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New research contradicts official State narrative on the Magdalene laundries 

Posted 24 March, 2023

New research into the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry (which operated from 1837 to 1992) has challenged several key findings of a major public inquiry into the Irish state's involvement with the Magdalene laundries.

The (opens in a new window)Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC), established after the United Nations Committee Against Torture urged Ireland to investigate abuse allegations from survivors of Magdalene laundries, published a report in 2013 detailing 'significant' state collusion with these institutions.

Among the report’s notable findings was the claim the laundries were not generally highly profitable, and that they instead operated on a ‘break-even basis’.

This has now been challenged by UCD research in a new book, (opens in a new window)‘A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland’.

(opens in a new window)Dr Mark Coen, UCD School of Law, discovered hundreds of documents relating to the operation of the Donnybrook laundry after receiving access to its former site by its new  owners.

The documents detail lucrative contracts with some of Dublin’s biggest commercial operators and its most prestigious addresses, including Áras an Uachtaráin, as well as the National Maternity Hospital, St Vincent's Hospital, and the embassies of Canada, France, Japan and Argentina.

It its 2013 report, the IDC said that the financial records for the Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry 'did not survive.'

However the documents discovered by Dr Coen included such records dating from the 1960s to the 1990s.

These records show that in 1975 the laundry recorded a 'surplus on trade' that was equivalent in today’s terms to almost €544,000 (IR£59,332). In 1984, this ‘surplus on trade’ was equivalent in today’s terms to nearly  €303,000 (IR£113,905).

Based on an analysis of the newly-discovered records, the authors behind the research conclude that the Donnybrook Magdalene 'was a profitable enterprise' generating a good financial surplus annually. It routinely transferred between a third and a half of its ‘surplus on trade’ to the Religious Sisters of Charity, the Catholic religious congregation that operated the laundry.

Among other findings from the IDC report contradicted by the unearthed documents is the claim that it was unable to verify if the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry was awarded a contract for military laundry during the Emergency. 

Dr Coen discovered such a contract in Dublin Diocesan Archives, dating from 1941. In a surprising development, the Department of Defence revoked the contract on the basis that the Religious Sisters of Charity were in violation of the fair wages clause contained in all State contracts. 

The authors note that this episode is a striking omission from the report of the IDC, and demonstrates that as early as the 1940s that the labour practices of Magdalene laundries were regarded as suspect.

The documents discovered by Dr Coen have since been transferred to the University of Galway and are currently being archived.

For most of its existence, 100 women were held at Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry. According to the Justice for Magdalenes Research group, some 315 women and girls died in the institution before its sale in 1992.

‘A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland’ is edited by Dr Mark Coen and (opens in a new window)Professor Katherine O’Donnell, UCD, and Dr Maeve O’Rourke, University of Galway (Bloomsbury, 2023).

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie