Historian questions if Ireland wants fairer view on Magdalene laundries

Historian questions if Ireland wants fairer view on Magdalene laundries

A leading historian has questioned the established idea of the Magdalene laundries, saying that the public view of them makes it difficult for a “fairer assessment to emerge”.

Dr Jacinta Prunty, head of the Department of History in Maynooth University, recently published a book investigating the history of the laundries.

One of the main points Dr Prunty makes is that the principal role of the laundries, at St Mary’s High Park and on Sean MacDermott Street, were for short stay and emergency accommodation.

This is revealed through analysis of the register of entrances and exits of women in the laundries, who came and went in many cases although there were longer term residents who stayed for two years or more.

“But the association of the Magdalene laundries with imprisonment, exploitation and cruelty, and with these alone, is so strongly established in the public sphere that it is difficult to know if there is space for a more rounded, fuller-informed and fairer assessment to emerge,” Dr Prunty wrote in The Irish Times.

Dr Prunty, who is a Holy Faith sister, said the nuns that ran the laundries, the sisters of Our Lady of Charity, made real efforts to help young girls and young women.

She wrote: “The sisters in Sean MacDermott Street opened a transition hostel for teenagers in the Magdalene asylum in 1966, also with the aim of preparing for independent living, with basic life skills named as ‘budgeting, nutrition, socialising, coping with jobs and life, self-management and responsibility’.”

There was a period of modernisation in the 1950s, which edged the laundries away from the convent style. Large dormitories were divided into smaller cubicles, there was no more uniforms, Mass was not compulsory and pocket money was replaced with wages.

Dr Prunty stated: “Martin McAleese stated that there is ‘no single or simple story of the Magdalene laundries’ and the documentary evidence from these two refuges certainly bears this out.”

Dr Prunty is the author of The Monasteries, Magdalen Asylums and Reformatory Schools of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland, 1853-1973 published by Columba Press.