Like their counterparts, the Christian Brothers, Irish nuns were generally drawn from the rural middle class of Ireland. The largest order of nuns was the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who are members of a Religious Institute of Catholic Women founded in 1831 in Dublin, Ireland by Catherine McAuley. The Mercy Sisters ran the infamous Magdalene Laundries and 26 Industrial Schools - mostly for girls. Also like the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy ran many private schools, but for girls instead of boys. At one time they had Convents (many with schools attached) Colleges, Hospitals and over 1,000 primary schools under their direct control in Ireland. The Sisters of Mercy have claimed that the Institutions under their control were:
“… happy places and well run”
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which issued The Ryan Report (2009), found that molestation and rape were "endemic" in boys' facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers Order whose supervisors pursued policies that increased the danger. Girls in institutions supervised by orders of nuns (chiefly the Sisters of Mercy), suffered much less sexual abuse but instead endured frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.
From the Ryan Report:
“The issue of sexual abuse did not feature as prominently in the evidence in relation to schools run by the Sisters of Mercy as it did in relation to schools run by other religious communities"
"Some very serious incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by lay staff [occurred] in some schools”.
"In some Industrial schools a high level of ritualised beating was routine”
“Girls were struck with implements designed to maximise pain and were struck on all parts of the body."
"Personal and family denigration was widespread.”
The Ryan Report concluded that, when confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the Sisters of Mercy responded by transferring offending nuns to another location where, in every instance, they were free to abuse again. The Irish Catholic Church’s cancer of abuse metastasised with the Sisters of Mercy and their Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools for girls in Ireland. The Sisters of Mercy were so brutal to the children and the women in their religious institutions, that even other Religious who visited them, (including nuns from other Religious Orders and Bishops) were shocked. The Sisters of Mercy came to be renowned for their cruelty.
It’s hard to believe today that the Sisters of Mercy, and other unconscionable Orders of Nuns in Ireland, had exclusive responsibility for arrest, Orders for Detaining and the power of incarceration of Innocent girls and women against their will. The Sisters of Mercy also had the power of release, thus enabling the selling of stolen babies and children. They implemented “official” and “unofficial” disciplinary punishment against the captive women and their children as they thought fit. These reprehensible actions were widespread and were made possible because both the Irish Government and The Irish Police were powerless against the mighty power of the Irish Catholic Church.
The Sisters of Mercy were responsible for blameless girls and women from the moment they entered a Magdalene Laundry or Industrial School. Many were incarcerated until death. Some of the women or girls were released - usually years later – being, by then, broken in the sight of God and permanently sundered from their families and communities.
The Mother Superior of the Magdalene Laundry was responsible for the constant “unofficial” cruelty that often led - and was intended to lead - to “unofficial” beatings, humiliations and even death. The deaths were never officially reported to the Irish State let alone the Irish police. Such deaths were routinely written up as “suicides,” or the result of work related accidents. In a few cases, the deaths were recorded as “just died”, from acute illness, such as “weak heart”, “interruption of circulation”, “flu” or something similar. In many cases, no records were kept. If there were records, they were often immediately destroyed. No doctor’s post-mortem examination as to the cause of death, took place, and certainly no autopsy was performed.
The Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools, standing outside the reach of all Irish State authorities, had always been places where the Nuns could and did kill women or girls. Dead women or girls simply disappeared, and, as we now know, were, without a name and stripped of their true identity, dumped into mass grave-pits on convent grounds. Their families were never informed.
The nameless and faceless woman or girl was just dumped like a bag of human waste into a stinking hellhole pit along with hundreds of fellow nameless and faceless slave workers. The collective flat grave was normally a long barrow that was dug by male menial workers. The newly dead body was unceremoniously ditched onto a mound of hundreds of other putrid bones of faceless slave women, battered, bruised and screaming, as well as deformed babies and children.
Where was the humanity in this final act of outrage - the defiling, ultimate humiliation and the final demeaning of innocent women and children? If there is a God, then God accounts the women and children as blameless or undefiled. The Nuns have defiled the consciences of these innocent women and children.
From their very beginnings, the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools in Ireland increasingly became sites for the systematic murder of babies, children, women and girls. This is a fact. Some were known by the inmates as “The Murderous Laundries” Many women or young girls were never officially even registered at the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools; they were known as the unwed ghost women with children. Some died in strange circumstances or were beaten to death.The Magdalen women toiled in dangerous, unsafe, bleak laundries, work conditions were dickensian, appalling and hard. The Laundries were run by a merciless employer, the Nuns, the young children of the slave women were forced like their mothers to work long hours, often in poor light, using dangerous and unsafe machinery, carrying heavy loads of laundry clothing from one spot to another, to wash or to dry, an iron. This was brutal physical and backbreaking work for both the women and the children, a normal work day, was 12 hours or more, 6 days a week, and sometimes even on the 7th. day a Sunday. The women and children were condemned to hellish workhouses by their captives, the merciless Nuns. Those women and children who could work were pressed into hard labour and those who couldn’t were cared for at the minimum standard, all were subjected to a very harsh disciplinary regime.
All Magdalen Laundries were abhorrent institutions, in some Laundries there were over 200 hundred women and children assembled to work, the effect was a spectacle of squalor, rags, steam from the laundry machines, pools of putrescent chemical waters, spilt on concrete floors, with hundreds of bundles of moulding clothing and wretchedness. The constant smell of carbolic soap, hydrogen sulfide, which produced a rotten egg smell mixed with chlorine. Metallic tastes and smells from mercury, lead, arsenic and iron seeping into the festering water supply. Some of the slave women and their children had the deep-sunk and half-averted eyes of desperation and constant hunger. The hair of most of the women and children was cut very close to the head, showing that they would never be liberated from their prisons of humiliations. A few of the Women and children lost limbs, an arm, a leg, a finger, broken ankles, split heads, twisted backs, sprained limbs and back. Those that didn’t died due to work conditions were left handicapped for life after their appalling accidents at the Magdalen Laundries. The rest of the women and children were left emotionally and psychically scared for the rest of their natural lives.
The dead must not be forgotten nor the voices of the living Survivors be silenced. The Nuns are upsetting whole families by denying their shameful gains at the expense of those innocent women and children who they murdered - systematically shamed and beaten into submission.
The Catholic Church teaches that “The Lord loves the broken in heart, who draw close to Him in their brokenness”, but for the unfortunate slaves called the Magdalene Women, the Lord himself, abandoned them.
The Magdalene Laundries or Industrial Schools for women and girls, were not subject to review by any outside judicial or administrative authorities; in reality they literally stood outside the laws of the Irish State. The Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools were intended to serve as a detention centre for those women and girls who the Irish Catholic Church deemed to be a subversive danger to the Irish Catholic way of life. Incarceration in a Magdalene Laundry or Industrial School was never linked to a specific crime or actual illegal activity. All that was required was for a nosey neighbour, or even a family member to speak to their local priest. The priest then simply ordered the girl or woman detained and incarcerated based on their suspicion that she had committed a sinful crime of a sexual nature - lust or love, a simple kiss, touching, or even holding hands. Even worse was for a female to fall pregnant, often after having been raped by a family member, friend or boyfriend. A man’s word, especially the father’s, was absolute.
The women or girl could be indefinitely incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry or Industrial School. It only needed the local Parish Priest’s authority, and was based on the belief that the woman or girl was a danger to Irish society by being “debauched” and “corrupting the morals” of of the local boys and men. The detained, innocent woman or girl would be charged under the secret “corrupting morals” codes as laid down by the Irish Catholic Church, and would be denoted as being in “protective custody”. Of course the blameless woman or girl had no say, no court hearing and no evidence was presented other than the word of the local Parish Priest. The naive girl or woman’s life was now truly over; all too often she woke up in the hellhole of a Magdalene Laundry or Industrial School and she would carry forever afterwards around her person, a distinctive aroma - an unpleasant smell of doom and desperation. She could never return home to her community – the village, town or city that she grew up in. To her own family, including her own mother and father, as well as her local friends, she was considered to be dead. For the innocent girl or woman, denounced from the pulpit of her church, her all too real nightmares were just beginning.
There would be no time limit for incarceration in the Magdalene Laundries or Industrial Schools, places of extreme wretchedness and squalor. For the women who survived, their detentions were routinely extended indefinitely by their tormentors - the all-powerful Nuns who had sole and total authority over them.
In addition to serving as detention centres for women and girls, the system served two other key purposes for the Irish Catholic Church’s regime. Firstly, the Magdalene Laundry or Industrial School, were to be the source of inexpensive slave labour for the running of very profitable businesses that were owned and operated by the Irish Catholic Church. Secondly, in many cases, the slave women or girls were “leased out” as unpaid domestics to clean or cook in state-owned and private businesses, such as grand houses, hotels, hospitals, colleges, universities or schools with the monies received being collected in secret by the enterprising nuns to fill the convent coffers. The willy Nuns also increasingly deployed the abused and battered women or girls as free labour to produce work and clean churches, priests’ homes and even bishop’s palaces for the Irish Catholic Church. The Nuns continuously needed more and more women as workers to operate their money-making Magdalene Laundries which were expanding throughout Ireland, and so a desperate plea went out to all the parishes in Ireland to find more women and young girls. The Parish Priests of Ireland happily complied.
Many Scholars recently have estimated that the Irish Catholic Church’s regime incarcerated hundreds of thousands of women, girls, babies and children who passed through the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools in Ireland for over 10 decades. It is difficult to estimate the total number of deaths. One Government Report, Chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, said that 1,600 women died in the Magdalene Laundries, from 1922-1996. With a figure of 10,000 women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries at the time, that is more then 16% of the slave women who died, murdered. The different Survivor Groups of Magdalene Laundries women dispute that official figure and place the death rate much higher, as do many independent Scholars. We are only talking here about the Magdalene Laundries - the figures do not include the Industrial School system for girls nor the Mother and Baby Homes run by religious orders in Ireland.
That figure would run into over one hundred thousand more, and the deaths of the women and girls would be more then 27%. We know this from the 18 Magdalene Laundries operating at the time, from the known Magdalene grave-sites and the census data gathered since 1911. Secret grave-pits on many of the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools are slowly being discovered and - horror upon horror - the nuns now claim, despite the new discoveries that they were, and are, unaware of any secret grave on their lands, never mind the bodies of the slave women and children buried there.
The problem, we are now learning, is that the Nuns kept poor records - very convenient for both the Nuns and the Irish Catholic Church. It’s now time that everybody, including the Nuns and the Irish Catholic Church, acknowledge that the detained women, girls and their children were innocent victims of a very brutal system. The women and young girls were sacrificed for the sake of a religious ideal or a Catholic Church’s sin - an ideal of a religious fantasy of a pure Irish Catholic society. Both the Irish State and the Irish Catholic Church should hang their heads in shame.
These "large complexes” of Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools became a massive, interlocking system, carefully and painstakingly built up by the Nuns and the Irish Catholic Church for over 10 decades. Consequently, the Magdalen Laundries became part of Ireland's larger system for the control of children and women. Women and unwed mothers and their children were imprisoned for transgressing the narrow moral code of the Irish Catholic Church at the time, and their religious congregations managed the Orphanages, Industrial Schools and Laundries.
These facilities all helped sustain each other; young girls from the Reformatories and Industrial Schools often ended up working their entire lives in the Magdalen Laundry system. Almost all these Religious Institutions were run by female religious congregations and were scattered throughout Ireland, with many in prominent locations in towns and cities. In this way, the Religious Institutions, under the direction of Religious Orders, were powerfully and pervasively able to effectively control the lives of women and children from all classes of Irish Societies. One of the main features of these Magdalene Laundries was their diverse community of female inmates, from the very young to the very old. The Magdalene Laundries also took in “hopeless cases”, as those deemed to be “mentally defective” were called and many of whom had been transferred from Industrial and Reformatory Schools. These unfortunate women were used for menial tasks both within the Magdalene Laundries and the Convent itself.
An overriding characteristic of the Magdalen Laundries was a brutal slave regime of prayer, enforced silence and backbreaking work in an unsafe laundry environment. The Nuns had a preference for young, strong girls who could be permanently enslaved. The Laundries became a part of a very large network of Religious Institutions in Ireland where the treatment of both young girls and older women became increasingly violent and abusive. The Magdalene Laundries themselves were particularly cruel places - more secretive in nature and emphatically more punitive. While these women and young girls had committed no crime and had never been put on trial, their indefinite imprisonment was enforced by locked doors, iron gates, oversized walls with barbed wire and broken glass on top, prison guards in the form of apathetic nuns, and the willingness of the Irish Police, An Garda Síochána, in tracking down the women or girl slaves when they went missing. An Garda Síochána, was fully at the disposal of the Irish Catholic Church; it colluded, conspired with, and came to a secret understanding with the Irish Catholic Church to summarily return runaway women or girls back to a life of certain hell and death. This was Catholic Ireland where the Irish Catholic Church was always above the Law.
I still don’t see An Garda Síochána investigating the secret mass grave-pits with the bodies of thousands of women and children, including some who they themselves returned to the Magdalene Laundries or Industrial Schools.
How is that possible?
Owen Felix O’Neill
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017