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Magdalene asylums, also known as Magdalen institutions, were institutions from the 18th to the late-20th centuries ostensibly to house "fallen women", a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution. Asylums operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. London's Magdalen Asylum was active from 1758 to 1966, and the last laundry in Ireland closed in 1996.
The institutions were named after Mary Magdalene, considered for a long time, though mistakenly, to be a converted prostitute from the Bible who was rewarded by Jesus with forgiveness and love. These institutions (also called laundries and asylums) were complexes in Europe, Australia and North America that enslaved women, institutionalizing them against their will, and stripping them of their rights and identities. Between the late 1700s to the late 1990s, women were "locked away performing menial domestic chores such as laundering prison and priest’s uniforms, cooking, scrubbing floors and windows and caring for the sick and aging nuns".
In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalen laundries where it is estimated that, since their inception, up to 30,000 women had been incarcerated. The first asylum in Ireland opened on Leeson Street in Dublin in 1765, founded by Lady Arabella Denny. The last such institution in Ireland closed in 1996. Initially the mission of the asylums was to rehabilitate women back into society, but by the early twentieth century the homes had become increasingly punitive and prison-like. In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labour, including laundry and needle work. They endured a daily regimen that included long periods of prayer and enforced silence.
The first Magdalen institution was founded in late 1758 in Whitechapel, England. It was so successful, it led to “the establishment of a similar institution in Ireland” by 1767. Magdalen asylums were not unique to Europe, however. In the United States, for example, the first such institution, the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, was founded in 1800; many other North American cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto, quickly followed Philadelphia’s example and opened their own Magdalen facilities for “fallen” women. The Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of Charity, and various other religious orders were responsible for what Smith called the “worldwide spread” of these Magdalene laundries, “from the congregation’s French foundation at Angers” and stretching as far as “Britain, Ireland, the rest of continental Europe, America, Australia, and beyond;” their first Irish Magdalen institution was founded in 1848. And in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Magdalen asylums were common all around the world. By 1900, there were more than 300 institutions for “fallen” women in England, and more than 20 north of the border in Scotland. Smith wrote that the institutions' authorities saw themselves as the solution to society's moral decline; they promised to reform prostitutes and unmarried sexually active girls by incarcerating them and forcing them to cleanse their sins via unpaid labor. 
The Dublin Magdalen Asylum in Lower Leeson Street was the first such institution in Ireland. Founded in 1765 by Lady Arabella Denny, Ireland’s Magdalen asylums, or laundries, survived for the longest time. The last Magdalen asylum didn't close until 1996. There isn’t anything exclusively “Irish or Catholic” about these institutions; but Smith asserts that the “Irish variety took on a distinct character”. Ireland’s Magdalen laundries were quietly supported by the state, operated by the church, and Smith asserts that they were directly responsible for what he calls the enslavement of at least 30,000 innocent women and girls for more than two hundred years. Referred to as “fallen” women, some were sexually active “when Irish women were expected to be morally pure,” some were “unmarried mothers of ‘illegitimate’ children when the constitution rendered motherhood and marriage inseparable,” some were victims of physical and sexual abuse by men who under a double standard evaded culpability, and Smith claims that others were “deemed too simple…or too attractive and were hastily hidden away to safeguard their moral purity”. Though they were not criminals, they were systematically incarcerated in Magdalen laundries. In these laundries, women and girls were forced to labor without pay, and the cruelty with which they were treated methodically stripped away their sanity, agency, and identity; inhumane treatment, such as physical/emotional abuse and shaming techniques, was used to demean and dehumanize them. Parrot and Cummings wrote that “The cost of violence, oppression and brutalization of women is enormous” and in their struggle to survive, these Magdalens suffered not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally.
The Magdalene movement in Ireland was largely appropriated by the Catholic Church following Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries, since the facilities were self-supporting and not funded by the state or religious denominations.
As the Magdalene movement became increasingly distant from the original idea of the rescue movement—finding alternative work for prostitutes who could not find regular employment because of their background—the asylums became increasingly prison-like. Supervising nuns were instructed to encourage the women into penance, rather than merely berating them and blocking their escape attempts.
The Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia: "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. The congregation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary 16 January 1898."
In Belfast the Church of Ireland-run Ulster Magdalene Asylum was founded in 1839 on Donegall Pass, while parallel institutions were run by Catholics on Ormeau Road and by Presbyterians on Whitehall Parade.
In the late 17th century, the term “fallen women” primarily referred to prostitutes; but by the end of the 18th century, Magdalen laundries were filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who were “not prostitutes at all,” but either “seduced women” or women who had yet to engage in sexual activity.[not in citation given] According to Francis Finnegan, author of Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland, “Missionaries were required to approach prostitutes and distribute religious tracts, designed to be read in ‘sober’ moments and divert women from their vicious lives”. Furthermore, “the consignment even of genuine prostitutes” to these laundries “seldom reduced their numbers on the streets, any more than did an individuals prostitute’s death,” because, according to Finnegan, “so long as poverty continued, and the demand for public women remained, such losses were easily replaced. Raftery wrote that the institutions were failing to achieve their supposed objective; “the institutions had little impact on prostitution over the period,” and yet they were continuing to multiply, expand and, most importantly, profit from the free labor. Since they were not paid, Raftery asserted, “it seems clear that these girls were used as a ready source of free labour for these laundry businesses”. Additionally, the state of Ireland and its government was heavily intertwined with religion. Finnegan wrote:
The issue of continued demand for prostitutes was barely confronted, so absorbed were moralists with the disgraceful and more visible evidence of supply. And while acknowledging that poverty, overcrowded slum housing and lack of employment opportunities fuelled the activity…they shirked the wider issues, insisting on individual moral (rather than social) reform.
Finnegan wrote that based on historical records[which?], the religious orders had motivations other than simply wanting to curtail prostitution; these multiple motivations led to the multiplication of these facilities. According to Finnegan, as the motivations started to range from a need to maintain social and moral order within the bounds of patriarchal structure, to a desire to continue profiting from a free workforce, Magdalen laundries became a part of a large structure of suppression. With the multiplication of these institutions and the subsequent and “dramatic rise” in the number of beds available within them, Finnegan wrote that the need to staff the laundries “became increasingly urgent”. This urgency, Finnegan claims, resulted in a new definition of “fallen” women, one that was much less precise and was expanding to include any women who appeared to challenge traditional notions of Irish morality. He further asserted that this new definition resulted in even more suffering, “especially among those increasing numbers who were not prostitutes but unmarried mothers – forced to give up their babies as well as their lives”. And as this concept of “fallen” expanded, so did the facilities, in both physical size and role in society.
Several religious orders established 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”. These “large complexes” became a “massive interlocking system…carefully and painstakingly built up…over a number of decades”; and consequently, Magdalen laundries became part of Ireland’s “larger system for the control of children and women” (Raftery 18). Women and “bastard” children were both “incarcerated for transgressing the narrow moral code of the time” and the same religious congregations managed the orphanages, reformatory schools and laundries. Thus, these facilities “all helped sustain each other – girls from the reformatory and industrial schools often ended up working their entire lives in the Magdalen laundries”. Almost all the institutions were run by female religious congregations,” i.e. nuns, and were scattered throughout the country “in prominent locations in towns and cities”. In this way, according to Raftery, they were powerful and pervasive, able to effectively control the lives of women and children from “all classes”. This second incarnation of Magdalen laundries vastly differed from the first incarnation, due to their “longevity” and “their diverse community of female inmates, including hopeless cases, mental defectives…[and] transfers from industrial and reformatory schools. These particular institutions intentionally shared “overriding characteristics, including a regime of prayer, silence, work in a laundry, and a preference for permanent inmates," which, as Smith notes, “contradicts the religious congregations’ stated mission to protect, reform, and rehabilitate”. As this expansion was taking place and these laundries were becoming a part of a large network of institutions, the treatment of the girls was becoming increasingly violent and abusive. According to Finnegan and Smith, the asylums became “particularly cruel”, “more secretive” in nature and “empathically more punitive”. Though these women had committed no crime and had never been put on trial, their indefinite incarceration was enforced by locked doors, iron gates and prison guards in the form of apathetic nuns. By 1920, according to Smith, Magdalen laundries had almost entirely abandoned claims of rehabilitation and instead, were “seamlessly incorporated into the state’s architecture of containment”.
The numbers of women whose basic human rights were violated by this system is unclear. Estimates indicate that over 30,000 women ended up in these institutions; but Smith asserts that “we do not know how many women resided in the Magdalen institutions” after 1900. Vital information about the women’s circumstances, the number of women, and the consequences of their incarceration is unknown. “We have no official history for the Magdalen asylum in the twentieth-century Ireland,” Smith wrote. Due to their[who?] “policy of secrecy”, the orders'[which?] penitent registers and convent annals “remain closed,” despite repeated requests for information. As a direct result of these missing records and the religious orders’ commitment to secrecy, Magdalen laundries can only exist “at the level of story rather than history”. Though Ireland’s last Magdalen asylum imprisoned women until 1996, there are no records to account for “almost a full century” of women who now “constitute the nation’s disappeared,” who were “excluded, silenced, or punished,” and who Smith says “did not matter or matter enough” to a society that “sought to negate and render invisible their challenges” to conceived notions of moral order.
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According to historian, Frances Finnegan, in the beginning of these asylums' existence, because many of the women had a background as prostitutes, inmates the women (who were called "children") were regarded as "in need of penitence," and until the 1970s were required to address all staff members as "mother" regardless of age. To enforce order and maintain a monastic atmosphere, the inmates were required to observe strict silence for much of the day, while corporal punishment was common.[page needed]
As the phenomenon became more widespread, it extended beyond prostitution to petty criminals, orphans, intellectual disabled women and abused girls. A 2013 report made by an inter-departmental committee chaired by Senator Martin McAleese found no evidence of unmarried women giving birth in the asylum. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious, or too beautiful, were sent to an asylum by their families. This paralleled the practice in state-run asylums in Britain and Ireland in the same period, where many people with alleged "social dysfunction" were committed to asylums. Without a family member on the outside who could vouch for them, many incarcerated individuals stayed in the asylums for the rest of their lives, many taking religious vows.
Given Ireland's historically conservative sexual values, Magdalen asylums were a generally accepted social institution until well into the second half of the twentieth century. They disappeared with changes in sexual mores—or, as Finnegan suggests, 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."
The existence of the Irish asylums was not well known until 1993 when an order of nuns, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, 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, cremated and reburied in a mass grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. This triggered a public scandal and became national news. In 1999, Mary Norris, Josephine McCarthy and Mary-Jo McDonagh, all asylum inmates, gave accounts of their treatment. The 1997 Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate interviewed former inmates of Magdalene Asylums who testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time. Allegations about the conditions in the convents and the treatment of the inmates were made into an award-winning 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullan.
In June 2011, Mary Raftery wrote in the The Irish Times that in the early 1940s, some Irish state institutions, such as the army, switched from commercial laundries to "institutional laundries" (Magdalene laundries). At the time, there was concern in the Dáil that workers in commercial laundries were losing jobs because of the switch to institutional laundries. Oscar Traynor, Minister for Defence, said the contracts with the Magdalene laundries “contain a fair wages clause,” though the women in those laundries did not receive wages.
The Irish Times revealed that a ledger listed Áras an Uachtaráin, Guinness, Clerys, the Gaiety Theatre, Dr Steevens' Hospital, the Bank of Ireland, the Department of Defence, the Departments of Agriculture and Fisheries, CIÉ, Portmarnock Golf Club, Clontarf Golf Club and several leading hotels amongst those who used a Magdalene laundry. This was unearthed by Steven O' Riordan, a young Irish film-maker who directed and produced a documentary, The Forgotten Maggies. It is the only Irish-made documentary on the subject and was launched at The Galway Film Fleadh 2009. It was screened on the Irish television station TG4 in 2011, attracting over 360,000 viewers. The documentary's website notes that a group called Magdalene Survivors Together was set up after the release of the documentary, because so many Magdalene women came forward after its airing. The women who appeared in the documentary were the first Magdalene women to meet with Irish government officials. They brought national and international attention to the subject.
In May 2009, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released a 2,000-page report recording claims from hundreds of Irish residents that they were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as children between the 1930s and the 1990s in a network of state-administered and church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted. The alleged abuse was by nuns, priests and non-clerical staff and helpers. The allegations of abuse cover many Catholic (Magdalene), Protestant (Bethany) and State-run Irish Industrial schools.
The commission stated:
There were two types of inquiry, one drawing on contested evidence (Investigation Committee) and the other on uncontested evidence (Confidential Committee), which reported to the commission. The commission received evidence from more than 1,500 witnesses who attended or were residents as children in schools and care facilities in the state, particularly industrial and reformatory schools.
Since 2001, the Irish government has acknowledged that women in the Magdalene laundries were victims of abuse. However, the Irish government has resisted calls for investigation and proposals for compensation; it maintains the laundries were privately run and abuses at the laundries are outside the government's remit. In contrast to these claims, evidence exists that Irish courts routinely sent women convicted of petty crimes to the laundries, the government awarded lucrative contracts to the laundries without any insistence on protection and fair treatment of their workers, and Irish state employees helped keep laundry facilities stocked with workers by bringing women to work there and returning escaped workers.
Notwithstanding the investigations instigated by the government in the Republic of Ireland, similar investigations have yet to be instigated in Northern Ireland and worldwide.
Having lobbied the government of Ireland for two years to investigate the history of the Magdalene laundries, advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes presented its case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, alleging that the conditions within the Magdalene laundries and the exploitation of their labourers amounted to human-rights violations. On 6 June 2011, the panel urged Ireland to "investigate allegations that for decades women and girls sent to work in Catholic laundries were tortured."  In response the Irish government set up a committee chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, to establish the facts of the Irish state's involvement with the Magdalene laundries.
Following the 18-month inquiry, the committee published its report on 5 February 2013, finding "significant" state collusion in the admission of thousands of women into the institutions. The report found over 11,000 women had entered laundries since 1922. Significant levels of verbal abuse to women inside was reported but there were no suggestions of regular physical or sexual abuse. Elderly survivors said they would go on hunger strike over the failure of successive Irish governments to set up a financial redress scheme for the thousands of women enslaved there. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, while professing sorrow at the abuses revealed, did not issue an immediate apology, prompting criticism from other members of Dáil Éireann. Kenny promised "there would be a full Dáil debate on the report in two weeks' time when people had an opportunity to read the report". Survivors were critical that an apology had not been immediately forthcoming.
On 19 February 2013, Kenny officially issued a full state apology to the women of the Magdalene Laundries. He described the laundries as "the nation's shame" and "Therefore, I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry".
The Taoiseach also outlined part of the compensation package to be offered to victims of the Magdalene Laundries. He stated: "That’s why the Government has today asked the President of the Law Reform Commission Judge John Quirke to undertake a three month review and to make recommendations as to the criteria that should be applied in assessing the help that the government can provide in the areas of payments and other supports, including medical card, psychological and counselling services and other welfare needs." 
There are no precise figures for the number of girls who worked in the eight Magdalene laundries, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, in twentieth-century Australia because Good Shepherd has not released their records. As a result of the 2004 Senate report "Forgotten Australians" it is known that the Good Shepherd laundries in Australia acted as prisons for the girls who were forced to labor in workhouses laundering linen for local hospitals or commercial premises. The report also described the conditions as characterized by inedible food, unhygienic living conditions and little or no education. In 2008, Senator Andrew Murray likened the Convent of the Good Shepherd 'The Pines', Adelaide to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Conditions in North American asylums were different and, arguably, better than the more oppressive conditions of Irish institutions. Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement, many women entered and left the institutions of their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, that the women in Philadelphia's asylum "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances." Though the institutions were meant to be a refuge for women, some were subjected to physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse. Many women felt they needed the support of the institutions to survive, since the sisters strove to make them feel that the reasons for their refuge were their own fault.
The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film by Peter Mullan, is a work of fiction, based on historical facts. James Smith wrote that "Mullan offsets the long historical silence" that allowed the laundries and the violations of the religious orders to "maintain their secrecy and invisibility". The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative is centered on four young women incarcerated in a Dublin Magdalen Laundry from 1964 to 1968. The film is loosely based on and “largely inspired” by the 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which documents four survivors’ accounts of their experiences in Ireland’s Magdalen institutions. One survivor who saw Mullan’s film claimed that the reality of Magdalen asylums was “a thousand times worse". The film is a product of a collective, including the four survivors (Martha Cooney, Christina Mulcahy, Phyllis Valentine, Brigid Young) who told their story in Sex in a Cold Climate, the historical consultant and researchers of the documentary who contributed historical information (Miriam Akhtar, Beverely Hopwood and Frances Finnegan), the directors of both movies (Steve Humphries and Peter Mullan, respectively), the screenwriter of The Magdalene Sisters who created a narrative (Peter Mullan again) and the actors in the film.