Books

Behind the gates of the Magdalen Homes
The monasteries, magdalen asylums and reformatory schools of Our Lady of Charity in Ireland 1853 – 1973 by Jacinta Prunty (Columba Press, €34.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

I found Jacinta Prunty’s  account of the institutions of the congregation of Our Lady of Charity both magisterial and immensely satisfying.  But here I must declare a personal interest. 

With other duties I served in the 1960’s as chaplain to St Mary’s Magdalen Home in Donnybrook, which was conducted by  a similar congregation, the Religious Sisters of Charity.  I witnessed at first hand the generosity of the sisters as they spent their lives helping the women and girls in their charge and noted their solicitude for each one of them. 

This history reveals something of what lies in the past that created the kindness and solicitude I witnessed.

Request

This archival based study begins with an account of the establishment of the first Our Lady of Charity Refuge in Dublin.  At the request of Fr John Smith of Ss Michael & John’s parish four sisters and a novice, from the convent of Notre Dame de Charité at Caen in Normandy, took possession of No.2 Drumcondra Road in September 1853. 

The sisters found the early years in the new foundation challenging, owing mainly to the tendency of Fr Smith to interfere in their daily routine.  However, after Dr Bartholomew Woodlock, president of nearby All Hallows College, was appointed their spiritual director and following a transfer to High Park their work in caring for women, girls and children on the margins of society began in earnest. 

The sisters at High Park were strongly influenced by the constitutions and traditions of the mother house at Caen, which had been founded by St John Eudes (canonised 1925) in 1641.  As set out by the founder, its aim was to provide a house, where women who wished to turn their lives around from crime or prostitution could feel safe and secure. 

Between 1641 and 1891, 34 other foundations were established throughout Europe, the US and Canada. Sisters from High Park established the refuge at Gloucester Street / SeánMacDermott Street in 1887 and foundations at Kilmacud and Kill of the Grange in 1944 and 1956. 

At the convent in Angers in France some changes were made to the constitutions, and thereafter it became the motherhouse of what became known as Good Shepherd convents.  Four of these were opened in Ireland as follows: Waterford (1858), New Ross (1860), Belfast (1867) and Cork (1870).

Jacinta Prunty details the developments at High Park from 1853 onwards. St Joseph’s, a reformatory school, was established in 1859.  At different times it cared for up to 80 children.  It morphed into an industrial school in 1927 and became a national school in 1941-55.  Because of endemic poverty, severe want and neglect, children found themselves in this and other industrial schools.  They simply had nowhere else to go for assistance. 

Every aspect of life in those schools is examined by the author with copious references to official reports and the conclusions of frequent inspections. Of particular interest were the development of hostels and teenage units, 1950 -72, in all three monasteries (High Park, Seán MacDermott Street and St Anne’s, Kilmacud).

Very often the Our Lady of Charity refuges are referred to as ‘Magdalen Laundries’. The author records that the sisters who ran these refuges were dismissive of the term laundries! Laundries were simply a means for generating an income and in them the sisters worked side by side with the women and girls in the refuge.

Prunty refers to the media-driven distorted and negative image of the sisters and their work among the public at large.  Typical of this distortion is Peter Mullan’s The Magdalen Sisters, where the nuns are portrayed as sadists, punishing young girls with impunity and in the name of religion. Far more than most, the sisters have been the victims of so-called ‘fake news’. 

In one of the excellent illustrations in the book there is a classic example of this. It depicts the May Procession in Seán MacDermott Street parish in 1965, in which women and girls from the refuge, clad in their Child of Mary cloaks, are walking. Also walking in this procession are members of the Gardaí. 

A number of media outlets and at least one ‘scholarly’ work claimed in recent years that the picture showed that the Gardaí were on duty to prevent the women and the girls from escaping the clutches of the nuns! Hopefully this comprehensive and meticulously researched monograph will help people realise what a debt is owed to the sisters of the institutions of Our Lady of Charity and the other sisters engaged in the refuge ministry for caring for some of the most deprived and vulnerable members of our society during the past 150 years.