Correcting state narratives on the Magdalene Laundries

  • 24 January 2024
  • Dr Mark Coen, Professor Katherine O'Donnell
  • Academic, Cultural, Political, Social


The research team worked closely with survivors of Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry to explore its operation and legacy. Since the team was denied access to the institutional archives held by the religious congregation that managed the institution, the insights of survivors were critical for informing the research. The team took a radically interdisciplinary approach to gathering information about Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry, using a very wide variety of sources, many of which had not been used for this purpose before.

Contrary to state narratives, they found that financial records survived and that the laundry was in fact profitable. As part of the project, artefacts, correspondence and financial records from the site have been transferred to the National Museum of Ireland, so that they can be housed in the planned new museum at Sean McDermott Street. The research team is now advocating for new legislation to ensure institutional archives are preserved.

Research description

An estimated 30,000 women were confined in Magdalene Laundries during the two centuries in which they operated. However, the abuse and neglect endured by these women only began to come to light at the end of the 20th century. One such institution,  Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry (DML), opened in 1837 and closed in 1992. Dr Claire McGettrick of Justice for Magdalenes Research, a collaborator on this project, has so far recorded the names of 315 women and girls who died there.

In 2013, the government published a report which outlined significant state collusion with the Magdalene Laundries. The report claimed that the laundries generally operated on a break-even basis without turning a profit, and that financial records for DML did not survive.

An interdisciplinary research team led by Dr Coen and Professor O’Donnell, along with Dr Maeve O'Rourke of University of Galway, has examined this institution in greater detail, asking two key research questions:

  1. What can be learned about the Magdalene Laundry system as a whole by examining the operation, development and legacy of one individual institution within that system?
  2. To what extent can the story of a particular Magdalene Laundry be told without access to the institutional archives held by the religious congregation that managed it?

Inspiration for the research came when Dr Coen watched a YouTube video (an image from which is used below) showing how well the institution and its artifacts were preserved.

From the outset, the team worked closely with survivors of DML to address these questions. Since 2011, Professor O’Donnell has led the collection of a substantial range of oral histories, which provided prompts as to what avenues the researchers might explore, and how they might interpret their findings. The team also arranged site visits with survivors, where their insights guided the researchers who were studying the architecture and archaeology of the laundry, and piecing together a history of the institution from a diverse range of documentary sources.

Insights from survivors of DML were doubly important here, since the Religious Sisters of Charity, who owned and managed the laundry, refused to give the research team access to their archives. This prompted the team to explore every conceivable option to obtain information about the institution (see Impact section below for more detail).

The researchers found that DML, and other institutions like it, were highly visible until 1970, mentioned in newspapers and in sermons broadcast on national radio. They also found that as early as 1902 a commentator wrote in a well-known book (Priests and People in Ireland) that DML was a prison-like institution where labour exploitation took place, and that in the 1940s the Department of Defence cancelled a contract for military laundry with DML because the nuns were not paying wages. These findings demonstrate that the labour practices of the laundries were regarded as suspect, at least in some quarters, far earlier than previously thought.

Contrary to state narratives, the team found that financial records did in fact survive, and that DML was a profitable enterprise, recording healthy annual financial surpluses.

Research team

  • Dr Mark Coen and Professor Katherine O’Donnell, lead PIs
  • Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Irish Centre for Human Rights, University of Galway
  • Dr Barry Houlihan, Archivist, University of Galway
  • Brenda Malone, Curator, National Museum of Ireland
  • Professor Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Trinity College Dublin, Historian
  • Chris Hamill, Queen’s University Belfast, Architect
  • Professor Máiréad Enright (University of Birmingham) and Dr Lynsey Black (Maynooth University), Legal Scholars
  • Dr Brid Murphy (Dublin City University) and Professor Martin Quinn (Queen’s University Belfast), Accountants
  • Professor Laura McAtackney, University College Cork, Contemporary Archaeologist
  • Dr Claire McGettrick, Sociologist

Consultant survivors

  • Elizabeth Coppin
  • Martina Keogh
  • Mary Merritt
  • Ellen Murphy
  • Kathleen King
  • Nuala Lyons
  • Nancy Shannon
  • Sarah Williams
  • Bridget O’Donnell
  • Helen C.
  • Sinéad
  • Maria

Relatives of survivors

  • Mary and Kate Flood


  • This project commenced in 2018 and continues to operate. It has not sought any external funding.

Research impact

Academic impact

The team’s research methods were radically interdisciplinary: they analysed archaeological evidence from the DML site, architectural plans of demolished buildings, and grave markers in the institution’s cemetery. They also discovered financial records and correspondence on the site of the abandoned institution. They consulted applications for planning permission; electoral registers; census data; death registers; wills and charitable bequests; government reports; death notices; obituaries and advertisements in magazines and newspapers; radio broadcasts; court cases; state departmental records; diocesan archives; books published by religious congregations; drawings in the Irish Architectural Archive; as well as memoirs, biographies and survivor oral histories.

Their contribution to developing a methodology for writing institutional histories has been publicly acknowledged. Reviewing the researchers' book A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland in the Irish Times, Catriona Crowe, formerly of the National Archives, stated that the research “has created a template… for how to write an informative history of a religious order or a religious institution without recourse to the still closed records of these organisations, who ran a shadow state fully sanctioned by government”.

Political impact

As described above, Dr Coen, Professor O’Donnell and the team located important financial records which demonstrate, in detail, that DML operated annually with a significant financial surplus, disproving the official State report. They also disproved the report’s finding that there was no evidence to support a claim that DML was awarded a military contract in the 1940s. The team not only proved that such a contract was awarded, but also that it was cancelled by the State because the nuns were in breach of a fair wages clause in their contract with the Department of Defence.

The project’s oral histories and archaeological and architectural analysis of the buildings show how daily life and work was designed to be punitive, which further undermines the State’s insistence that these were benign institutions where no physical or human rights abuses took place.

Having published their findings, Dr Coen and Professor O’Donnell, along with Dr Maeve O’Rourke, have had constructive meetings with members of the Oireachtas, including the Tánaiste, where they discussed the urgent need for legislation to ensure that institutional archives are preserved and ultimately become accessible to the citizens of Ireland. Ivana Bacik TD and Marian Harkin TD have quoted from the book in contributions in the Dáil on this subject (see Testimonials below).

Cultural and social impact

The financial records and correspondence that the team found on the laundry site are now being digitised, and will be made available via the University of Galway archive. They have brokered agreements between the current owners of the DML site and the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) to successfully transfer artefacts – including laundry machinery and religious iconography from the derelict laundry – into the national collection.  Discussions with survivors informed the curator from the NMI on what items to acquisition for the collection. The NMI regards this collection as central to its planned new museum on the site of the former Magdalene Laundry in Sean McDermott Street.

Survivors of institutional abuse attended the launch of the book. The team continues to work with survivors to ensure that Irish society – through publications, the development of teaching and learning materials, public exhibitions and lectures, and media interviews – better understands how class and gender politics have caused and continue to cause significant disadvantage in our society.

“[This research] reveals a significant amount of new information that is of significant political interest and two key questions arise from it…Will the Taoiseach acknowledge some key inaccuracies in the McAleese report that have been shown up by this book? Second, will the Government now introduce legislation to criminalise the destruction, alteration or failure to preserve institutional records?”
Ivana Bacik TD, speaking in the Dáil on 22 March 2023

“The artefacts from DML when joined with material already in the NMI collections from Daingean Reformatory School, means we have the foundations of a Site of Conscience… [and can] begin to explore Ireland’s history of the institutionalization and abuse of both socially and economically marginalized women and their children, engaging with all survivor groups from across the whole island”
Brenda Malone, Curator, National Museum of Ireland, Chapter 10 of A Dublin Magdalene Laundry: Donnybrook and Church-State Power in Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2023).

 “[A Dublin Magdalene Laundry] has created a template… for how to write an informative history of a religious order or a religious institution without recourse to the still closed records of these organisations, who ran a shadow state fully sanctioned by government”.
Catriona Crowe, Irish Times