Unwed mothers asylums—horrifying tales of the Magdalene laundries

Adoption Detective | Judith Land Blog

In 2002 allegations about the conditions in the state supported and convent operated laundries in Ireland run by the Sister of Mercy Nuns were made into an award-winning movie “The Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan. In 2013 the highly acclaimed award-winning movie “Philomena” starring Judi Dench was released in North American theaters to rave reviews.

To the women who worked in the Magdalene laundries and the thousands of children taken from them against their will—this is the time to reflect on their lives.

Between 1758 and 1996 at least 30,000 innocent girls were enslaved in 300 asylums located throughout Europe, Australia, and North America. Investigations by the United Nations Committee Against Torture uncovered significant state collusion in the enslaving of thousands of women into the asylums and prison like Magdalene institutions, and exposed a horrific number of human-rights violations that took place in the laundries.

Originally viewed as the solution to society’s moral decline, the Magdalene asylums were supported by the state and operated by the Catholic church. The giant Magdalene laundry business, run primarily by Sisters of Mercy, forced orphans, flirtatious young girls, fallen women, and girls convicted of petty crimes into asylums as a source of free labor. Mothers of illegitimate children were automatically incarcerated and their babies taken from them. The Magdalene asylums were powerful institutions that effectively controlled the lives of women from all social classes. In their struggle to survive, the women suffered physically, spiritually and emotionally from the cruel treatments that methodically crippled their sanity. They were starved, denied their rights and freedom, and forced to work endlessly without compensation. They were intentionally shamed, demeaned, dehumanized and treated with inhumane cruelty characterized as violent, punitive and sexually abusive. Records of the girls who were executed, silenced, and violently tortured were concealed and kept secret from the public.

Women in Australia claim they were forced to work in unhygienic living conditions and served inedible food remarkably similar to austere prisoner-of-war camps. Women in the United States claim physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse suffered during incarceration. In 2002 allegations about the conditions in the convent operated laundries in Ireland were made into an award-winning movie “Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan. In 2013 the award winning film “Philomena” starring Judi Dench tells the true story by Martin Sixsmith of a birth mother’s search for her son taken from her by an unrepentant nun who justifies her actions as penance for the sin of fornication. On February 19, 2013 the government of Ireland apologized unreservedly for all the hurt that was done to the innocent women of the Magdalene laundries.

As we reflect with moral distaste on the ignoble actions of the authorities, the unconscionable crimes that were committed, the demeaning and sordid lives the women were forced to endure, and the nightmarish separation from their babies taken from them against their will—we ponder an appropriate justice for the surviving women and children of the Magdalene asylums.


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About Judith Land

Judith Land lives in Colorado and Arizona with husband and coauthor Martin Land. Judith is a former nurse, retail shop owner, college instructor and avid outdoor person. Her book "Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child" is a true story detailing the journey of Judith Romano, foster child and adoptee, as she discovers fragments of her background, and then sets out to solve the mystery as an adult. She has reached readers in 192 countries. "Mothers and fathers everywhere in the world need to understand that children are forever and always." --Judith Land
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4 Responses to Unwed mothers asylums—horrifying tales of the Magdalene laundries

  1. Oh my gosh, what a horrific story of inhumanity. Thanks for writing this post and bringing to awareness the injustices suffered by the young women in the Magdalene asylums.

  2. Judith, Magdalene Laundries and mother-baby homes in Ireland were two completely different institutions, run, inspected and regulated differently by both Church and State. More importantly, survivors of the Laundries have now received a State apology and are eligible under a redress scheme to some measure of restorative justice. Women who were subjected to forced, illegal adoptions in the mother-baby homes have not yet received that same justice. Just want to be clear on the distinctions so people aren’t unnecessarily confused or women misled into thinking they’re eligible under the Magdalene redress when they’re not.

    • Judith Land says:

      Thanks Mari. You are correct. It is important to report the truth as accurately as we can. Unfortunately, the Magdalene Laundries and mother-baby-homes were operated in many countries. Ireland is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disclosing the many despicable acts of authorities preying on the lives of defenseless women and orphans which have occurred throughout the world. Recently, many readers have praised the movie “Philomena” which highlights her personal story and conditions in Ireland as they previously existed. Viewers who enjoyed Philomena should also watch the 2002 award winning movie “The Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan about four teenage girls send to Magdalene Asylums for women whose families and society labelled as ‘fallen’. The film was initially made because victims of Magdalene Asylums had received no closure in the form of recognition, compensation or apology. The film’s epilogue states that an estimated 30,000 women were held at Magdalene Asylums throughout Ireland, with the last laundry closing in 1996. Judith

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