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The Magdalen Asylums: Penitence and Social Order

Week 9.


Historical material

'Rules and regulations for the Sisters of Mercy' (1861)

‘The Magdalens of High Park’, The Irish Rosary, 1 (1897)

Extract from register of Sisters of Charity Magdalen Asylum, Dublin

Halliday Sutherland, Irish Journey (New York, 1958), ch. 7


What do the 'Rules and Regulations' tell us about how Magdalen Asylums were to be managed?

How do perceptions of the Magdalen Asylum change over the period?

What can we know about the inmates of these institutions?

Why are there such differing interpretations of the history of Magdalen Asylums?

Secondary Reading

Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chapter 3.

James Smith, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (Manchester: Manchester university Press, 2008).


Film and Plays

Patricia Burke Brogan, Eclipsed (1993)


James M. 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). If true, what implications might this have?

Think about how the play, like other works on the course, illustrates the permeability of past and present.

“Sister Virginia: …The women are drudges, are bond-women!” (46): think about the presentation of work in the play. What relationship do the women have to their work?

“Brigit: …Why aren’t our lover-boys locked up too? One law for them and another for us!” (60): this argument is echoed in recent historical readings of the legislation in force when the play is set. Explore this theme of gender inequality in your reading of the literary and historical works.


Week 10

The Magdalene Sisters (film), dir. Peter Mullan

Les Blanchisseuses de Magdalen (film), dir. Weber & Glimois


Les Blanchisseuses

Sister Lucy Bruton: “I don’t think we drove anyone to madness ...we institutionalized them”(Blanchisseuses). Think about this in relation to this film, and previous discussions on this subject.

The Magdalene Sisters

Think about the convent-as-prison convention in the Gothic genre (see Cullingford) – how is this invoked in Mullan’s film?

Secondary Reading


**Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, ‘Our Nuns are not a nation: politicizing the convent in Irish literature and film’, Éire-Ireland 41.1 (2006) 9-39 [available via Muse]

James M. Smith, ‘The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland's Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931)’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 13: 2, April 2004, 208-233 [available via JSTOR; linked from]