Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland

Article excerpt

Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. By Frances Finnegan. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2004. Pp. xii, 258. $19.95.)

Frances Finnegan's Do Penance or Perish (originally published in Ireland in 2001) reveals decades of questionable practices at Ireland's Magdalen Asylums, specifically those in Limerick, Waterford, New Ross, and Cork. The book does an excellent job in calling attention to some of the institutionalized abusive practices at these facilities. Its strongest point concerns the hollowness of the Asylums' stated goal to reform "fallen women" and return them to productive society. Instead, Dr. Finnegan conclusively shows that the nuns' focus -was heavily geared toward individual moral reform, with release never being an important goal (pp. 35,72). This was variously attributed to the relatively small market for domestic servants in Ireland, the nuns' lack of contacts in commerce and business, and concerns with the profitability of the attached laundry services (pp. 71-72). The book also illustrates that most of the -women detained in the asylums were not actually "fallen women" in the traditional sense of the term, but were often placed there for perceived mental or moral deficiencies (p. 17).

However, these points could have had more impact if the book had been structured differently. The author -wants to "return to narrative history in the hope of bringing individuals and their experience to life" (p. xi). That goal is defensible, but the asylum-by-asylum focus leads to a fair amount of repetition and wasted space. While the asylums did have their differences-such as the low population at New Ross, or the connection of the Cork facility to the Contagious Diseases Acts-the differences were not significant enough to justify the book's organization. …

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