“The North Is Next: Magdalene Laundries and the History of Women’s Choice in Ireland” by Fiona Murphy McCormack

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue


In 1765, the first Magdalene Asylum in Ireland opened. Named after Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who sought redemption in the Bible, this was a Christian church-run institution for “fallen women.” Primarily women pregnant out of wedlock, women considered seductive, women who were prostitutes. But more widely, this included orphaned young girls left to nunneries, disabled women and women who were deemed unfit for society. Essentially these were women’s prisons for the crimes of sinfulness.  For the pregnant women of the 18th century, there was no choice but to carry a child to term.

It is difficult to find out how many women exactly were subject to abuse in the asylums, since the Catholic Church has made this information private. There is no official written history for the women of the asylums. Most of their experiences have been lost. Their lives did not matter enough to the nation which silenced, excluded and punished them. But it is estimated there were over 30,000 women institutionalised, often committed for life.

Their punishments were plentiful as they were subject to abuse at the hands of the nuns. Their penance was in working without pay at the laundry to purge their sins. Forced into slave labour in laundries, malnourished and humiliated, chastised with head shaving and reprimanded with beating. They had no contact to the outside world. They would be put in hours of solitary confinement. They were not to speak to one another. After nine months of endurance, came childbirth.

Many of the children born in the “mother and child” homes, did not survive through infancy. Mass graves have been uncovered since. 155 corpses of mother’s and children were found in 1993. 796 baby bodies were discovered in a septic tank at one such home in 2014. If they did however, live through this time, they were adopted and sent away without their birth mother’s knowledge or consent as to where they went. 2,000 babies were illegally adopted by Americans. They were each sold off to the highest bidder. Provided a life with no contact with their birth mother.

Whilst these trials and tribulations are brutal and all seem picked from the chapters of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you might be wondering, Surely that was a century ago and Things are different now. Not quite.

The last of the Magdalene laundries only shut down in 1996, the year I was born. 231 years after they had begun. It took until 2001 for the Irish government to acknowledge these women had suffered cruel abuse at the hands of the state. It was only in 2013 that the Catholic Church formally apologised and began to pay of reparations to remaining survivors of Magdalene. There are still other mother and child homes which have not done the same. The pregnant women who were inmates in asylums, did not have the right to chose termination. Instead they were deemed sinful and made to redeem themselves through torture.

Thankfully, in the years that have passed and thanks to the women’s movement, pregnancy outside of marriage as well as single parenthood is widely accepted and normalised throughout modern standards in contemporary Ireland. In 2018, the Republic of Ireland the 8th amendment of the constitution which stated ‘to recognise equal rights of the mother and child’ was repealed in a referendum for choice. In The Abortion Act of 1967, women were given the legal option for termination in Great Britain being England, Scotland and Wales.

So where does that leave Northern Ireland? A country which shares its island and its border with the Republic, but its ruling by the British parliament. We have our own Northern Irish Assembly. An intrinsically faith based political government which has been in shut down for the past two years over a language act, among other things.

We have no abortion rights whatsoever. There is no option for rape victims or pregnancy with fatal foetal abnormality. Performing an abortion could risk life imprisonment. A 21-year-old woman in 2016 was sentenced to three months in jail for purchasing abortion pills online. Right now, a woman who bought the pills for her fifteen-year-old daughter, may face ten years behind bars. In both situations, the women bought self-induction abortion pills online because they could not afford to travel to England and privately pay for termination, which costs at least £480 ($609.11 USD) not including transport and accommodation.

In the year 2016, 1,000 women in Ireland bought abortion pills online, risking unsafe methods of eradication. 95% ended pregnancies without surgery, there were no deaths. But they took these pills illegally, in secret, isolated. Lied about miscarriages when they saw the doctor. Put their bodies in unknown danger. They are not alone either. 25% of the world lives without abortion laws. 3/1000 women in Europe risk unsafe abortion.

Here, it is known that women go to England. Everyone has a shocking story of some girl the know who ran away. It’s shocking and provocative and never see them the same way. In small villages like mine especially, the news travels fast. People point the finger and think words like “shameless” and “slut.” There are no repercussions for the men who impregnated them.

Once my friend from Wales arrived and was shocked when she noted a poster in the ladies’ stall which advertised help for unwanted pregnancies. If had ever seen one, I probably would have disregarded it. But speaking with her, I saw my country through new eyes. How far others had come in acceptance and how far we were behind. The barrage of anti-choice signs which must be traumatic for other women, that I just walked passed. So-called “charities” like Precious Life, Right to Life and The Society of the Protection of Unborn Children. There are places which disguise themselves as a helpful counselling for unplanned pregnancies but are actually religious organizations trying to scare you into carrying it to term.

These pro-lifers I had once seen as a collective conglomerate of Christian misinformation spewing hatred and spreading photographs of underdeveloped foetuses in pedestrians faces on the streets of Belfast, became personified when I realised most people I knew identified with their beliefs. I lost a friend around the time of repeal the 8th due to my support of it on one Facebook post. One of my closest friends mentioned she was going to a rally. When I asked her what it was for, I discovered she was actually going to the airport to stop women going over to England, urging them to stay home and have babies. I have people in my life that would think I am going to hell just for writing this article. Is it any wonder I feel like I am living in some scary dystopia?

In some ways since the Magdalene days, I don’t think many people have changed their mindset on women who are pregnant having any authority over their bodies. But I just don’t see why some people shouldn’t get to decide how they live their life just because another group disagree. This is how it is to live in a country which is not free.

There are of course plenty of things which make me angry about the current politics of Northern Ireland. Our future with Brexit, our lack of marriage equality, the endless conflict from the Troubles legacy. What makes me hopeful is spaces like The 343, The Belfast Feminist Forum and Alliance 4 Choice. The open discussions which I’ve seen happen since repeal, and those who protest with signs saying, “The North Is Next.”

One day, that may be true. We have come a long way from the Magdalene laundries. But we are still a long way to go.


Fiona Murphy McCormack is a twenty-three-year-old from Northern Ireland with an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast, a BA in English and Creative Writing from Glyndwr, Wales. Her short stories have previously been published in The Electric Reads Anthology, Germ Magazine, Fearlessly, The Elephant Ladder, The Crossways Literary Review, and Fairlight Books.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *