Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment

James M. Smith

Winner of the 2007 Donald Murphy Prize for a Distinguished First Book from the American Conference for Irish Studies

“. . . an important book, written with scrupulous attention to detail and impeccably researched. This is a dark and deeply emotional subject about which James M. Smith manages to be fair-minded and calm in his judgments. It is an essential book for anyone interested in the fear and cruelty surrounding women’s sexuality in the Ireland of the recent past.” —Colm Tóibín

“This is a book about amnesia, acknowledgment and atonement. It weaves history, politics, and art together in one of the most compelling and best-written studies I’ve read in recent years. Smith is able to stand outside his subject, independent of affiliation, and he manages to resist the urge for cheap outrage. It is a serious, brilliant, art-driven examination of a story, or history, that needs to be told over and over and over again, lest it be forgotten or allowed to seep into the ambient noise.” —Colum McCann

The Magdalen laundries were workhouses in which many Irish women and girls were effectively imprisoned because they were perceived to be a threat to the moral fiber of society. Mandated by the Irish state beginning in the eighteenth century, they were operated by various orders of the Catholic Church until the last laundry closed in 1996. A few years earlier, in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their Magdalen convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 155 inmates, buried in unmarked graves on the property, were exhumed, cremated, and buried elsewhere in a mass grave. This triggered a public scandal in Ireland and since then the Magdalen laundries have become an important issue in Irish culture, especially with the 2002 release of the film “The Magdalene Sisters.”

Focusing on the ten Catholic Magdalen laundries operating between 1922 and 1996, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment offers the first history of women entering these institutions in the twentieth century. Because the religious orders have not opened their archival records, Smith argues that Ireland’s Magdalen institutions continue to exist in the public mind primarily at the level of story (cultural representation and survivor testimony) rather than history (archival history and documentation).

Addressed to academic and general readers alike, James M. Smith’s book accomplishes three primary objectives. First, it connects what history we have of the Magdalen laundries to Ireland’s “architecture of containment” that made undesirable segments of the female population such as illegitimate children, single mothers, and sexually promiscuous women literally invisible. Second, it critically evaluates cultural representations in drama and visual art of the laundries that have, over the past fifteen years, brought them significant attention in Irish culture. Finally, Smith challenges the nation—church, state, and society—to acknowledge its complicity in Ireland’s Magdalen scandal and to offer redress for victims and survivors alike.

JAMES M. SMITH is associate professor of English and Irish Studies at Boston College.

“Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries is the story of young women locked away for a lifetime, without due process or appeal, for perceived sins of the flesh, a violation of a moral code established not by the government but by the most powerful force in the country, the Catholic Church. James M. Smith has provided the first comprehensive history of the magdalen laundries; unlocking the secrets, dispelling the myths, and providing the context for a most regrettable era that shocked and embarrassed not just the church, but the Irish people.” —Steve Kroft, correspondent, 60 Minutes

“This book offers at once a critical examination of society’s understanding of the Magdalen institutions and provides a means of refocusing attention on the ways in which memory, commemoration, and responsibility work in Irish society, especially in relation to these particular institutions. I have no doubt that this will be an important book. It will prove controversial, it will restart the debate on the Magdalen Institutions in Ireland, and it should receive considerable publicity.” —Maria Luddy, University of Warwick

“Jim Smith’s Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries offers an insightful interdisciplinary study of an institution that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Without excusing the excesses of those who administered the laundries, Smith’s balanced commentary does much to redress the distorted impressions created by the over-heated rhetoric of less sophisticated approaches.” —Michael Patrick Gillespie, Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English, Marquette University


“Smith, a literary critic, evaluates diverse contemporary representations of the women of the Magdalen laundries within the context of the available historical information about these institutions. Most usefully, he also measures the relationship between historical record and literary interpretation to good effect. . . . [T]he tone of Smith’s method and writing here is balanced and compassionate, sensitive to the injustices done to these women in the laundries but scrupulous in terms of historical and archival research. . . . A fair-minded, scholarly and sensitive study of a profoundly difficult chapter in our recent and living history.” — The Irish Times

“This richly argued and impeccably researched study focuses on ten Magdalen laundries that operated in Ireland between 1922 and 1996. . . . As an admirably interdisciplinary work that treats the history of the laundries alongside their representation in recent culture, Smith also seeks to draw attention to a very painful aspect of contemporary Irish history. This is an important work that deserves wide reading.” — Choice

“James M. Smith’s book . . . fills a significant gap in research about the Magdalen laundries and their impact on Irish society. . . . As well as being an overview of laundries run by various religious orders, Smith’s monograph also positions the Magdalen laundries within a variety of discourses that overlap and interconnect, including religion, politics, sexuality and the arts. . . The topic of this books is fascinating, its execution is excellent, and its contribution to Ireland’s social and cultural history is essential.” — Reviews in History

“[Smith] provides readers with the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the institutions in Ireland. His scholarship aims to continue the work of others in chipping away at the national amnesia regarding the place of the Magdalens, to bring them to the centre of public discourse from the concealment of their margins. The study reaches beyond the ivory tower into the larger society, becoming not just useful for other researchers but also a rare example of academic activism at its best.” — Irish Studies Review

“[Smith] clearly describes the relationship between the laundries and the policies of Ireland after its independence in 1922, and pays special attention to the recent plays, movies, documentaries, and monuments that brought these Magdalen laundries into the public arena. This is a provocative work that will force people to come to terms with the abuses long hidden in Ireland’s past.” — Church History

Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries is a historical, political and cultural account of how asylums run for wayward girls turned into prisons in which human rights were violated and bodies and souls abused. Smith’s book is . . . passionate, insightful, factual, and unnerving. Students of Irish history, sociologists, critics of Church/State relations and perhaps the simply curious may find Ireland’s Magdelen Laundries a compelling analysis of a public scandal.” — St. Anthony Messenger

“[Smith’s] insights about Ireland’s ‘architecture of containment’ will surely prove an invaluable scholarly approach to understanding the collusive institutional forces of discipline and sexual repression. We can be equally grateful that his lucid explanation about this dynamic in post-independence Ireland is so compelling that Irish lay readers, as well as avid television and movie watchers, will be chewing over his insights for years to come.” — New Hibernia Review

“Smith wants to tell the women’s stories, and this is a much-needed contribution to Irish history. He has forced those who read the book to face up to how society supported these institutions, and how the Irish state continued to increase its reliance on them. . . . Smith succeeds in setting a context for an open discussion of the Magdalen asylums, and highlights the need for the issue to be addressed, even if the ‘official’ history cannot yet be written.” — The Journal of Irish Social and Economic History

“This book is a well-balanced and interdisciplinary exploration of historical events and creative expression, especially interesting for research into the retrieval of suppressed history and the elements that dismantle repressive social frameworks. The book is an excellent critical discussion of various forms of historical representation and creative intervention. Smith’s exploration of women’s responses to the historical elision of reality merits consideration by academics and researchers in a number of fields across the humanities and social sciences. The text would make an excellent addition to university libraries.” — Gender, Place, and Culture