Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Story Behind the Magdalene Laundries

If you saw the Oscar nominated movie Philomena staring Judi Dench, you understand the experience my character Annie Gallagher goes through before she comes to America. Unlike Philomena, Annie wasn’t sent to the nun’s laundry to work because she was pregnant, but like her she was there to pay for her perceived sins. Annie was innocent, but it did not take long for her to believe God had abandoned her in that place.



“You are here to cleanse your sins, child. You do know you’re a sinner—and of the worst kind.”She dared to speak. “What is the worst kind, sir?”His fingers slid down her arm to her wrist. “The worst are girls who are so lovely, who have skin soft and smooth…”~From Annie’s Stories


The unfortunate part about these stories is that there was more than one of these institutions and they existed for well over two hundred years in Ireland. Shortly before my most recent visit to Ireland in 2013, the Irish government offered an apology for their part in what was called the Magdalene Laundries. 

Spotted on a Dublin street corner. Photo: ©2013byCindyThomson

This is still in the news as the women still living are awaiting redress. See this article. And here is an update

The women worked in these laundries (and so did children as you can see below), which provided services to hotels, resorts, and other other businesses, for no pay and against their will.

Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Dmitri Lytov using CommonsHelper.
(Original text : Scanned by Eloquence* from Finnegan, F.: Do Penance or Perish. A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. Congrave Press, Ireland, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny (2001).)

In Annie’s Stories my intent was not to point an accusing finger at a whole institution, such as the Catholic church in Ireland. I cannot say that all the laundries were abusive. But I think it’s clear from what we know today that some were.

Some people who read Annie’s Stories will probably wonder if such a thing really could have happened in Ireland. The answer is yes. Part of my heart lives in Ireland with the landscape and the people. There is so much that is good and beautiful there to celebrate. I feel the same about America and yet there are dark episodes in our history as well—Indian massacres (on both the Indian and the white side), the Civil War, race riots—to name just a few. There have even been institutions very much like Magdalene Laundries in America. In the 19th century both men and women could be admitted to what was referred to as insane asylums for a myriad of reasons, some light years away from being mental health issues. (If you don’t believe me, read this list.

I explain in the author notes of Annie’s Stories, referring to a character in the book, “When Father Weldon tells Annie that the church is not evil, he means that there are caring people within it, and I believe that has been true since the church first began. But a code of secrecy has allowed injustice to continue. History has lessons to teach us, and I pray our society learns from this awful episode.”


I believe stories have the power to change and influence us. If my story, and stories like Philomena, can have a positive impact by encouraging readers to stand up for justice, and have the courage to overcome the code of silence that is most often seen today as apathy, I will be pleased beyond measure.