Heil Mary: Magdalen Asylums and Moral Regulation in Ireland

By Titley, Brian | History of Education Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Heil Mary: Magdalen Asylums and Moral Regulation in Ireland


Titley, Brian, History of Education Review


The Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd always have the specific vocation to form a family which can welcome persons in difficulty or who desire to live, an upright and beautiful life after sinning, by offering them a place to live where peace and love prevail.

Pope John Paul II, 9 July 1996, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Rose-Virginie (Maria Euphrasia) Pelletier, founder of the Good Shepherd Congregation. (1)

These places were the Irish gulags for women. When you went inside their doors you left behind your dignity, identity and humanity. We were locked up, had no outside contacts and got no wages, although we worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.

What else is that but slavery?

Mary Norris Cronin, former inmate of the Good Shepherd Magdalen Asylum, Sunday's Well, Cork. (2) Peter Mullan's film, The Magdalene Sisters (2002), tells the story of three young Irish women sent to a magdalen asylum as punishment for sexual indiscretion around 1964. The asylum, run by sadistic nuns, provided an environment of prayer, humiliation and interminable labour for the inmates. (3) Sisters was released to international critical acclaim and won a Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice International Film Festival in 2003. The Vatican, unsurprisingly, condemned it; in the words of Osservatore Romano it was an 'angry and rancorous provocation'. (4) Mullan rejected the criticism and claimed that his work, although fictional, was based on true events. Indeed he had been inspired by the 1998 Channel 4 documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, which featured interviews with survivors of Irish magdalen asylums. (5)

The tradition of placing women who lived sinful lives under religious discipline can be traced back to the thirteenth century. At the time the Church began to establish refuges for 'public sinners' who were mainly, though not exclusively, prostitutes. The refuges were generally named after Mary Magdalen, the beata peccatrix of the Gospels and a favourite saint of the Middle Ages. The saint offered hope of redemption to all sinners; she was a reminder of the problem of female sexuality and proof that it could be subdued. The 'discovery' of her body in Vezeley, Burgundy, in 1265 popularised the cult of her veneration and did wonders too for the relic and pilgrimage industries. In later centuries, repentant prostitutes in England, Italy and France were known respectively as magdalens, maddelene, and madelonnettes. (6)

By the nineteenth century magdalen asylums were part of the larger complex of custodial institutions (orphanages, reformatories, workhouses and the like) with which moral reformers in modernising western societies regulated criminality, poverty, disease inebriation and sexuality. (7) In Ireland the Catholic Church, newly resurgent after Britain relaxed it penal laws, and fortified with growing numbers of priests, brothers and nuns, claimed ownership of institutions concerned with education, health and welfare. It meant that many aspects of social life came under clerical surveillance and a disciplinary regime that emphasised spirituality, frugality and sexual restraint. (8) The work of conducting asylums for 'fallen' or 'wayward' women whose behaviour transgressed the Church's moral code, was undertaken by four congregations of nuns, two originating in Ireland and two in France.

The Sisters of Mercy (papal approval 1840), founded by wealthy Dublin woman, Catherine McAuley, took over the operation of an asylum that had been established by a Miss Lynch in Galway in 1832. They also ran St. Patrick's Refuge in Dun Laoghaire and a third such institution in Tralee. The Sisters of Mercy were numerically the most successful Irish congregation and the asylums constituted a very small part of their vast network of educational and charitable foundations. (9)

The Irish Sisters of Charity (papal approval 1816), founded by Mary Aikenhead, were also involved in a wide range of endeavours and had two asylums among their numerous institutions. …

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