Do penance or perish: Magdalen asylums in Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Do penance or perish Magdalen asylums in Ireland 1Do penance or perish: Magdalen asylums in Ireland
Frances Finnegan
(Oxford University Press, £12.50)
ISBN 0195174607Over the past number of years, prompted primarily by a number of television documentaries and films, the purpose and objective of Magdalen asylums in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland have had a considerable airing. However, much of this debate generated more heat than light, with considerable confusion evident, for example, between the purpose of Magdalen homes and mother-and-baby homes. Likewise, there is little appreciation of the differences between the ‘penitent’ classes and the ‘Magdalen’ classes within these institutions. Possibly the most pervasive myth is that Magdalen homes were operated solely by female Catholic congregations and were unique to Ireland.
Thus the publication of a detailed historical study of these institutions in Ireland is most welcome. This book, although published by OUP in 2004, was originally published by the author in 2001, but one suspects that it was written much earlier than that. Aside from the introduction and the epilogue, the core of the book, a study of four Magdalen asylums operated by the Good Shepherd Sisters in Ireland, does not adequately engage with recent scholarship or debate on, for example, the emergence of female religious congregations in Ireland (e.g. Mary Peckham Magray’s The transforming power of the nuns: women, religion and cultural change in Ireland, 1750–1900 (New York, 1998)) or the penitentiary movement in England (e.g. Paula Bartley’s Prostitution: prevention and reform in England, 1860–1914 (London, 2000)).
The initial chapter deals primarily with the emergence of the penitentiary movement in England. Given that the core of the book deals with the work of a congregation of nuns that, although operating in Ireland, originated in France and was moulded by conditions in that country, it was not always clear to this reader how this discussion illuminated Good Shepherd asylums in Ireland. Indeed, on a number of occasions the author draws on case-studies from England that seemed tangential to the book. For example, in the chapter dealing with the New Ross asylum, a case-study is provided of the experience of Isabella Corkhill, who was admitted to the York female penitentiary in 1855 but who subsequently left and died. Nonetheless, it is a useful corrective to those who assume that Magdalen asylums were somehow uniquely Catholic and Irish.
The second chapter deals with the emergence of the Good Shepherd nuns or, more correctly titled, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers. Founded in 1835 by Mother Mary of St Euphrasia Pelletier, who was canonised by Pope Pius XII in 1940, the congregation derived from the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, founded in France in 1641. The latter congregation also operated two large Magdalen asylums in Dublin, at High Park, Drumcondra, and Gloucester Street (Seán MacDermott Street) in the north inner city. Much of this chapter draws on Gaeton Bernoville’s hagiography of Mary Euphrasia Pelletier and does not add much to our knowledge of the congregation and its work in Ireland.
The next five chapters examine four (Limerick, New Ross, Waterford and Cork) of the five Magdalen asylums operated by the Good Shepherd nuns in Ireland (Belfast is not included). Through a detailed examination of the archives of these convents, Finnegan provides case-studies of the origins of each asylum, the numbers of women who entered them, how they entered and left, their age on entry and their birthplace. This quantitative information is supplemented by brief descriptions of the experiences of individual ‘penitents’. These data are fascinating and suggest that considerable numbers of women used these asylums more in the manner of contemporary hostels for victims of domestic violence or for the homeless: they entered and left of their own volition and generally stayed for less than a year, in some cases only a matter of weeks. This stands in stark contrast to the twenty-first-century image of the asylums as coercive penal institutions from which women were unable to escape.
This may have been the case in the twentieth century, but the data that Finnegan provides end in 1900 for the Waterford and New Ross asylums, in 1877/8 for Limerick and in 1890 for Cork. Information from the 1901 census is also provided. Why no further data were available to the author is not clear from the book. Perhaps access to the records was denied for the twentieth century. Some of the end dates are also puzzling, as much of this information was published some years ago in Maria Luddy’s study of Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland (Cambridge, 1995). For example, Luddy provides data on those women who entered and left the Limerick asylum between 1848 and 1899, while Finnegan provides data only up to 1878.
In the light of evidence that Magdalen asylums were used, for example, to incarcerate women convicted by the Central Criminal Court of infanticide and remand cases under the Criminal Justice Act (1960), the role and function of the asylums certainly changed after independence. For example, sections 9–11 of the 1960 act allowed the courts to use institutions outside the formal criminal justice system to remand young female offenders, rather than place them in prison. In introducing the legislation to the Dáil, the minister for justice, Oscar Traynor, acknowledged ‘the assistance of His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin who has made arrangements that St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum, Seán MacDermott Street, Dublin, will accept Catholic girls who may be remanded in custody’. Senator Connolly O’Brien responded:

‘If I were asked to advise girl delinquents, no matter what offences they were charged with, whether to go to prison on remand, or to go to St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum on remand, I would advise them wholeheartedly to choose prison, because I think having a record of having been in prison as a juvenile delinquent would not be so detrimental to the after life of the girl as to have it legally recorded that she was an inmate of St Mary Magdalen’s Asylum’.

Finnegan provides a useful starting-point for those interested in understanding the origin, evolution and purpose of Magdalen asylums in Ireland. It is to be hoped that the archives of these asylums will be made available for the twentieth century—not only those of the Good Shepherd convents but also those of the other congregations and agencies that operated similar institutions—to allow for a more thorough and comprehensive history.
Eoin O’Sullivan


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