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Article submitted to The Irish Times in 1998 in support of Channel 4's Documentary
Sex in a Cold Climate.

Frances Finnegan

An illustration (Fig. 9) from Do Penance or Perish. Photograph in possession of author.
An unidentified Magdalen Laundry in Ireland. The primitive equipment, the exreme youth of two of the girls and the shaven head of the older woman are precisely the conditions that the factory and workshop legislation - had it been properly extended to Magdalen Laundries - would have ended.


The following is a precise copy of an article I wrote for publication in The Irish Times fifteen years ago.   Once again the issue is topical, and once again it is in danger of a whitewash.     In  March 1998 the Channel 4 Documentary Sex in a Cold Climate was shown on television to horrified viewers - some stunned, apparently, into disbelief.   Yet the switchboards were jammed, and help-lines had to be set up to cope with the hundreds of calls received from former inmates of Irish Magdalen Asylums, many of whom now lived in England and were still suffering the effects of their incarceration.  Irish society professed itself appalled.  Nevertheless, almost immediately following the viewing, The Irish Times carried a feature more critical of the Documentary than of the Religious Orders concerned.

Since I was the historical consultant for the film (having researched the topic for two decades and met many survivors of the system) I was immediately urged by its Producer Steve Humphries to contact The Irish Times in order to reply.  I was assured by a member of its editorial staff, that provided my response was quick and under 1000 words it would be published; but though these requirements were complied with, the article never appeared.  Eventually, it was returned to me with a note from the Duty Editor stating that "due to pressure of space at the present time we would be unable to use it."1 

Hopefully, The Irish Times is now more discerning.  Its coverage of the topic (see 20 March 1998) was, as events have since proved,  unfortunate, to say the least, and not to the credit of a serious national newspaper.     



Article Written  in Response to the Irish Times Coverage
(20 March 1998) of  the Channel 4 Documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate.

"It would be comforting to believe that nothing could have prepared an unsuspecting Irish public for the shocking revelations exposed in the Documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, shown on Channel 4 almost two weeks ago.  However, this can hardly have been the case.  Documentaries such as Dear Daughter, together with the growing number of recently published autobiographical accounts of brutality and neglect in Irish Industrial Schools must have softened this latest blow.  Equally important, there can be few people over the age of 40 in this country who were wholly unaware of the existence and purpose of those vast institutions which, until the nineteen-nineties, housed the remnants of Ireland's "Magdalen" class.

The original purpose of these Female Penitentiaries dating from the early nineteenth century, was the reform and restoration to society of penitent prostitutes and other "fallen" women.  During the 1840s and 50s, however, nuns like the Good Shepherd Sisters from France took over the institutions, and Irish "Rescue Work" underwent a change.  Short-term refuges became long-term Magdalen Asylums, whose inmates were discouraged from leaving and were frequently detained for life.  Vast numbers of women were kept at work in laundries attached to the institutions, and subjected to penance, harsh discipline, silence and prayer.  Completely cut off from the world and assigned new names, an alarming anonymity prevailed; and as prostitute numbers dwindled, other "fallen" women were targeted, including unmarried mothers, wayward girls and victims of incest or rape.

As "voluntary" institutions (without state support) Magdalen Asylums were completely unregulated for much of their existence.  Attempts to bring Convent laundries within the protection of Factory and Workshop legislation were for many years successfully resisted, and their workers continued as virtual slaves.  Untouched by Trade Unionism, the Female Liberation Movement, reformist legislation and a change in our attitude to sex, many of the inmates remained in the institutions until well after domestic washing machines brought the system to an end.

In December 1978 I was first given access to the Good Shepherd records, including the Penitents' Registers of their Magdalen Asylums in Limerick, Waterford, New Ross and Cork.  Although, of course, no instances of brutality or abuse (such as those recounted in the Channel 4 Documentary) emerged, it was immediately apparent that the system itself was appalling; and the fact that it continued, apparently un-regarded, into the late twentieth century, was a matter of further concern.

Also disturbing were recent indications that a concerted attempt was being made to whitewash or deny the whole shameful episode.  Magdalen Asylums (until last week) were increasingly referred to, even in print, and by those who ran them, as orphanages, or shelters for homeless women.  The fact that they were initially set up for prostitutes, and infinitely more horrific than the hated workhouse, was indignantly denied.  Sex in a Cold Climate has ensured that the subject cannot now be quietly buried - unlike the hundreds of women who died in the institutions, and were placed in communal Penitent graves.

The Magdalen Movement, though ignoring men's contribution to "sin", cannot be attributed to the Victorian double standard in sexual morality, since most of its victims were casualties, not of the nineteenth century but the post-Victorian age.  It seems more likely to have resulted from a continuing fear of female sexuality.  But whatever its cause, it was an appalling injustice towards women, and particularly those of the poor.

To "move on"2 from what has yet to be properly revealed, under the pretext that history cannot be judged by the standards of today - would be a more shocking injustice than the episode itself.  Perhaps this aspect of our heritage, as much as the Civil War, the Famine or the '98 Rebellion might profitably in the future be taught in our schools.

The Documentary has been criticised for being unbalanced and ignoring the nuns' side of the story - an extraordinary reaction to such a harrowing film.  However, having worked with a huge variety of sources on the subject over a very long period, I can confirm that for more than a century, the women who ran these grim institutions have been given a very good press.  A glance at any local newspaper item on the institutions, or any publication devoted to the Homes (or appealing for funds) will reveal that until fairly recently the nuns were regarded almost as saints - in contrast to the "evil sinners" they controlled.  The purpose of the film, of course, was to capture the experience of the victims of the system - those people who have always been voiceless in the past.  To the credit of the Documentary makers, the women found the courage to tell their stories, which were handled with such sensitivity and care.

The fact that certain nuns are still involving themselves in the area of prostitution,3 far from indicating change, confirms that a Community like the Good Shepherd sisters - founded for the sole purpose of "reforming" "fallen" women - has not yet relinquished this role.  Let it do so now, since it is as inappropriate as it is distasteful, that an Order of celibate custodians, so long preoccupied with penance and sin, should still be concerning itself with the sexuality of others.  The State has been charged with indifference and inactivity in the past - a naïve interpretation of the history of Magdalenism in this country, but one not wholly without foundation.  Let it act now, to ensure that a proper Enquiry into allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in the institutions (to say nothing of illegal detention) takes place immediately, so that wrong-doers are punished and restitution to those who have suffered, is made.

Dr. Frances Finnegan was Historical Consultant for the Channel 4 Documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, and is Lecturer in Social History at the Waterford Institute of Technology.  Her first book on this topic, Poverty and Prostitution: A Study of Victorian Prostitutes in York was published by Cambridge University Press in 1979.  Her forthcoming book Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland comes out later this year."

22 March 1998.

1 Letter from Irish Times (Editor's Office)  To Dr. Frances Finnegan, 31 March 1998. 

2 Advice contained in the article referred to above, and typical of  those anxious to suppress 
      unpalatable aspects of history - especially if recent.

3 The newspaper article's attempted justification for their work.



Undisputed now - subsequent revelations having proved its authenticity - the above article was turned down in 1998.  And though virtually completed in March, my book did not, in fact, come out later that year.   Pressures to suppress the work delayed its publication until 2001 when, in spite of continuing opposition, I brought out the first edition of Do Penance or Perish myself.  Three years' later Oxford University Press took over the book - which it continues to publish.  I retired from WIT in 2007, and in 2011 gave evidence to the recently released Enquiry on the extent of State Involvement in Magdalen Institutions.

Though curiously understated, the revelations contained in the Report have once again "shocked" an outraged Irish public; and blame for the distasteful episode has now, apparently, been transferred to the State.  More of a cover-up?  The unsavoury truth is that throughout these institutions' history, most people knew of their purpose and had a good idea of what went on inside.  And everyone who countenanced the system (including all those who did not actively oppose it - and I know of few who did ) must share responsibility.  Obviously, without Orders of Female Custodians who were preoccupied with sexual "sin" and in latter years, were made use of by the State - these harsh penitentiaries could not have existed as long as they did.  But society too, must share responsibility, having for over a century tolerated and benefited from the system - whether by ridding itself of unwanted women, availing of the laundries or employing former inmates as cheap domestic drudges. These Magdalen Laundries (together with the adjoining penitentiaries confining  the unpaid workers) eventually closed not for humane, liberal or progressive reasons, but because, with the advent of the domestic washing machine, they became no longer financially viable.  Doubtless, if we still needed vulnerable women to wash our dirty linen, they would still be incarcerated, still be subjected to that warped existence and still be stripped of their sexuality and a normal, healthy life. 

Society should gladly pay to put things right since the Religious Orders, given free reign by an uncaring nation to inflict their rule on women (but never men) perceived as sexually unsound, now plead poverty!  But financial reparation, though essential, is not enough.  Let Society, by no means blameless, stop being "shocked" and admit its share of responsibility.  Let there be a full apology to all former "residents" of Magdalen Asylums, including those who, until recently, were buried unrecorded, in unmarked penitents' graves.  And let the apology be given on behalf of the Irish nation.  To jump at the chance this Enquiry offers, of minimising the role of the religious and blaming the State is yet another example of the continued hypocrisy surrounding this shameful episode in Ireland's recent past. 

Dr. Frances Finnegan.
February 2013.


Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland  is available in hardback from and in paperback from Oxford University Press -