Sunday 17 December 2017

Penitents' long days of 'high-class laundry' and prayer recital

Paul Melia

Paul Melia

LIFE was harsh in the State's Magdalene Laundries, with working days lasting from 7am to 6pm and little time for recreation.

The residents or penitents – that is, someone seeking forgiveness from God – normally began their day with Mass at 7am followed by breakfast. They then worked until 12.30pm when dinner was served.

Periods of prayer were observed during the day, including reciting the Rosary which the women would respond to while working and a pause for the Angelus at 12pm and 6pm, and the Sacred Heart prayer at 4pm. Silence was observed at other times. After dinner, work resumed until the evening meal at around 6pm.

Tea breaks were part of the daily routine, and there was a half-day on Thursdays. No laundry was carried out on Sundays, holy days or bank holidays.

In many cases recreation consisted of little more than sewing or knitting in the evenings, and women spoke of the great loss of freedom they experienced.

The institutions can be traced to medieval times, and were not confined to Ireland and nor were they exclusively Catholic-established or operated.

The first Magdalene home was established in England in 1758, and a Protestant asylum opened in 1765 on Dublin's Lower Leeson Street.

By the late 1800s there were at least 41 in Ireland, and their focus was closely tied to women in prostitution or regarded as in danger of falling into prostitution.

Ten were investigated by the committee, which were run by four female religious congregations. They closed between 1982 and 1996.

The residents came from every county, and from the UK, US and Europe. The State helped to fund the institutions and in 1968 the cost of maintaining a person ranged from 15 to 30 shillings a week, but the report finds the laundries were not profit- making, and in fact most barely managed to break-even.

The women were not paid for their work. Doctors interviewed by the committee said the women enjoyed good health, and did not show signs of abuse.

Most women who gave evidence said the work was long, harsh and physically demanding but said sexual and physical abuse were not commonplace – although verbal abuse and "unkind or hurtful taunting" did occur.

Some had their names changed when they entered the laundry, a practice known as giving "house" or "class" names. The congregations said this was not intended to undermine the identity of the women but to preserve their anonymity.

The 10 laundries could accommodate 1,200 women, and between 1922 and 1996 some 10,012 people entered. The maximum stay was recorded at 3,420 weeks – or almost 66 years. The average age of the residents was 23, while the youngest entrant was just nine.


The eldest was 89. While the report says the congregations did not make money, they were keen to advertise their services. One advert, from the 1930s, says the Good Shepherd Home in Limerick offered "high-class laundry work", with "gentlemen's collars a speciality".

While the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in New Ross, Co Wexford, offered the "most up-to-date machinery" that allowed it to perform the work "much more efficiently than before".

It also sought work to help keep the "penitents".

"The number of penitents in our home increases daily," it said.

"These poor girls are sheltered and cared for without either grant or means of support other than that which their own industry procures for them.

"By sending us your laundry you share in this noble work of rescue, and aid us to keep a home where so many poor souls grown weary of a sinful world find peace and happiness."

Irish Independent

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