The Magdalene Laundries are institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operate from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They are run ostensibly to house “fallen women,” a term primarily referring to prostitutes in the late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, Magdalene laundries are filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who are “not prostitutes at all”, but either “seduced women” or women who have yet to engage in sexual activity.
Several religious institutes establish even more Irish laundries, reformatories and industrial schools, sometimes all together on the same plot of land, with the aim to “save the souls primarily of women and children.” Examples are Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, who run the largest laundries in Dublin. These large complexes become a massive interlocking system, carefully and painstakingly built up over a number of decades. Consequently, Magdalene laundries become part of Ireland’s “larger system for the control of children and women.”
An estimated 30,000 women are confined in these institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is unknown how many women resided in the Magdalene institutions after 1900. Vital information about the women’s circumstances, the number of women, and the consequences of their incarceration is unknown. Due to the religious institutes’ “policy of secrecy,” their penitent registers and convent annals remain closed to this day, despite repeated requests for information.
In Dublin in 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sell part of the land in their convent to a property developer to cover money lost in share dealings on the stock exchange. This leads to the discovery of 133 corpses in a mass grave. The Sisters arrange to have the remains cremated and reburied in another mass grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, splitting the cost of the reburial with the developer who had bought the land. It later transpires that there are 22 more corpses than the sisters had applied for permission to exhume. In all, 155 corpses were exhumed and cremated.
Discovery of the mass grave leads to media revelations about the operations of the secretive institutions. A formal state apology is issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors is set up by the Irish Government. The religious orders which operate the laundries have rejected activist demands that they financially contribute to this programme.