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A system of containment

The term coercive confinement refers to the broad range of institutions which existed in Ireland, including not only the formal sites of incarceration (such as prisons, borstals, reformatories), but also psychiatric hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers, Magdalene Laundries, Industrial Schools, and other institutions (O'Donnell & O'Sullivan, 2020).

Within this system of coercive confinement, the Waterford Memories Project focuses on the institutions which existed in the South East of Ireland, particularly the former convent, Magdalene Laundry, and Industrial School which form the College Street Campus of the South East Technological University.  The site comprises the former convent of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers (commonly known as the Good Shepherd Sisters); the St Mary’s Good Shepherd (Magdalene) Laundry; and St Dominick’s Industrial School. 


Building work on the Convent and other buildings began in 1882, 40 years after Reverend Timothy Dowley established an institution for homeless girls and women in Waterford, which was later run by Reverend John Crotty and two lay matrons . Reverend Crotty requested the support of the Good Shepherd Sisters in France to facilitate the running of the institution, and five sisters arrived in 1858 (Department of Justice, 2013).  The site was occupied in 1884, and the Laundry operated until its closure in 1982 (Department of Justice, 2013).  In 1994 the site was purchased from the Good Shepherd Order and now houses the School of Humanities and School of Education and Lifelong Learning of the South East Technological University. 

The former Magdalene Laundry and Industrial School in Waterford are part of a larger, national network of institutions used to confine both children and adults whose “crimes” were to act against the strict and punitive moral codes of the period, poverty, or mental illness.  

Magdalene Laundries: A brief synopsis

Excerpt from O’Rourke, M., O’Mahoney, J., & O’Donnell, K. (2021). Institutional abuse in Ireland: Lessons from survivors and legal professionals (In O. Lynch, J. Windle, & Y. Ahmed (Eds.), Nothing about us without us: Giving voice to diversity in Criminological Research):

Magdalene institutions had a long history on the continent of Europe and they were established in the mid-eighteenth century in Ireland as asylums for poor and destitute women. Prior to the twentieth century, they were run by religious orders or lay-managed philanthropic concerns often equipping women with training and references of good character to afford women the opportunity to earn a living after their rehabilitation work.  (Smith 2007; Luddy 2007). The asylums adopted the life of Mary Magdalene as their exemplum, described in the Christian tradition as a repentant prostitute who became one of the most notable followers of Jesus.  Christian tradition holds that penance should involve tasks characterised by humility and labour so that Divine forgiveness might be granted for sins. The Magdalene institutions run by Catholic orders in Ireland enshrined the assumption that women’s bodies and female sexuality cause “occasions of sin”, where a man might be likely to be enticed into committing sinful behaviour. Hence, the work of the religious sisters in containing women who would promote potential vice considered was considered to be good social work by the patriarchal rulers who ran Ireland.  (Howell 2003).


Ireland’s War of Independence from British rule ended in 1921 and in the following year twenty-six of the island’s thirty-two counties established the Irish Free State / Saorstát. By 1922 Magdalene institutions elsewhere in Europe were adapting to social and legislative change, many modifying to focus on providing services for ‘unmarried mothers’ and their ‘illegitimate children.’ However, in a newly independent Ireland, the ten remaining Magdalene institutions—all Catholic in ethos—were afforded a continued role in the newly established Republic. Irish patriots aimed to establish control in both symbolic and material terms. Irish national discourse on morality and purity found key ground in debates on social reproduction and maternity, where it was maintained that while the British Empire was politically and finically more powerful, the fledging Irish State would maintain moral supremacy. (McAvoy 1999; Howell 2003)


The Irish Magdalene institutions, run by four Catholic religious orders, existed for most of the twentieth century, with the final institution closing in 1996. The Order of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge (OLC) operated Magdalenes in High Park, Drumcondra and Seán McDermott Street in Dublin; the Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran Magdalenes in Cork city (Sunday’s Well), Waterford, Limerick, and New Ross, Co. Wexford; the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy ran laundries in Galway and Dún Laoghaire; and the Sisters of Charity ran Magdalenes in Cork (Peacock Lane) and Dublin (Donnybrook). Testimony collected by The Magdalene Oral History project reveals that girls and women incarcerated in the Magdalenes were frequently the victims of incest, sexual assault and rape, and only a minority had given birth outside wedlock. A few had intellectual disabilities, while others had committed minor crimes or were destitute (O’Donnell 2012).


The living conditions and regime were harsh.  The girls and women were locked in, forced into hard labour and returned by police if they escaped.  Generally, their hair was shorn when they were brought into the institutions, and they were given a religious name (and sometimes also a number), as the nuns sought to erase their former identity and identify the girls as ‘penitents.’ The Magdalenes wore a uniform, woke daily about six in the morning, attended mass and worked without pay at laundry or needlework. The girls and women slept in cold dormitories with poor sanitation and hygiene, eating meagre food rations.  Punishments included solitary confinement and withholding of food.  Friendships were forbidden, a code enforced by strict rules of silence and prayer between the inmates.  Visitors were strongly discouraged and letters were censored or undelivered to the Magdalenes.  Inmates were frequently disappeared without notice or explanation, potentially to another laundry, committed to a psychiatric hospital, or placed in another menial role within another Catholic religious institution (JFM 2012; O’Donnell 2012; O’Donnell 2018; O’Rourke 2017).


Leaving a Magdalene institution of one’s own volition was difficult, if not impossible.  Some women did try and escape, but escapees were frequently captured by the Irish police force and returned to the Magdalene and punished. Some girls and women were taken out by very determined family members. Oral histories indicate that some women managed to leave the Magdalene institutions by consistently agitating for release. These assertions, based on testimonies in the Oral History Project, compensate for the fact that the religious orders will not release Magdalene records for the twentieth century, even in redacted form. Research conducted by Claire McGettrick indicates that, for at least two institutions (High Park and Donnybrook in Dublin), approximately half of the girls and women who were incarcerated between 1954 and 1964 died behind the convent walls (McGettrick and Justice for Magdalenes Research 2015).

Industrial Schools: A brief synopsis

Also contained within the system of coercive confinement, Industrial Schools were separate, but related, institutions to the Magdalene Laundries.  Until the late 1960s, thousands of young children were sent to Industrial Schools, which were financed by the Department of Education and operated by Religious Orders of the Catholic Church. Initially established with the ethos to care for neglected, orphaned, and abandoned children, most children ended up at Industrial Schools because their families were living in poverty unable to care for them.  The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Report (aka the Ryan Report) was published in 2009 and revealed that children lived in a climate of fear where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was endemic between 1914 and 2000 in institutions funded and inspected by the Department of Education and run by a range of Catholic Orders. 


Unfortunately little is known about the specific history of St Dominick’s Industrial School for Girls in Waterford, as the Ryan Report only examined a small sample of institutions with the highest number of complaints, which was largely limited to boys’ schools.  Thus, St Dominick’s Industrial School was not included in the report’s analysis. 



Excerpt from the History of industrial schools and reformatories, Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the "Ryan Report" vol. 1, ch. 2):

In the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain and in Ireland, there were several commissions and committees to investigate both the broad subject of poverty3 and the particular needs of poor children. The industrial school system was proposed as a solution. This idea was based on a Continental model and, by the 1850s, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia had nearly a hundred institutions for criminal and destitute juveniles, whose achievements were well known in Ireland and Britain. The thrust of the education provided in these schools, some of which were called ‘Farm Schools’, was in favour of practical training, which would equip the children for employment, rather than academic learning. This approach fitted in well with the Victorian idea of utilitarian progress, and also helped to provide skills to fuel the Industrial Revolution. The motivation for these reforms has also been variously attributed to the desire to help the needy, or the need to control those whom the authorities viewed as a threat to the existing order (2.06)

Although reformatory schools were established first, industrial schools soon surpassed them, both in numbers of schools and of pupils. In the seven years after 1858, 10 reformatories (five for females) were certified. By the end of the century, only seven of the 10 original reformatories survived, some of the former reformatories having been recertified as industrial schools; and, by 1922, only five remained (one of which was a reformatory for boys in Northern Ireland). The reformatory school population, which was nearly 800 immediately after the passing of the 1858 Act, fell to 300 in 1882, and to 150 in 1900 (2.08).  On the other hand, however, by 1875, there were 50 industrial schools, and the highest number of industrial schools was reached in 1898, when there were a total of 71 schools, of which 61 (56 schools for Catholics and five for Protestants) were in the 26 counties. At its height, in 1898 the population in the industrial schools was 7,998 residents, compared with the 6,000 children in the same year in the considerably less salubrious conditions of the workhouses. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century, social and economic conditions in Ireland were such that many children had to be refused places in the schools. In 1882, over 70% of committal entries to industrial schools were made under the category of begging (2.09).

Excerpt from That was then, This is now Change in Ireland, 1949-1999 (Central Statistics Office, 2000, p.51-52):


In 1950, there were 3 Reformatories and 51 Industrial Schools in the country, all run by religious orders. Children were committed to these schools by the Metropolitan Children’s Court or the various District Courts. In July 1950, there were 210 offenders (172 boys and 38 girls) under detention in the three Reformatories in the country. They were between 13 and 17 years of age. The boys were held in the large Reformatory School at Daingean, County Offaly, and the girls were divided between Limerick and Kilmacud in Dublin. The number of committals during that school year was 97, the usual grounds being theft, housebreaking or similar offences. The 51 Industrial Schools were widely dispersed around Ireland, and varied a lot in size. The largest Industrial School for boys was in Artane, Dublin (776 children were detained there in July 1950). The largest Industrial School for girls was Goldenbridge, Dublin (148). One of the most extraordinary social differences between the 1940s and now relates to the extent to which children were committed to Industrial Schools. In 1950, 6,000 children were under detention in such schools. It is perhaps surprising that slightly more than half of these children were girls. During the year, the number of committals was 833, the number discharged was 994, and 31 children absconded. Of the 833 children committed, over two-thirds were less than 10 years old, and most of the rest were under 14. Half were on the grounds of not having a settled place of abode or visible means of subsistence or having parents or guardians who did not exercise proper guardianship, 23% on the grounds of destitution, 8% for begging, 7% for not complying with a School Attendance Order, 4% because they were “uncontrollable”, and most of the rest because they were charged with an offence punishable, in the case of an adult, with penal servitude.

By 1960, the number under detention in Industrial Schools fell below 4,000, and it fell to 1,270 in 1970. Artane, which had a capacity of 830, had only 10 boys that year. The following year, the Reformatory and Industrial Schools were reclassified as Special Schools and Residential Homes. There were 6 Special Schools and 27 Residential Homes. By 1998, the number of institutions — Special Schools for Young Offenders — was only six. The total number of children in detention was 127, of which 11 were girls. The number of full-time staff was 302.

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