Feature

Women helping women: the reality of the laundries
The asylums run by the sisters of Our Lady of Charity were radically different to the popular image, according to Dr Jacinta Prunty

During the pre-paration of 2013’s McAleese Report, Maynooth historian Dr Jacinta Prunty met with a panel where one of the men involved asked about shaving the girls’ heads, one of the actions most commonly linked in the popular mind with Ireland’s Magdalen Asylums.

“All I could think was that they were constantly buying combs every year,” Dr Prunty says, continuing, “the accounts showed that they were constantly buying combs, shoes and underwear. They were kitting the women out.”

One might expect that even if the women who spent brief periods in the asylums had not had their heads shorn, at least this would have happened with the ‘consecrates’, the Magdalen women in the most precise sense, who committed themselves to living permanently in the asylums.

“Even the consecrates didn’t,” Dr Prunty says, continuing, “we have pictures of them, with big heads of hair.”

Pictures of the women of the asylums stretch back to the asylums’ early years she says, with these being of all categories of women. While few of these pictures are now in the public domain, she emphasises that the photos are in the archives, there for researchers to consult.

Now Maynooth’s head of history, Dr Prunty is a Holy Faith sister and a historical geographer by training, who before moving to Maynooth worked in UCD for five years on the three overlapping areas of historical geography, history, and archives. 

Her PhD work entailed her working on her order’s 19th-Century founder Margaret Aylward, which gave her a familiarity with the character, individuals, and details of north Dublin city in the second half of the 19th Century; this proved a very useful grounding for a major project, the roots of which were put down in 2003 and which sees fruition this week.

The Monasteries, Magdalen Asylums and Reformatory Schools of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland, 1853-1973, launched in Maynooth on Tuesday this week, delves deep into the archives of an order that has become notorious – unfairly so in Dr Prunty’s opinion – in recent years for its running of laundries in High Park and Sean McDermott Street.

Although the published book clocks in at over 600 pages, its genesis was in 2003 when two sisters told Dr Prunty that their order was 150 years in Ireland that year, and they thought it could be useful to publish a booklet commemorating that fact.

Jubilee

“The jubilee had precipitated the interest, but also they had moved all their historical material onto one site in High Park,” Dr Prunty adds, explaining how this – and the work of the sisters’ first professional and professionally-advised archivists – had made a serious research project practical, since previously the archives had been scattered across standalone autonomous houses.

She had an interest in the topic anyway, having been born and brought up in Glasnevin with Drumcondra as her public library. “I had a childhood knowledge of the district,” she says, continuing, “I knew the area, knew the period, and knew the key characters already from my own PhD work. I had always been interested in the poverty and destitution and how women coped – how women helped each other, and how they made ends meet and got by. 

“I’ve always had that interest in women and children – they are the piece of history that’s least written up,” she says, explaining that the 19th-Century women who built refuges, hospitals, and schools for Ireland’s poor “were really on the cutting edge”.

These women shouldn’t be thought of in isolation either, she adds, highlighting that when women were in religious orders, “all of their brothers and brothers-in-law, their married sisters, their nieces and networks, and all of these family networks contributed”.

Networks of support, including outside groups, are well-attested through the sisters’ meticulously kept archives, she says, highlighting how the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society would put on concerts in High Park, and stressing overall that “when we talk about religious women, we should go back immediately to say the women and their co-workers”.

One of the most surprising aspects of her research on the book, Dr Prunty says, was the extent to which the asylums had a lively engagement with the outside world.

Emphasising that the asylums weren’t “hermetically sealed”, she says: “Part of the reason for all this outside lay and family involvement was of course that the sisters of Our Lady of Charity were an enclosed order, so they weren’t leaving outside the fences of High Park so could only operate with networks of committees and benefactors and friends and relations and collectors, so they were very much networked into the city.”

The sisters of Our Lady of Charity first came to Dublin from France in 1853, invited to the city by a Fr John Smith who had established a refuge in Drumcondra; the sisters and Fr John – who Dr Prunty calls “impossible to work with” swiftly fell out, so with support from Archbishop Paul Cullen they bought their own house at High Park and moved the refuge there over 1857 and 1858.

“When the nuns came to Dublin in the 1850s, they were flabberghasted that there was no state support for poor women and destitute children outside of the workhouses that had just started,” she says, continuing, “they couldn’t believe it. They were used to the state supporting refuges and supporting orphanages.”

During the early decades of High Park’s history, such asylums were cutting edge. “The women in them were people that nobody wanted anything to do with, and the closest parallel now is to a kind of women’s refuge for battered and homeless and out-of-home women, and former prisoners, and women who had been driven to prostitution or who were in danger of ending up in prostitution,” she says, continuing, “This was a very big reality in the Dublin of the 1890s – one we maybe don’t like to face up to.”

Women could access these homes simply by showing up at the door, and presenting themselves, Dr Prunty says, emphasising that they weren’t cross-examined in any way. “Internally, the thinking was that if you came to the door and presented yourself as in need of overnight accommodation, if we have a bed at all, come in. Very many of them left within a day or two, as the statistics show,” she says.

“Like all of these asylums, refuges and charitable homes, it made a weekly income by laundry work,” she adds, describing this as “the standard way”, and pointing out that, “because they worked – and that was part of it – in the laundry, and the house, and the kitchens, and the sowing room, and in all parts of the domestic sphere, the idea was that if you came and looked for accommodation, you weren’t begging and were working towards your keep.”

Dignity

Even before Leo XIII launched the current era of Catholic social teaching with Rerum Novarum in 1891, the notion that there was dignity in work was key to the sisters’ thinking.

“It wasn’t begging – there was a thing they had about the dignity of work,” she says, continuing, “it was important that women felt they were genuinely contributing. Working in the laundries has been constructed as though this was a pentitential exercise, but this was genuine in terms of the income of the house, and it was treating women – and the sisters – so that everyone contributed to their own upkeep.”

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising then that among the many visitors the sisters’ asylums received from the 1890s were people who came from England to see “how well things were done in Dublin”, regarding them as offering “a kind of model asylum and refuge”.

Stressing that “They were doing what hardly anybody else in Dublin was,” Dr Prunty observes that “they were giving women a safe place and the freedom to come and go, which is the statistical fact of the story. It was women giving for women.”

This emphasis on ensuring women had a safe space continued right through the 20th Century, she says, noting how though it’s not in the book, when the State advised the sisters that factory inspections would have to take place, “the nuns in High Park wrote back saying that factory inspections were fine but they only wanted women inspectors – you could see why they did that, as they didn’t want fellows coming in to leer at the women or take advantage, but they had no problem with female inspectors”.

By the 1890s, the sisters were investing a lot in mechanised equipment such that they could boast of how modern their laundry was, and the laundry continued its work right through to independence, when refuges for women were still needed, with destitution still being a serious problem.

“It was still a huge reality in the 1920s and indeed the 1930s, and we have plenty of reports from the Free State that show this – it’s a part of Irish history we’d often prefer were not exposed, women ending up in prostitution out of destitution and homelessness,” she says.

Massmigration

At this period, she says, the country was very poor in general, marked by mass emigration and with precious little new building and investment going on.

“I would regard those as periods when the sisters were just ticking over – they’re maintaining what is becoming more archaic as an institution,” she says, continuing, “they were still providing a safe place, but it was only in the mid-1950s that they got into modernising – we know a good bit about it because they had their centenary in 1953, and there was a lot of documentation around.”

Incremental changes were the order of the day from the 1950s on, she says, explaining how gradual shifts saw days out and excursions, the ending of uniform dress – itself largely due to supplying clothes to women whose clothes were in poor condition, and in 1965 the ending of enforced attendance at daily Mass.

“You can track the modernisation from about 1955 – they start with the physical building – and it gathers pace from about 1965,” she says, adding that after 1973 it simply “isn’t historically correct” to speak of Magdalen asylums.

One of the more contentious aspects of 2013’s McAleese Report was the report’s observation that it found no evidence of the kind of brutality that is part and parcel of the popular myth of the laundries, but in her research Dr Prunty has similarly found no evidence of such behaviour.

In connection with the report she was interviewed by members of An Garda Síochána, who asked whether there was anything she should be telling them. 

“Look,” she says, “if I found evidence of abuse or misappropriation or anything serious, you have no idea how fast I can move. Whitehall Garda station is on the corner, practically, of Grace Park Road. I’d have been up there like a hare, because ethically I’d have to be, as a historian. I’ve a university ethics committee and am part of the university community: people don’t think of that, that it’s an ethical profession.

“For example, if I found material I didn’t like, or that was against my own order, I’m nearly conscience-bound to make sure it’s in – nearly to go to the extreme of looking for and making sure there’s no question that stuff is not suppressed, because the suppression of information is unethical,” she says.

Historians

Pointing out that this can be a difference between university historians and amateur scholars, she says that university academics are in privileged positions that entail responsibilities.

“You’re answerable to the ethics committee and you’re meant to model good history and good research methodologies,” she says, continuing, “and you also know the next person is going to go through what you worked on with a fine comb – and they’re meant to!”

Admitting that other historians could reach conclusions different to hers, she says “at least what I’ve done should be a reasonable interpretation based on the evidence that I’ve had access to”, describing her work as “a serious ethical undertaking, and one that as a university historian you’re trusted to do, by the public and by the college”.

A clue to how the popular narrative is flawed, she says, is how the figures show that women came and went freely from the asylums, often coming back repeatedly.

“One of the things you have is for the first time ever we have statistical analysis – actual numbers showing entrances, exits, and returns,” she says, continuing, “and that does change the narrative, even seeing how many came and went over a short period, and the fact that there were multiple entrants. And then working out that say, one or two stayed every year, and some were very young and stayed for very long periods of time.”

This was startling to her, she says: “I didn’t realise that the vast bulk of the women in the asylums came and went, and came and went repeatedly,” she says, adding, “that was something that really struck me – you wouldn’t come back four or five times, which was fairly frequent, if things were that bad.”

Noting that women were always taken back, she says: “You repeatedly find notes like ‘not to be taken back again’, and two weeks later she’d be back in. That struck me vividly. The thing was, if you refused her, were you putting her eternal salvation in jeopardy, so you’d give them the benefit of the doubt. I would push it and say that they really zealous about their vocation – their vocation was the salvation of souls, and there was no pussyfooting about it. They really did believe it.”

Also new to her, she says, was how the refuges were run in parallel to the convent, so the whole rhythm of life in the woman’s refuge was the rhythm of the convent. “If you were looking for how people were treated, you look at the way the novices were treated,” she says, observing, “you’ll see parallels with how the novices were treated and even the language used about the novices and the language used about the women.”

In addition, she says, there was clearly a tendency among the women to think of the asylums as potentially like asylums. “Very many came back to die,” she says, “that was a big thing all of the time – very many women came back to retire, in illness and to die in the infirmary where they were guaranteed comfort – they were very proud of their infirmary.”

Noting that medical expenses were high in the asylums, she adds that there was typically a high infirmary population, with the women there being seen as real members of the community: “The women in the infirmary weren’t working but they were contributing to the house through their prayers and sufferings bravely borne.”

Where women were permanent residents, she says, a tiny fraction took religious names like ‘Magdalen of the Sacred Heart’ and lived in parallel with the nuns, making promises of perseverance. These women, the ‘Magdalen women’ proper, were technically called ‘consecrates’ – a category that had gone by the 1950s – and would be buried in the convent grounds or in a small High Park burial site, with the other women – the vast majority – being buried at Glasnevin.

“All the women were buried properly, every woman who died in High Park is accounted for, without exception,” she says, continuing, “the consecrates had obituaries the same as the nuns, printed in the internal circular letters, and some of the other women had short write-ups, depending on how long they were there.”

While the documents in the archives need viewing with a critical eye, and with critical eyes also being needed for her book, she says, the statistics that have come to light, even if imperfect, should transform the popular narrative.

Unfortunately, she says, the myths persist.

“I think it’s because the TV and film story took root in the popular mind before the historical research was done. In most cases you have history done first and then it develops into kind of docudramas – usually you have a historical basis first. In this case it’s gone in reverse,” she says.

“If I started going through them I wouldn’t get any further,” she says of the myths, in particular highlighting the depiction of the nuns as utterly vindictive, and such issues as girls entering the asylums while pregnant or being imprisoned there.

“Almost at every point there’s a misrepresentation. So much of that film The Magdalene Sisters is so far removed from the historical record that you almost wouldn’t know where to start,” she says.

Not helping matters, she admits, is the loyalty the sisters feel to their former charges and the assurances they gave them.

“The sisters take to the extreme the promise of confidentiality that they gave the girls on entry – they have given a promise that anything that’s said to them by a girl will not be divulged to anybody else including in the convent, and that has certainly tied their hands,” she says, adding, “The myths persist and the nuns are not fighting it – I think they’re leaving it to God.”