Memorialising the Magdalene Laundries

From Story to History

by Nathalie Sebbane (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVI, 318 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 101


Since the publication of James Smith’s groundbreaking book on the Magdalene laundries in 2007, many developments have made the issue even more topical. Even though the lack of access to archives and records of religious orders remains a major obstacle to writing a comprehensive history of the Magdalene laundries, the accessibility of witness testimony and the publication of the McAleese report in 2013 have opened up new avenues of research and methodology.
Written from the perspective of a French academic using French theory, holocaust studies and memory studies to analyze an eminently Irish question, the present publication proposes to make an assessment of the way the issue has evolved from being a media story at the onset of the twenty-first century to becoming a subject worthy of historians’ attention. If the McAleese report was a formative moment in anchoring the Magdalene laundries into the national narrative, this book will show how it also contributed to dis-remembering the laundries by offering a doctored and state-sponsored version of what really happened within the institutions and contributed to preventing proper memorialization. It will show how in the absence of official memorialization, cultural and activist memorial practices have emerged and developed to ensure that this particularly painful and infamous episode in the history of the nation state does not fall into oblivion.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Front Matter 1
  • Contents
  • Spelling of key terms
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of abbreviations and acronyms
  • Introduction
  • PART I Excavating, uncovering and exposing
  • How the media made the story
  • Popular
  • Emerging memory
  • PART II Recovering memory
  • Witnessing and testifying: The role of advocacy support groups
  • The political response
  • PART III Memorialising and commemorating the laundries
  • Lest we forget
  • Shared remembrance and contested memories
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Spelling of key terms

I have chosen to use the spelling Magdalene Laundries when referring to the institutions where Irish women were sent for various reasons but, when quoting other sources, the spelling they employed will be respected.

Some hyperlinks are not active anymore, notably for the Justice for Magdalenes website, because they discontinued it when they set up a new one, Justice for Magdalenes (Research).


I wish to express my gratitude, first and foremost, to Professor Catherine Maignant for her unfailing support over the many years of writing this book. She was always a very reassuring and encouraging presence. The critical advice she provided, along with the detailed and thorough reading of the manuscript, were precious.

Without the late Professor Paul Brennan, I would not have been introduced to the field of Irish Studies. He was a great teacher, a wonderful human being and such an inspiration.

Thank you to my family for always believing in me and enduring my mood swings and impatience.

My thanks also go to Anthony Mason at Peter Lang for his patience and encouragements, and to Eamon Maher for agreeing to publish this book in the Reimagining Ireland series.

I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to the GIS EIRE and to the CREW Research Center at the Sorbonne Nouvelle for their financial contribution to the publication of this book.

I also feel particularly indebted to the many survivors of institutional abuse, who have been relentlessly fighting for their dignity to be restored. I wish to thank Mannix Flynn for his words of wisdom when I felt a little despondent, and Claire McGettrick and Mary Steed of Justice for Magdalenes Research for answering my many questions. Claire was kind enough to meet me in Dublin and take me for a tour of Glasvenin cemetery.

I hope this book will provide some way towards giving them the place they deserve in Irish history.

←xvi | 1→


A couple of years ago, I was invited on to a French radio programme called Affaires Sensibles.1 Each episode of this show is divided into two parts, one being a dramatised version of a high-profile trial or political scandal or social issue, told by actor/presenter Fabrice Drouelle, and the other a debate with a guest-expert on the question. I got a phone call from the production asking me if I would agree to come and discuss the Magdalene Laundries.2 I was both surprised and delighted to realise that the ‘story’ had sparked the interest of a mainstream French national media outlet. The production had done the research and the dramatisation worked wonders. Naturally, Peter Mullan’s film was of paramount importance in terms of references. The reception of the episode was quite unexpected, with many Facebook and Twitter messages from people wanting to know more and asking where they could find more information. People’s reactions can be summed up as mixture of curiosity, shock and empathy. Some said that similar institutions existed in France, too.3 A year later, I was invited to a repeat broadcast, this time in the context of the repeal of the 8th amendment. Ireland’s secularisation process was becoming topical. In the French collective memory, Ireland was – and still is – to some extent ‘the most Catholic country in Europe’, if not in the world. It is a recurrent statement that French journalists use to trigger debates and analyses of Irish issues. This needs to be constantly corrected and contextualised, but ←1 | 2→it nevertheless testifies to the enduring image that Ireland has given to the world. From the French perspective of the ‘laïcité’4 concept, there is something terribly anachronistic in the long-lasting power and influence of the Catholic Church right up until the first decades of the twenty-first century, a relic from what would appear to be the distant past, that sets Ireland apart. However, even if it was precisely that obsequious attitude to the Church that allowed institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries to be set up and operate for so long, it is no longer the case.

My interest in the Magdalene Laundries dates back to the early 2000s. I literally ‘stumbled’ upon the issue in 1998, while watching a French documentary Les Blanchisseuses de Magdalen.5 I had been working on the tenuous and intricate links between Church and State in Ireland, as well as on women’s history and gender questions since my master’s degree. At the time, I was debating on whether or not I should do a PhD but was at a loss for a topic. Towards the end of the French documentary, the voice-over invites future researchers to further investigate the issue and write about it. There was the ‘call’ I had been waiting for. However, my initial desire to write my PhD on the Magdalene Laundries was met with the major obstacle of access to primary material. Even though back in the 1980s and early 1990s some historians had been able to access the archives of the religious orders who ran the laundries, the recent revelations of Church misconduct, paedophile priests and institutional abuse had caused the orders to become protective; and my several attempts at accessing the archives and records were fruitless. I therefore chose to study the status of the unmarried mothers in Ireland from 1848 to 1937, which allowed me to gain a comprehensive historical background on the position of women in nineteenth-century Ireland and investigate the fate of single mothers. I discovered the existence of institutions similar to the Magdalene Laundries in thirteenth-century Italy and was able to trace their evolution to nineteenth-century Britain ←2 | 3→and Ireland.6 To my surprise, I discovered that the story of the Magdalene Laundries was unfortunately not a new one. It is a story that triggers and reactivates collective memories of forced incarceration, of invisibilisation and silencing of vulnerable groups, of patriarchy, and of trauma and survival. It is not an Irish story, but a story of abuse of power, of the intricate collusion between politics and religion, of male domination, of complicity and of cover-up. It is a story of the double standards of sexuality and gender discrimination. But it is also a story of empowerment through the telling of stories. It is a story of women refusing to carry the shame of their past any longer and of adopted children looking for their birth mothers.

There are fewer and fewer survivors of the Magdalene Laundries today. Most of them are old and many have died. There is therefore a sense of urgency to tell their story and to expose the failure of a whole society to protect and vindicate them. But there is also an urgency to ensure that their stories do not meet the same fate they did, one of silence and invisibility. In a context where Ireland is rewriting its national narrative and is finding a place amongst the richest nations of the world, it is more than ever essential to make sure that the story is not, once again, silenced and forsaken.

If the year 2016 in Ireland marked the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and was the highlight of the Decade of Centenaries project, the date also coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland. That anniversary was celebrated on a much smaller scale, and only within restricted circles of former residents, victim support groups, academics and artists. There were, however, obvious correlations between the two events. If the principles enounced in the 1916 Proclamation and the 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State granted Irish citizens equality, unity and inclusion ‘without distinction of sex’7, for the many women who spent years or even decades within the walls of Ireland’s ←3 | 4→Magdalene Laundries, equality and inclusion were unkept promises. It is estimated that 10,000 women entered the Magdalene Laundries from the foundation of the State in 1922 until the closure of the last laundry in 1996. They literally ‘disappeared’ from Irish society, condemned to a life of servitude and penance, very often victims of psychological and sometimes of physical abuse. Their existence was hidden, their voices silenced, they were dispossessed of their freedom and their names were changed. They were excluded from Irish citizenship.

Even though these institutions were in no way an Irish invention, nor a twentieth-century experiment, the process of institutionalisation of vulnerable groups in the Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes and Industrial Schools, became a full part of the moral and sexual politics of the Free State – and later the Irish Republic – described by James Smith as ‘Ireland’s architecture of containment’.8 If the system operated successfully for nearly eight decades after the foundation of the Free State, the veil of secrecy was eventually lifted in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, the Magdalene Laundries had become a ‘story’. Journalists started to scrutinise the operations of the institutions, and producers and documentary-makers interviewed former residents. A truth-seeking process was thus initiated, which led to a form of popularisation of the laundries. There was an urgency to hear, to speak, to show, to understand, to ask questions and demand answers. A transition was then operated from ‘story’ to ‘stories’, in the forms of told experiences and testimonies. The storytelling process was made possible by the changing nature of Irish society and the secularisation process initiated in the years of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland began to relinquish its submission to the authority of the Catholic Church to espouse a more liberal and secular social model. It both encouraged and urged former residents to remember, to share their experiences, to transition from shame and guilt to naming and denouncing.

The journey through memory was very often a complicated and painful one. It was nonetheless the first step towards a healing process and an ←4 | 5→official acknowledgement. Indeed, as former residents became the object of increasing attention from the media, and consequently, the focus of mounting interest of the general public, their stories did not seem to generate much reaction from the political elite or human rights groups. It would take the relentless work of an advocacy support group, Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), to take it upon itself to represent the interests of the former residents and their relatives, and to seek redress and justice for the women through political activism. The group left the political arena in 2013, having succeeded in obtaining an official apology form the Irish State and the establishment of a compensation scheme for all former residents. In August 2016, under a new denomination – Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) – the group announced that it would donate its archive to the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), which would digitalise them and make them available to the general public. For Dr Jennifer Yeager, who is in charge of supervising the project, ‘analyses of the laundries are constrained by the lack of access to the records of the religious orders, resulting in an absence of intervention, as well as a failure to remember officially. Official documentation is essential in order to encourage public engagement with Magdalene history’.9 The availability of recorded testimonies made it possible to operate a second transition and to envisage the stories told as an object worthy of historians’ attention.

However, the fragmented nature of the narratives of the laundries emanating from the multiple storytellers, voices, stories, memories and representations that have since emerged make it all the more difficult to build a coherent and consistent narrative. From a chronological point of view, we can distinguish two main moments in the telling of the story: before and after the McAleese Report. The publication of the latter was a key moment in building a state-sponsored memory of the laundries. It was the first and last attempt at providing an official response and one that ended up leaving unanswered questions by favouring avoidance and a lack of accountability. It did not provide the expected forum of memorialisation and ←5 | 6→commemoration, but on the contrary it revealed that what was at work was a process of un-remembrance. The version of the narrative of the laundries that emerged from the report could not possibly result in identifying perpetrators and performing transitional justice. It merely acknowledged limited responsibility in committing women and girls to the laundries. The official message was clear: the investigation had been carried out, a report had been published and it was now time for Ireland to move on beyond the dark recesses of its past. Yet, for the survivors, the past was very much their present. The recommendations that followed the report in terms of providing a redress scheme and spaces of memorialisation were tentatively implemented. They felt that their painful journey through memory had been dismissed, disparaged and denigrated. There was a serious risk that their stories would not find their way into the national narrative of Irish history.

It is precisely this journey and process from the emergence of the story to the telling of stories into Irish history that has guided my reflection and analysis. I wanted to interrogate the context, mechanisms and agents that have underpinned the narrative of the laundries and question not only the past and the present of the Magdalene Laundries but also, and perhaps more importantly at this stage, their future as a moment in history. What place do the Magdalene Laundries occupy in contemporary Ireland? Have they become part of the collective memory of the nation? Can they be remembered as a set of different individual memories or as the collective memory of different groups sharing similar experiences? Can the existing mechanisms of memorialisation and commemoration guarantee that the fragmented nature of the multilayered narrative will not damage the historical memory of the institutions? Have they become an Irish lieu de mémoire that will find its way onto schools’ curriculums? Is there a case for forgetting? Why do survivors feel exiled from their nation? Who owns the memory of the laundries? Who has agency in the memorialisation process?

These are some of the questions that I have tried to address in this book, that should be viewed both as complementing previous research carried out on the topic while also offering new insights into the complexity of building a coherent and consistent narrative and emphasising the limits of a possible memorialisation and historicisation of the Magdalene Laundries.

←6 |

Much of the research carried out on the Magdalene Laundries so far has fallen into specific categories, such as gender issues and gender violence, residential abuse and transitional justice, and more recently, the field of memory studies, which has contributed to shedding new light on the experiences of survivors. Frances Finnegan’s Do Penance or Perish10 and Maria Luddy’s Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Ireland11 were the first two publications on the topic and have analysed the evolution of the Magdalen asylums in the 18th and nineteenth century from philanthropic enterprises to religious institutions. James Smith’s ground-breaking Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and the Nations Architecture of Containment published in 2007 remains, to this day, the reference text in terms of contemporary analysis of the Magdalene Laundries. Yet, as Smith himself explains in the preface, ‘This book is not the history of the Magdalen laundries in twentieth-century Ireland. Indeed, no such history can exist until the religious congregations affords scholars access to their archival records – “penitent” registers and convent annals – of women entering the asylums after 1900’.12 His contention that ‘in the public mind the laundries existed at the level of story rather than history’13 was the most insightful assessment of the limited possibilities afforded to researchers in that field. His study proposed ‘to evaluate critically the entire range of contemporary cultural representations emerging since the early 1990s, including available archival records, legislative documents, and survivor testimony, as well as an assortment of dramas, documentaries, art exhibitions, films, poetry and other cultural reenactments’.14 In reality, Smith’s book does much more. It is a comprehensive review of all available existing material on the Magdalene Laundries. It provides a political and historical review of the institutions in its first part; and in the second part, it shows how the telling of stories made possible the emergence of the Magdalene while they had been invisibilised ←7 | 8→for so long. It also provides a critical analysis of Peter Mullan’s film, which contributed to giving the Magdalene Laundries international visibility. In the conclusion, Smith addresses the extent to which the existence of these cultural representations combined with the relentless work of advocacy groups – especially JFM, of which he is a member – have emphasised the need for a political response and public apologies. They will come seven years later as we will show in our book. Rebecca Lee McCarthy published Origins of the Magdalene Laundries, An Analytical history15, in which she proposes to look at the emergence of the concept of the Magdalene institutions and their evolution in England and Ireland. It provides a contextual historical background by shedding light on issues of prostitution, reforms and convents. Jacinta Prunty, of the History Department in Maynooth University and a Holy Faith sister, has published a comprehensive research16 on the order of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland, in which she debunks what she believes to be myths about the laundries. I had the opportunity of meeting the author while she was starting her research a long time ago, and I already had a feeling that she wanted to offer a different perspective on the religious running of the institutions. Undoubtedly, her position as a religious sister herself played a major role in her analysis. However, she was given access to previously unavailable sources. She is aware of the negative publicity surrounding the exposure of the Magdalene Laundries and offers what she believes to be a fairer interpretation of the order’s treatment of the women, emphasising the modernisation of the convents in the middle of the twentieth century and the dimension of care and education provided by the Sisters. However, testimonies from survivors of the two Magdalene Laundries ran by the Sisters of Charity in Dublin, namely High Park and Sean McDermott Street, tend to contradict her review and assessment as we shall see in the course of our analysis. The book nevertheless affords a new critical reading of the multilayered narrative of the laundries and testifies to the problematic task faced by any researcher attempting to produce a ←8 | 9→comprehensive study of these institutions in the highly contested context of Church-State relations in Ireland.

An increasing number of researchers and academics are publishing articles and book chapters looking at different angles and perspectives, namely gender oppression, sexuality and the shaming and silencing of vulnerable groups in post-independence Irish society and more recently, transitional justice and memory studies. Emilie Pine’s transdisciplinary approach to the ways contemporary Ireland remembers and represents its past in The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture17 specifically tackles the representation of institutional abuse in Ireland and makes the case for the role of the media as essential instruments in exposing Ireland’s past abuses. She also emphasises the part played by culture as a memorial mode. Laura McAtackney’s archaeological approach to the laundries is particularly interesting and thought-provoking.18 She has carried out extensive research on material memory and looks at the way artefacts and objects can provide new insights into daily life within the institutions and how they contribute to advance the process of transitional justice. Her most recent research features in the proceedings of the transitional justice conference in Boston College in November 2018 by JFMR, published in a special issue of Eire-Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies in August 2020.19 This volume advocates the use of transitional justice tools and perspective to address issues in violations of human rights in order to propose proper redress and access to records to survivors. The conference participants contend that to this day, the lack of proper investigations and the limited state responses do not provide sufficient guarantees of non-recurrence:

←9 | 10→

The essays in this collection originated in the conference Towards Transitional Justice: Recognition, Truth-Telling, and Institutional Abuse in Ireland, held at Boston College in early November 2018.3 Over two days scholars, policy-makers, abuse survivors, people affected by adoption, artists, and advocates came together to consider the nature of both the republic’s and Northern Ireland’s responses to Magdalen laundries, county homes, mother-and-baby homes, child residential institutions, child foster care, and the closed, secret, and coercive adoption system. What was clear at the conference, and what is evident from the contributions to this special issue, is that state-led efforts to address this legacy of abuse have been inadequate, and as a result the harms experienced are not ‘historical’ but continuing.20

This most recent publication illustrates both the growing interest in the topic of the Magdalene Laundries and the need to investigate unexplored angles and research directions.

The aim of this publication, therefore, is not to write another story of the Magdalene Laundries or to propose an examination of new sources but rather to attempt to inscribe the issue into a more global, transnational context, experimenting analogies and theoretical correlations with Holocaust studies, inquiries into child abuse carried out in other countries and memory studies, to try and highlight the processes at work in survivor testimony and memorial practices. One of the many questions that I was forced to address when writing this book was that of my place, role and legitimacy as a French researcher working in the field of Irish Studies. The obvious answer was distance. The topic being so sensitive and having directly or indirectly affected so many people in Ireland, the emphatic dimension of the researcher needs to be taken into account. There is no possible way of not being affected by or not feeling empathy with the fate of so many girls, women and the children they may have had. Being Irish or non-Irish does not make any difference. Nor is there anything wrong with feeling empathy with the object of research. What makes a difference though is the cultural background and references, and particularly the secular nature of contemporary French society. Being raised in a country where church and state were officially separated since 1905 will definitely inform our reading of the evolution of Irish society in a specific manner. Another difference is our exposure to contemporary world history, notably of holocaust education. ←10 | 11→Pupils have been taught in the history of the holocaust for many decades in French schools whereas in Ireland, according to Lynn Jackson, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland, it came relatively recently: ‘When I was growing up, we hardly studied it at all in school … I think there was an unspoken wish not to deal with it in schools. It was not covered properly, because it was not really the proudest moment in Irish history. Ireland only allowed in very few Jewish refugees during that period’.21 On the contrary, France had its shameful period of collaboration with the Nazi regime and participated in the deportations of men, women and children to concentration camps. Shame and guilt are therefore part of the collective memory of the French nation when it comes to the Shoah, and it has undeniably informed my reading of the memorial processes of the Magdalene Laundries. The general field of history and more specifically the field of memory studies in France owe a great debt to holocaust studies carried out by French, German, American and Israeli historians.

Yet, the field of Irish-Jewish studies is currently developing, emphasising the existing historical points of convergence between Irish history and Jewish history, particularly on issues of lack of sovereignty, racial discrimination and loss of identity.22 A course on Irish and Jewish identities is even taught in the history department of Trinity College. Yet, so far, there has been no attempt to use Holocaust studies as a theoretical background to examine issues of survivors’ testimonies and memorialisation in the context of institutional abuse in Ireland. However, my interrogations into the mechanisms of memory, survivor testimony and trauma-related experiences always took me back to the major experts in the field of Holocaust and Shoah studies. From critical analyses of films such Nacht und Nebel, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Steven Spielberg Schindler’s List, I was able ←11 | 12→to understand issues related to historical truth and the power of dramatisation in the documentaries and fictionalised narratives that, for a long time, filled in the blanks left by historical research on the Magdalene Laundries, particularly while analysing Peter Mullan’s film. Hanna Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann’s trial23 and the concept of the ‘banality of evil’ proved extremely helpful when it came to apprehending the demonising process of the nuns and religious orders that, for a long time, dominated the perceptions and representations of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, and in the world in general. As I examined the emergence of stories and the storytelling process, which was, so to speak, the second phase of the building of a narrative of the laundries, the contribution of prominent Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who dedicated his whole life to testifying and keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust, was essential and formative in analysing the legacy of Magdalene Laundries’ survivor testimony. Wiesel did not consider that he was allowed to tell the stories of the survivors but that he had the duty to speak on their behalf, so as to make sure they would not be forgotten. The way he conceived of the duty to remember was that survivors had ‘no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time’.24 This is precisely what has guided my work in this book. I wanted to demonstrate how the testimonies that were collected, digitised and archived by advocacy support groups and academics were both instrumental in representing the conditions of life and the abuse inflicted within the laundries but also how they could become historical documents that would be passed on from generation to generation. Shoah historian Shoshana Felman, psychoanalyst Dori Laub25 and historian Annette Wieviorka26 have also laid the foundations for a critical analysis of the testimony as historical document. Their ←12 | 13→publications complement the works of French critic Jean Norton Cru27 and Renaud Dulong28, whose witness typology sheds a very interesting light on the function of the historical witness.

Beyond the field of holocaust studies, my research is largely informed by the evolution of historiography on collective memory, from Maurice Halbwachs29 to Paul Connerton30 as well as French historians Paul Ricoeur31 and Pierre Nora32, who both comprehensively analysed the intricate link and relation between history and memory. Nora’s concept of lieu de mémoire (sites of memory) was essential in my examination of commemorative practices and in determining the historical significance of the Magdalene Laundries. However, no proper reflection on memory and remembrance can be fully accomplished without questioning the value and relevance of forgetting, as David Rieff33 and Tzvetan Todorov34 have evidenced. The recent research carried out by French sociologists Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc35 in the context of the Paris terrorist attacks shed new light on public commemorative practices and offer comparative tools to analyse the politics of remembrance in Ireland. Guy Beiner’s work on commemorations36, wilful forgetting and dis-remembrance in Irish history was ←13 | 14→also a founding reference in understanding the process behind the political responses to the exposure of the Magdalen story.

The first part of this book will thus focus on showing how and why the Magdalene Laundries were excavated from the recesses of the past and of the collective memory of Irish society and exposed by the media to become a national story. In the late 1990s, as the context became propitious to revelations of abuse and mistreatments within the Catholic Church, investigative journalists and documentary-makers uncovered the secrets that had been hidden behind the closed doors of the institutions. The lack of historical research and access to convent archives and records, however, left many blanks in the story which were soon filled by cultural representations in the form of films, exhibitions, installations, books and music. They created transitional narratives of the laundries and contributed to the increasing popularisation and visibility of the story. On the one hand, it created a gap between historical accuracy and fiction in artistic representations perpetuated misconceptions and myths, but on the other hand, it encouraged survivors to come out of their long silence and testify to their experiences. It was time for stories to emerge.

The second part will therefore analyse the transition from national story to individual stories and the building of a collective memory, which, as Maurice Halbwachs explained, allowed for individual memory to be expressed. It will show that the storytelling process was made possible thanks to the involvement of individuals whose lives had been affected by institutionalisation and who organised in advocacy groups to collect and protect survivors’ stories. They provided the first step towards the memorialisation and historicisation of the Magdalene Laundries. They also prompted an official state response by campaigning for a redress scheme and an official apology. We will show that the long-overdue political response was far from satisfactory. By focusing on state involvement in committing women to Magdalene Laundries and prioritising data collection to the detriment of witness testimonies, the McAleese committee strategically avoided to address the issue of abuse and violation of human rights and did not respond to the survivors’ demands and expectations. By scrutinising the sources and methods used by the committee, we will show that it provided one truth among others, a comfortable reconstruction of the past and a ←14 | 15→state-sponsored narrative of the laundries. An examination of the reception of the subsequent report highlights the controversial issue surrounding the committee’s access to archives and records of the religious orders and their subsequent restitution.

The last section will assess the existing memorial practices that have been devised to prevent the story and the stories from falling into oblivion. It will reveal that despite the efforts made to ethically commemorate in Ireland today, the Magdalene Laundries have not been given a proper cultural and political space of remembrance. Once again, it falls to artists and activists to be the guardians of stories while official remembrance and commemorations should be embraced by educating the younger generations to that terrible but nonetheless inescapable episode of their history.

←15 |

1 It would translate as Sensitive Issues.


XVI, 318
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVI, 318 pp.

Biographical notes

Nathalie Sebbane (Author)

Nathalie Sebbane is a senior lecturer in British and Irish Studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She specializes in Irish social history, examining in particular women’s history, the links between Church and State, sexual politics, institutional abuse - particularly the Magdalene laundries and memory studies. She has published articles in peer-reviewed journals on The Magdalene laundries, feminist issues, abortion, child abuse, unmarried mothers, illegitimacy and the Great Famine.


Title: Memorialising the Magdalene Laundries