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Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment
312 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 , 16 color images, 12 halftones
Paperback | 9780268041274 | September 2007
Hardcover | 9780268182175 | September 2022
eBook (Web PDF) | 9780268092689 | September 2007
eBook (EPUB) | 9780268182182 | September 2007
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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 adds a vital strand to the emerging narratives of the laundries. In addition to carefully documenting available material from State archives, Smith also explores contemporary cultural representations of the laundries, from the film, The Magdalen Sisters, to art projects, such as those by Diane Fenster and Gerard Mannix Flynn, whose Far Cry Productions has brought Smith to Limerick for a lecture on the book.” —The Irish Times
“ . . . Smith raises some important issues about the relationship between empiricism, memory, and history. The social and sexual transformation of the country within the last twenty years has ensured that the history of Irish sexuality has become a growth industry, and both Luddy’s and Smith’s meticulously researched, highly readable and elegantly produced books have been well received.” —Irish Review
“Smith’s historical research is thorough and detailed . . . an important and stimulating book, and it is in the discussion of cultural representations of Magdalen laundries that Smith is strongest. His literary and cultural studies background is evident as he discusses the range of cultural responses to the laundries, including drama, both stage and film, documentary, art work, and music.” —Cultural and Social History
“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
“[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
“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
“[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
“A study of workhouses operated by Roman Catholic nuns and housing unmarried mothers and other girls and women perceived to be a threat to the morality of Irish society; focuses on 10 in operation between 1922 and 1996.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education