Modern slavery
Modern slavery

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Modern slavery

4.4 Magdalene laundries

This course has so far considered examples of forced labour perpetrated by individuals or businesses. This section will consider an example of forced labour, which was administered, run and tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in Ireland, from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century.

Magdalene laundries (also referred to as the Magdalene asylums) were originally created in the mid-eighteenth century and were run by the Magdalene sisters under the auspices of the Catholic Church. The initial aim of these institutions was to provide shelter and alternative work for prostitutes. However, in the early twentieth century, they became centres of exploitation, violent abuse and forced labour. By then, the laundries had become ‘a destination’ (albeit not a voluntary one) for not only prostitutes but all ‘fallen women’, who transgressed socially accepted behaviours. Many women found themselves in laundries because they engaged in premarital sex or because they had children out of wedlock. In cases of the latter, children were automatically put up for adoption by the Catholic Church, with mothers being unable to keep (or in some cases even see) their babies. Women were forced to work long hours in the laundries and received no remuneration for their work. If women objected to the work, they were physically punished or denied food. They were also not allowed to leave the Magdalene asylums, which meant that they were practically incarcerated. This short video,The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011), from the documentary Forgotten Maggies gives an insight into the reality faced by women incarcerated in Magdalene laundries.

Download this video clip.Video player: The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’
Skip transcript: The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011)

Transcript: The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011)

INTERVIEWER:
So what kind of punishments were carried out when you were working there? What made it so bad in terms of – you’re saying you were institutionalised. But what made it so bad?
SUBJECT:
You had no freedom. And if you had done anything wrong – there was one particular nun, and she would catch you by the top of the head, and she would pull your hair so much down, she would go down to your toes with your head. You were just punished severely – locked in rooms or whatever if you had done something wrong. But you still had to do your work. You might get no tea that evening.
INTERVIEWER:
Did anyone ever ask to leave?
SUBJECT:
I did, on a few occasions – wanted to know why I was there.
INTERVIEWER:
And?
SUBJECT:
And I was told my mother put me in there.
INTERVIEWER:
But when you asked to leave, did they let you leave?
SUBJECT:
I wasn’t educated enough to be out in the world, I was taught.
INTERVIEWER:
Did anyone ever die in there?
SUBJECT:
Oh, die – I was at so many funerals. They were buried on the grounds of the Hyde Park. There was nothing religious in the ground where they were buried. It was just like a green playground, really.
INTERVIEWER:
What do you mean? Sorry.
SUBJECT:
It was just a green patch at the side of the laundry where the old women were buried. But the nuns had a graveyard up at the convent for themselves. But the women that died in Hyde Park – because when somebody was dying, we all had to go up and go round the bed and kneel there and pray and pray and pray – but they were buried in this big green patch.
There was no cross. There was nothing to say that it was holy ground.
End transcript: The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011)
The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Described image
Figure 14 Inside a Magdalene laundry

The Magdalene laundries existed both in the UK and in Ireland, with Irish Magdalene laundries surviving the longest. The last laundry closed in 1996.

The Irish Government demonstrably failed to protect the victims from violations of their human rights. However, for many years, the Catholic Church and the Irish Government denied complicity in the appalling practice of the running of the Magdalene laundries. For many women, it meant that not only their human rights were violated during their time spent in the laundries, but also that they were denied access to justice. Following many years of lobbying by advocacy groups, particularly Justice for Magdalenes (who also gave a statement before the UN Committee Against Torture), the Irish Government issued an official apology to the victims of Magdalene laundries in 2013, via Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013). The Irish Government is now also engaged in providing a compensation package to the victims.

Download this video clip.Video player: Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology
Skip transcript: Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013)

Transcript: Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013)

SPEAKER:
If I can conclude [INAUDIBLE] by again speaking directly to the women whose experiences in the Magdalene laundries have negatively affected their subsequent lives.
As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you, or if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame for which I say again I’m deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.
At the conclusion of my discussions with one group of the Magdalene women, one of those present sang Whispering Hope. A line from that song stays in my mind. "When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day."
Let me hope that this day and this debate – excuse me – heralds a new dawn for all those who fear that the dark midnight might never end.
End transcript: Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013)
Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
W102_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371