News / Europe

Ireland’s Magdalenes Seek Amends for Years of Forced Labor

Mary Smyth who was born in a "Magdalene Laundry", reacts during a "Magdalene Survivors Together" news conference in Dublin, February 5, 2013.
Mary Smyth who was born in a "Magdalene Laundry", reacts during a "Magdalene Survivors Together" news conference in Dublin, February 5, 2013.
Cecily Hilleary
Ireland’s Labor Party is calling this week for an official apology and compensation for survivors of the so-called Magdalene Laundries, workhouses run by Roman Catholic nuns through most of the past century.
For years, the government insisted that the workhouses were privately run by the Church. But last week, the government officially admitted its role in sending thousands of girls and young women into the laundries, where they worked in virtual servitude. 
Survivors of the workhouses are not satisfied. They say the government failed to offer the official apology and compensation the women say they deserve. 
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaking at Harvard University, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
In June 2011, the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) appealed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which subsequently called on Ireland to investigate the issue.  Last week, Ireland issued the findings of its probe, which showed that Irish governments not only admitted girls to the program, but held lucrative contracts with the laundries.  Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, said last Tuesday he is sorry for women forced to live in what he termed a “hostile and far-off environment.”  
Mari T. Steed is a JFM co-founder and Committee Director and herself a daughter of a laundry survivor.  She calls Kenny’s statement a “farce.”
“Obviously, we were very disappointed.  It was perhaps an expression of Kenny's personal ‘remorse,’ but certainly not a full, formal state apology,” she said.
“We spoke to all the survivors and my mum over the past week, and of course they are very disappointed and minced no words about Kenny,” Steed said.  “But they are so trusting in the process and us, they feel we will fight it to the end -- and we will.”


The first of the “Magdalene Asylums” were established in the late 1700s to reform “penitent prostitutes,” who took in washing and sewing to pay for their keep.  The model quickly spread elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. By the 19th Century, most of these asylums had closed -- but not in Ireland. 

By the 20th Century, the Irish laundries had become workhouses for unwed mothers, orphans, the mentally disabled, the homeless -- and even girls the clergy judged to at risk of getting into trouble because they were too pretty.  Today, the term “Magdalene” is still associated with prostitution, which Steed says gives survivors a deep sense of shame.  
“The societal connotation has been that these institutions were for women who were prostitutes, criminals or insane,” Steed said.  “It was only recently that the public began to learn that there were girls and women in there merely for the "crime" of being pretty, that is, a moral danger to society.”
More than 11,000 women passed through 10 institutions between 1922 and 1996 operated by four religious orders: The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge; Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy; Religious Sisters of Charity; and Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The last laundry workhouse was shut down in 1996. 
The government report estimates there are between 800 and 1,200 survivors are still living.  But because records from two laundries are still missing, Steed believes as many as 2,000 to 3,000 are still alive.

  • High Park Convent Laundry, 2009
  • High Park Convent and Laundry, Dublin, Ireland
  • Good Shepherd Convent and Laundry, Cork, Ireland, Alwyn Jennings/AJ Photography
  • Interior, Good Shepherd Convent, Cork, Ireland, Alwyn Jennings/AJ Photography
  • Grave, Margaret Mullen, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Gravesite, former Magdalenes, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Graves, former Magdalenes, Donnybrook Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Magdalene graves at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
  • Magdalenes, 19th Century
  • Magdalen Laundry Scene.  Note girl with shaved head (L).  Heads were often shaved upon entry to laundry or as punishment
  • Magdalenes at work
  • Description of Magdalene Workhouse, "Priests and People in Ireland," Michael J. F. McCarthy, 1903.
  • Magdalen Society Asylum, New York City, 1836
  • Scene from Magdalen Asylum, New York City, 1872.

Life in a workhouse

On entrance into a Magdalene Laundry, girls gave up their given names and were  assigned new names or numbers.  Survivors tell stories of long hours washing heavy laundry and ironing.  They were fed little and allowed to bathe only weekly.  If they tried to escape, they were hunted down by police and returned to face solitary confinement, public shaming, whippings or food deprivation.  

One such woman was Margaret Bullen — known as No. 322 — who spent 35 years in a Magdalene Laundry.  As a teenager, she became pregnant and gave birth to twin daughters.  The babies were taken from her and adopted out to an Irish family in the U.S.  One of her twins, New York resident Henrietta Thornton, tells VOA her story:

“My mother Margaret was born in the mid-1950s in a Dublin mental hospital called St. Brendans at Grangegorman.  Margaret’s own mother remained in the hospital, and she went home to be raised by her father,” Thornton said. 
“When she was two years and four months old, she and some of her other siblings were taken away from her father for neglect...into a system called ‘Industrial Schools,’ which were orphanages-slash-reform homes for children.”
Hunting rats
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret BullenThe only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
The only known image of Magdalene Laundry survivor, Margaret Bullen
Thornton said even small children were given work to do.  “One of their first jobs in the morning was to kill the rats in the kitchen.  Starting at five years old, she was making breakfast for 70 girls,” Thornton said.
When Henrietta and her twin were in their early 20s, they grew curious about their past.  A social worker eventually found their mother.  That’s when the twin learned she was a Magdalene, still living in the convent after decades.  They also found out she was “mentally disabled.” 
“When Margaret was 13 her IQ was assessed as 50,” Thornton said. “It seems to me that the assessment concluded she was fit for work but unfit for an education.  The assessment just determined Margaret was eligible to be a slave.”
At 16, Margaret was transferred to the Gloucester Street Laundry in Dublin, where she would live out her days.
“I think there’s a misconception here that these girls were washing a few blouses for the nuns or something like that,” Thornton said.  “It wasn’t nuns’ clothes.  It was a factory situation, where they were doing laundry for prisons, the armed forces and other public and private organizations.  It was really a big business.”
Brief Reunion
Henrietta and her twin were reunited with their mother in 1995.  They met at a hotel café, where Margaret, then 41 years old, sipped her first cup of coffee.
“I learned afterwards that up to when she heard about the possibility of meeting us, she didn’t remember that she had children,” Thornton said.  “She had just blocked it from her mind.”
Henrietta Thornton visited Margaret in the High Park convent several times over the next few years.  Margaret died in 2003 of Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease caused by exposure to industrial chemicals.   Thornton says no one called to tell her about her mother’s death; she heard about the “death of the youngest Magdalene” on the radio. 
Full Redress
Survivors are not only looking for a full apology, but lost wages, pensions and health and housing services for the work they performed for the state -- in some cases, for decades. 
The Dáil Eireann -- Ireland’s main house of parliament -- will debate the issue this week. 
Only one religious order, the Sisters of Charity, has apologized “unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt” while in their care. The other three orders have issued statements of regret on their websites.
VOA requested an interview with the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, which did not respond.

You May Like

Guatemala Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 86

Death toll is expected to continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth for an estimated 350 people still missing More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Debris Found in Search for Missing Ship

Objects located Sunday have not yet been confirmed to be from the 240 meter container ship, El Faro, which disappeared in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, according to US Coast Guard More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Richie from: Dublin
February 13, 2013 5:46 PM
The report did not say that the laundries had "lucrative" contracts with the state. The state for sure did use the services of the laundries but in fact the report concluded that they were break even or subsistance based. One of the laundries ran a deficit in 2011 terms of €200k a year before bequests and donations. They were not profitable.

by: Rob Swift from: Great Britain
February 13, 2013 1:55 PM
Dating from Herod having the children murdered in order to subvert the historical process there has been widespread persecution of the chosen ones. (Recent export from England to Australia etc of illegitimate children). Now we have this reported from Ireland. (Thanks to VOA the voice of freedom)
The antichrist brigade (The masonic movement) has already lost it's power base and is plunging into materialism because it has nowhere else to run. Places have been reserved for all masons. When they are called they will all come.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs