Legacies of the Magdalen Laundries brings together a range of perspectives on Magdalen history, experience, and representation and, indeed, institutionalisation in Ireland. It attends to many different manifestations of the lives and afterlives of institutional systems. The contributors seek to understand how these systems operated and how, after their closure, they have been remembered by varied stakeholders from survivors to artists to politicians. The Magdalen Laundries provide a focus for the volume as they potently illuminate the distinct social experience for vulnerable women in modern Ireland. Magdalen history brings to the fore the contested nature of institutional history, the particular attitudes towards women that saw them incarcerated (many for life), and the equally gendered attitudes that underpin the ways this history was first repressed then, more recently, commemorated. The laundries did not exist in a vacuum: they were part of a network that included Industrial Schools and Mother and Child Institutions. Given the proliferation of institutions, it is startling to note that investigations of Irish institutional history have lacked intersectionality – so alongside an examination of the history and remembrance of the Laundries, this volume considers the wider institutional context to demonstrate the broader dimensions of Ireland’s postcolonial carceral history. To understand this history we must see these institutions, and the women and children incarcerated in them, not as exceptional cases but as expressions of social attitudes that viewed vulnerable members of the population as morally suspect, a ‘problem’ to which the state, church, and citizenry responded through mass institutionalisation.
Commemoration, gender, and the postcolonial carceral state
Recently, Ireland has begun to face up to the legacy of abuse in Irish residential institutions during the twentieth century. State and church agencies are reluctant to acknowledge their roles in this, meaning delay and denial; but political and social remorse has been expressed to survivors of abuse in Industrial Schools, Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Child Institutions. We can gain an understanding of how the Magdalen Laundries and other institutions operated, and have been investigated and remembered, by analysing the deep relationality of these institutions and social attitudes. Its inclusiveness is mirrored by contributors’ mobilisation of approaches from psychology and history to close readings of political, artistic, and oral texts, to accounts of performances and autobiographical narrative. This work draws attention to how agile critics must be in approaching such a complicated, occluded history. Finally, it shows that many of these attitudes continue through the Direct Provision system for refugees and asylum seekers, so though much has been done to remember and recover Ireland’s institutional past, this issue has not been resolved. ‘Legacies’ is an elastic term, acknowledging the ways that traces of these institutions continue to mark Irish society, not least through the unmet need for restorative justice.