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Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment

James M. Smith

Publication Year: 2007

The Magdalen laundries were workhouses in which many Irish women and girls were effectively imprisoned because they were perceived to be a threat to the moral fiber of society. Mandated by the Irish state beginning in the eighteenth century, they were operated by various orders of the Catholic Church until the last laundry closed in 1996. A few years earlier, in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their Magdalen convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 155 inmates, buried in unmarked graves on the property, were exhumed, cremated, and buried elsewhere in a mass grave. This triggered a public scandal in Ireland and since then the Magdalen laundries have become an important issue in Irish culture, especially with the 2002 release of the film “The Magdalene Sisters.” Focusing on the ten Catholic Magdalen laundries operating between 1922 and 1996, Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment offers the first history of women entering these institutions in the twentieth century. Because the religious orders have not opened their archival records, Smith argues that Ireland's Magdalen institutions continue to exist in the public mind primarily at the level of story (cultural representation and survivor testimony) rather than history (archival history and documentation). Addressed to academic and general readers alike, James M. Smith challenges the nation—church, state, and society—to acknowledge its complicity in Ireland's Magdalen scandal and to offer redress for victims and survivors alike.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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pp. ix-xi

I begin with those whose love and support sustains me on a daily basis, my wife, Beatriz, and our daughter, Isabel. I also thank my parents, siblings, other family members, and good friends for their constant encouragement over the years. I acknowledge too the real-life victims and survivors of Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the nation’s architecture...

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pp. xiii-xx

This book has three primary objectives. First, it offers a partial history that connects Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the nation-state’s nativist politics in the postindependence era. Second, it critically evaluates cultural representations of the Magdalen laundries that have, over the past fifteen years, recovered these institutions from the amnesia...

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pp. 1-22

Writing in the same year the Irish Free State was founded, James F. Cassidy, himself a Catholic priest, captured the inherent contradictions informing contemporary Irish attitudes toward women’s virtue and outlined the ramifications for those women who violated the social and moral ideal. Branded by the public as simultaneously a mother and a criminal, a family member and an outcast, the unmarried mother...

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The Magdalen in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

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pp. 23-43

Writing just three years before the dawn of the twentieth century, Mary Costello explicitly links the work of religious congregations that operate Magdalen asylums with “state service.”1 She explains that the nuns’ task requires that they accept “one, two, or three hundred souls,” women from the lowest fields of “licence,” “pleasure-craving temperaments,” and “confirmed inebriates,” and offer them “a spiritual hospital” in which to repent their sinful ways and seek spiritual salvation....

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The Magdalen Asylum and the State in Twentieth-Century Ireland

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pp. 44-86

Halliday Sutherland‘s interview with the Sisters of Mercy offers a unique perspective on daily life in Galway’s Magdalen asylum midway through the twentieth century.1 It also reveals the anachronism of this nineteenth century paradigm for social control in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Sisters of Mercy might very well be describing the...

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Remembering Ireland's Architecture of Containment

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pp. 87-112

Contemporary stories representing Ireland’s Magdalen laundries emerged in a decade that witnessed a distinct shift in the nation’s willingness to confront its recent past. Although traditionally silent when challenged with controversial social problems, Ireland began to “speak out” in the 1990s with a new openness most evident in controversies generated by the media—particularly in those focusing...

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(Ef)facing Ireland’s Magdalen Survivors

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pp. 123-135

Ireland’s last Magdalen laundry closed its doors in October 1996. Two years later a French documentary team obtained unprecedented access to the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge’s Gloucester Street asylum where approximately forty former penitents remained in the nuns’ care. Les Blanchisseuses de Magdalen depicts these women in the convent’s chapel, actively participating in the Catholic mass, and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Viewers also see women in their...

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The Magdalene Sisters

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pp. 136-158

Peter Mullan’s award-winning film The Magdalene Sisters (2002) tells the stories of four young Irish women incarcerated in a Magdalen asylum.1 The film purports to take place in a convent on the outskirts of Dublin between 1964 and 1968.2 Most Magdalen penitents, like the characters Margaret and Patricia in the film, were institutionalized for that peculiarly Irish sin, perceived sexual immorality; some were single...

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Monuments, Magdalens, Memorials

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pp. 159-182

On 20 April 1996 a small crowd of about thirty people gathered in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, for the unveiling of a plaque attached to a park bench to commemorate countless Irish women who lived and died in the nation’s Magdalen asylums dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century (fig. 6.1; “Magdalen Women Plaque Unveiled” 1996). Set on a small metal plate against a background of sculpted faceless...

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pp. 183-188

Placed in the historical context I have outlined, cultural representations of the Magdalen laundries powerfully illuminate contemporary Irish society’s obligation to the survivors of the nation’s architecture of containment. They document the culpability of church, state, family, and community in maintaining the open secret of the laundries and the abuse of thousands of women confined therein. They...


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pp. 189-203


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pp. 204-238


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pp. 239-260


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p. 261

E-ISBN-13: 9780268092689
E-ISBN-10: 0268092680
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268041274
Print-ISBN-10: 026804127X

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: Images removed; no digital rights.
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 694144469
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment

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Subject Headings

  • Church work with prostitutes -- Catholic Church.
  • Reformatories for women -- Ireland -- History.
  • Unmarried mothers -- Institutional care -- Ireland -- History.
  • Prostitutes -- Rehabilitation -- Ireland -- History.
  • Women -- Institutional care -- Ireland -- History.
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