in recent years, without considering [End Page 627] the extent to which these nine accounts should be regarded as representative. His analysis of the links between infanticide and the magdalen laundry further highlights his sparse use of evidence. Smith argues, based on an examination of Central Criminal Court trial record books, that the state relied on magdalen asylums as a means of punishing women convicted of infanticide and related crimes (concealment of birth or manslaughter). He excuses this selective use of sources by stating that the majority of cases were heard in district courts and therefore are lost to the historical record. Smith is patently incorrect on this latter count, and this serious oversight cannot help but raise questions about the overall validity of his historical narrative. Most cases of infanticide, manslaughter, and concealment of birth were heard in the circuit courts that met on a quarterly basis around the country, and these records are readily available at the National Archives of Ireland. The picture that emerges from a reading of all available sources is one not of containment, but of leniency. Many of the women convicted of infanticide and related crimes essentially were freed, often with no strings attached. The fact that so many women killed their babies and essentially “got away with it” further undermines Smith’s “architecture of containment” argument.
In part 2 Smith deconstructs the various media and artistic representations of the magdalen asylum, and herein lies the strength of the book. On the surface some of these cultural artifacts, like Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters, appear to be little more than knee-jerk, thoughtless condemnations of the Catholic Church. However, Smith’s astute analysis reveals their complexity, deftly showing how they attempt to reveal the culpability and complicity of all segments of Irish society in consigning some women to a lifetime of “imprisonment” in magdalen asylums. He also rightly argues that women confined to magdalen asylums were victimized twice: first when they were tossed away and forgotten by family, friends, and society, and again in their exclusion from recent soul-searching public discussions of the treatment of individuals in state-funded institutions. While the Irish government has established commissions and issued apologies to child victims of abuse and...