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How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves

March 12, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The interior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin's north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996.   (Photo by Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images)

When the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity decided to sell some land they owned in Dublin, Ireland, to pay their debts in 1992, the nuns followed the proper procedures. They petitioned officials for permission to move the bodies of women buried in the cemetery at their Donnybrook laundry, which between 1837 and 1992 served as a workhouse and home for “fallen women.” 

But the cemetery at Donnybrook was no ordinary resting place: It was a mass grave. Inside were the bodies of scores of unknown women: the undocumented, uncared-about inmates of one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene laundries. Their lives—and later their deaths—had been shrouded in secrecy.

For more than two centuries, women in Ireland were sent to institutions like Donnybrook as a punishment for having sex outside of marriage. Unwed mothers, flirtatious women and others deemed unfit for society were forced to labor under the strict supervision of nuns for months or years, sometimes even for life.

When the mass grave at Donnybrook was discovered, the 155 unmarked tombs touched off a scandal that exposed the extent and horrors of the Magdalene laundries. As women came forward to share their experiences of being held against their will in restrictive workhouses, the Irish public reacted with outrage. 

The interior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin’s north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996. (Photo by Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images)

When the Magdalene Movement first took hold in the mid-18th century, the campaign to put “fallen women” to work was supported by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, with women serving short terms inside the asylums with the goal of rehabilitation. Over the years, however, the Magdalene laundries—named for the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene—became primarily Catholic institutions, and the stints grew longer and longer. Women sent there were often charged with “redeeming themselves” through lace-making, needlework or doing laundry.

Though most residents had not been convicted of any crime, conditions inside were prison-like. “Redemption might sometimes involve a variety of coercive measures, including shaven heads, institutional uniforms, bread and water diets, restricted visiting, supervised correspondence, solitary confinement and even flogging,” writes historian Helen …read more

Source: HISTORY

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