Review by David Kilgannon.
Public understanding about Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, the often prison-like reformatories designed to house the nation’s ‘fallen’ women, has unfolded gradually since the closure of the final laundry in 1996. The 2013 McAleese Report found that at least 10,000 women spent time in these institutions since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, while the accounts of survivors have detailed a range of frequently cruel carceral conditions within these religious order run institutions. Recent events have also contributed towards a growing appetite for understanding how such religious order-run institutions operated in twentieth century Ireland; the discovery of a mass infant grave site at a ‘Mother and Baby’ home in Tuam, Co. Galway provoking widespread public anger and questions about the standard of care offered within these religious institutions.
Yet, historical examinations of the Magdalene Laundries — and the religious orders that ran them — have been limited. There are notable exceptions, like the work of Frances Finnegan (Do Penance or Perish, 2001) and James Smith (Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, 2008), but these studies have been marked by their limited geographic focus or explicitly literary orientation. Hence, Jacinta Prunty’s new historical examination, Our Lady of Charity in Ireland: 1853-1973, represents a substantial contribution to the underserved historiography on this topic. It presents a detailed history of the Irish Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, which collaborated with the Irish state and other religious institutions in producing a national ‘architecture of confinement’ through the operation of Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Prunty’s book is, at more than 600 pages, a substantial tome. Its length, however, is clearly justified given that its narrative begins with the foundation of the order in 17th century France and charts the order’s changing relationship from then until the 1970s. The book covers their early work with women who were considered in danger of entering prostitution, the order’s establishment within mid-nineteenth century Ireland, their (often challenging) relationships with the Irish Catholic hierarchy, the order’s involvement with industrial schools for delinquent children, and finally the theological (and practical) implications associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is! Prunty, however, is a compelling interpreter of this large story, showing how this religious order and broader Irish society engaged in a symbiotic relationship throughout the 120 year period under study.
Drawing on the extensive archives in the care of the Good Shepherd sisters, Prunty had managed to provide a clear and insightful account of the way in which the Our Lady of Charity of Refuge religious congregation operated within Irish Society across a broad period of history. It is a perspective that has, heretofore, escaped sufficient examination within Irish historiography and is a welcome and thought provoking contribution. In common with other states that achieved political independence in the twentieth century, the major body of Irish historiography leans towards the analysis of those same struggles and their ensuing political aftermath. Social history, which has produced rich and varied studies in Ireland, has remained the younger sibling to this developed body of work on politics. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, who facilitated this research, deserve to be commended for their foresight in allowing Dr. Prunty access to their archival records. The majority of the praise must, however, be apportioned to Dr. Prunty for her valor in laying the groundwork for scores of further research projects. Indeed, Prunty’s book, welcome and useful as it is, needs further companions to ensure that we can best understand the experiences of those who ran the Magdalene Laundries, as well as those who worked there.
David Kilgannon is a Wellcome Trust PhD researcher based in the History Department of the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was previously a Hardiman Scholar, a Kirkpatrick History of Medicine winner and a Wellcome Trust MA student. His research looks at the varied experiences of persons with intellectual disabilities in Ireland from 1947 to 1996.