The Magdalene Laundries

Recorded live at Warner Bros. lot 1998

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Sometimes music artistes get the opportunity to go beyond just entertaining their audience and take on an exalted role of educator. They can be powerful spokespersons and can rally public opinion and action against injustice or for a cause. Joni Mitchell is one such artiste who never hesitated to bear open her soul and in the process treated her listeners to a glimpse of the human condition.

When I first heard the song “The Magdalene Laundries“, I knew nothing about the story behind it. The song inspired me to investigate further and to understand the tragedy of which it spoke.

The story begins with the establishment of asylums for “fallen women” in Victorian Britain. These asylums arose from the Protestant Rescue Movement which originally had the good intent of trying to rescue and rehabilitate prostitutes by providing them a shelter and alternative employment.

In Ireland, these were referred to as Magdalene Asylums, named after Mary Magdalene who was a prostitute but who became a friend and follower of Jesus Christ. The Magdalene movement in Ireland was quickly appropriated by the Catholic Church, and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. As time went on, the focus also shifted from rehabilitation to the performance of penitence through hard labour.

These institutions were required to be financially self sufficient and so they evolved into profit making laundries run by “fallen women” carrying out their penitence under the supervision of nuns. They ceased being refuges and became more like prisons. The “fallen women” now included not just prostitutes but women who had become pregnant out of wedlock and as the song says became pregnant, “some by their own fathers or parish priests”. The men suffered no consequences but the women were sent to the Laundries.

Women who had become “embarrassments” were sent by their family, their church or even the State to the Magdalene Laundries where they were treated as lower beings and suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuses, forgotten by society.

Public awareness of the injustices and inhumanities of the Magdalene Laundries really began in 1993 when in Dublin, nuns of a particular order sold part of their convent grounds to a real estate developer who exhumed 155 bodies of women who had died in the Laundries and were buried in unmarked graves.
Allegations about the conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates of the Irish asylums were made in the film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan.

I was surprised to learn that the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed as recently as the 25th of September 1996 or just 14 years ago this day. It is estimated that 30,000 women went through the Magdalene Laundries. May God grant them the peace and love that they never received from fellow humans.


12 thoughts on “The Magdalene Laundries”

  1. Joni Mitchell from her very first album (Blue) way back in the mid 60’s never held anything back. She has always had a resonant voice for the less than fortunate. As for the “laundries” just another one of many misguided archaic stupid ideas of mankind to force others into slavery and servitude for the perceived sins. Who though, is the question, in this case were the sinners?

  2. Apparently the nuns who ran those “laundries”conveniently forgot the words “Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone.” Those places, and what went on within their walls, are shameful……There was one near where I lived when I was very small. I can remember passing it on walks…….High walls, locked gates….But no one questioned the Church. They were above suspicion……..

  3. onestonedcrow,
    Today, most artistes are too much about the money and fame. I appreciate someone like Joni who uses music as a medium to really communicate, educate and advocate for positive change.

    You are right of course. Much of what man does is about putting himself/herself foremost by stepping over other people and driving their heads into the mud. The Laundries were just another example. It is a pity that the original good intentions were hijacked by darkened and narrow minds. Where Jesus would have said, “neither do I condemn ypu, go sin no more”, they have chosen the way of the Pharisees who assuage their own guilt by the suffering of others.

  4. Molly,
    As I said in my reply to Mark above, Jesus would have said “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”, which is the following verse to your quote “let he who is without sin , cast the first stone”. Jesus taught compassion but it was intolerant hypocrisy that was instead shown by the church to these women. It is interesting to me to know that you once lived near one of these places. It helps make it more real to me.

  5. Mago,
    No kidding. I was stunned too.

    They totally missed the point. Magdalene was an example of the compassion that Jesus had for prostitutes. He befriended them and showed love. Instead, the Magdalene Laundries became a place of unjust retribution and exploitation. It always alarms me when nuns and priests can be so far off the mark.

  6. Hear hear. So sad that even something that sprang from a good place and an ideal inevitably ended up corrupted and twisted by the very thing that is meant to save us all.

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