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Magdalen Asylum
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Magdalen Asylum

Magdalen Asylums were homes for "fallen women", most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. It has been estimated that around 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions. The last Magdalen Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Revelation
3 References
4 External links


Magdalen Asylums grew out of the "rescue movement" in Britain and Ireland the 19th century, which had as its formal goal the rehabilitation of women who had worked as prostitutes. In Ireland, the institutions were named for Mary Magdalene, a character in the Bible who repented her sins and became one of Jesus' closest followers.

The Magdalen movement in Ireland was quickly appropriated by the Church, and the homes, which were initially intended to be merely short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries,The produce of the penitents' labour was partly given to them as an incentive to industry, and partly given to them upon their leaving the asylum.

As the Magdalen movement became increasingly distant from the original ideas of the "Rescue" movement, that is, to take prostitutes off the streets who would not find regular employment because of their background, the Asylums took an increasingly prison-like character. Supervising nuns were instructed to enact strong measures that would discourage women from leaving and instead encourage them into penance. The Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde, for example, is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia thus:

In receiving patients no discrimination is made in regard to religion, colour, or nationality. After their convalescence, those who desire to remain in the home are placed under a special sister and are known as "Daughters of St. Margaret". They follow a certain rule of life but contract no religious obligations. Should they desire to remain in the convent, after a period of probation, they are allowed to become Magdalens and eventually make the vows of the Magdalen order.

Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalen movement, many women entered and left the institutions on their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, "Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850" (published in Historical Archeology, the journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology), that the women "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances."

Because of their background as prostitutes, inmates were regarded as in need of penitance:

"The woman who has never known the pollution of a single wicked thought - the woman whose virgin bosom has never been crossed by the shadow of a thought of sin! - the woman breathing purity, innocence and grace, receives the woman whose breath is the pestilence of hell!" [Catriona Clear, Nuns in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, p.153; cited from Finnegan, p.20]

Inmates were required until the 1970s to address all regardless of age, as "mother", and were called "children". As one priest wrote in 1931: "It may be only a white-veiled novice with no vows as yet; and it may be an old white-haired penitent giving back to God but the dregs of a life spent in sin. It matters not. In the Home of the Good Shepherd the one is ever the 'Mother' while the other is always the 'Child'." [Finnegan, p.42]

To enforce order and maintain a monastic atmosphere, the inmates were required to observe strict silence for much of the day. "The Rule of Silence was a major feature of the women's lives and continues well into the second half of the twentieth century." [Finnegan, p. 24] Corporal punishment was not uncommon, and passive aggression was simply ignored:

"A sullen temper, often shown by refusing food, is best dealt with by silence. When a girl wakes up to the fact that no one takes any notice, nor is troubled (apparently at least) by her self-starvation, she gets weary of her self-imposed martyrdom and learns sense." [Arthur J. S. Maddison, Hints on Rescue Work, A Handbook for Missionaries and Superintendants of Homes (1898); cited from Finnegan, p.31]

As the phenomenon became more widespread, it extended beyond prostitution, to unmarried mothers, developmentally challenged women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious were sometimes sent to an Asylum. This paralleled the practice in State Run asylums in Britain and Ireland in the same period, where many people with "social dysfunction" were committed to asylums.

The women were typically admitted to these institutions at the request of family members or priests. Without a family member on the outside who would vouch for them, some penitents would stay in the asylums for the rest of their lives, many of them taking religious vows.

Given Ireland's conservative sexual values, Magdalen Asylums were a generally accepted social institution until well into the second half of the 20th century. They disappeared with the changes in sexual mores -- or, as some say, as they ceased to be profitable. "Possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes," according to Frances Finnegan.

The sending of "wayward women" to Magdalen Asylums was an example of what many feminists regard as the phenomenon in which even suspected sexual misconduct by women is punished harder than sexual misconduct by men.


The existence of the asylums was little thought of until, in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 155 inmates, who had been buried in unmarked graves on the property, were exhumed and, except for one body, cremated and reburied in a mass grave. This triggered a public scandal and became local and national news in 1999. Mary Norris, Josephine McCarthy and Mary-Jo McDonagh all asylum inmates gave accounts of their treatment. The 1998 Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate interviewed former inmates of Magdalen Asylums who testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time. The conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates was dramatized in the acclaimed film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan.

Similar instances of abuse have been reported in Ireland's industrial schools. As a group these institutions were exposed in an RTÉ (state run Irish television) series by reporter Mary Raftery in 1999. Despite convening of a government Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, attempts to obtain compensation for the victims of the system have proven frustrating. [1] [1]


External links