This article covers the topic well, but is more about the Irish government admitting collusion with the supposed slave holders.

Labelled the "Maggies", the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.

Over 74 years, 10,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, mostly in laundries run by nuns.

Were people really held as slaves? What was their treatment like?


What is a slave? Obviously, they were not actually considered property by anyone and it must have been underground because slavery is illegal in Ireland. But were these people basically slaves in that they were prevented from leaving at their own will and were they forced to do labor or suffer consequences (beating, no food, etc.)

I am asking the question because when google searching I see people saying things like "In 1996, Bill Clinton was president, Yahoo’s search-engine was two years old, and the Roman Catholic Church had slaves." I would think that in the least the statement is misleading because the Church as a whole did not do anything of that kind.

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    I do not understand what an answer to this question would look like. There was a report published about the state involvement. It cites numbers consistent with the article above. Whether you consider the victims as "slaves" probably depends a lot on your definitions - the report does not use that word. Similarly, it isn't clear that you could say the Church had slaves.
    – Oddthinking
    Mar 11, 2013 at 8:15
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    "it must have been underground" Not if the reports are to be believed because the courts and executive supported the situation. "because slavery is illegal in Ireland" The government had simply stuck a label on the situation that said "not slaves". The situation was presumably considered to be equivalent to the incarceration of duly convicted criminals. Mar 11, 2013 at 18:20
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    FWIW Mar 11, 2013 at 19:42
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    I don't get the fuss over labels here. If you are forced to work at someone else's bidding; forced to live your life in a manner dictated by others; denied the product of your own labor; denied the freedom to leave; subject to capture and return if you leave anyway; and subject to punishment for resisting, then the situation bears a considerable resemblance to slavery de facto no matter what de jure may be applied. With criminal sentences we expect that there should be a solemn, open, judicial process resulting in a proportionate sentence with a definite end in all but the worst cases. Mar 12, 2013 at 9:41
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    @Oddthinking: That legalistic definition of "slave" as property is very narrow. Slave is a fluid concept, as is property. The ones who are in that condition don't split hairs. Mar 12, 2013 at 17:30

1 Answer 1


Let's use the 1926 Slavery Convention (Geneva) definition of slavery. I'm using the wikipedia article as a reference, but the contents of this convention aren't under debate here, so:

"the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised"

If taking someone prisoner indefinitely is considered taking ownership of them, this condition is met. This is somewhat subjective.

The accompanying definition of the slave trade:

"all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves."

The women were indeed captured, acquired and reduced to slavery, so their situation seems to meet this condition, perhaps moreso than the first instance.

The UN Committee Against Torture made the following statement:

The Committee has said that it is “gravely concerned at the failure of the State to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene Laundries”. News article from thejournal.ie

Chapter 20 of the Magdalen Final Report (more below) details the financials of some of the laundries. These demonstrate that the Laundries were being paid for work carried out by the women, for which no wages were given.

Yes. They can be considered slaves.

They also weren't allowed keep any children they had, which while not a distinct facet of slavery, gives an idea of the level of dehumanisation we're talking about. The Margaret Bullen article is one example.

The incarceration and forced labour was in no way underground. About 25% of hostages were delivered to the laundries by the state. I refuse to call them inmates, as I don't consider any of them criminals, and most of them weren't criminals in law either. The Gardai colluded in returning escapees and delivering hostages. The courts were also comlplicit. For your verification, I'm referring largely to the Magdalen Final Report which was released in February 2013 by the Irish Government after an extensive study. I encourage you to check it, but it is over 1,200 pages long. From the report:

"This Report has established that approximately 10,000 women are known to have entered a Magdalen Laundry from the foundation of the State in 1922 until the closure of the last Laundry in 1996. Of the cases in which routes of entry are known, 26.5% were referrals made or facilitated by the State. "

The women who were put into the laundries were made to work, and their work was profited from, in a way which would be illegal in "official" Irish prisons, where it would be deemed a human rights violation.

The laundries were subject to the same inspections as regular workplaces. From Chapter 12 of the report:

"This Chapter confirms that the Magdalen Laundries were inspected by the Factories Inspectorate in the same manner as commercial (non-religious operated) laundries, again both before and after enactment of the Factories Act 1955."

Their imprisonment was also illegal for many years, though the church had the support of the Garda Siochana (Irish Police Force) who would both deliver hostages to them and return escapees.

As for the date of 1996, by this stage, admissions to Magdalene laundries were no longer part of Irish life. On one hand, we had become more enlightened and liberated as a society. On the other hand, washing machines were cheaper to use. However, up to this date there were still older women who had been taken hostage years previous. They may have been somewhat institutionalised, or otherwise had nowhere else to go, but they were still being deprived of a number of their human rights. The laundries stopped working in 1996, but some of the women had become inmates, not knowing who to integrate into society. At this point, their prison was more mental than physical.

As for the treatment of the women over the years, it was bad. They were de-humanised and subject to abuse and exploitation you wouldn't give an animal. We're talking about a combination of psychological, and often physical torture and hard labour. Some were literally worked to death. Some died later on from kidney and liver failure, as a direct result of sustained exposure to the laundry chemicals. One example is Margaret Bullen, who entered the laundries when she was 5, because her mother was unable to take care of her, and died when she was 51, still inside a convent, from "Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease caused by inhalation of chemicals over many years resulting in end stage kidney and liver failure."

Given that many entered into the laundries when they were children, it is relevant to consider the findings of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. This was an investigation into the living conditions of children in state care, almost always run by monks, priests, and nuns. It doesn't particularly apply to the Laundries, but it should give you some idea of what the church in Ireland were capable of. The Ryan Report, published in 2009, came to these conclusions, among others:

Overall. Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions. Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions. Schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff.

Physical abuse. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment. A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.

Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions. The schools investigated revealed a substantial level of sexual abuse of boys in care that extended over a range from improper touching and fondling to rape with violence. Perpetrators of abuse were able to operate undetected for long periods at the core of institutions. When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again. The safety of children in general was not a consideration. The situation in girls’ institutions was different. Although girls were subjected to predatory sexual abuse by male employees or visitors or in outside placements, sexual abuse was not systemic in girls’ schools.

Neglect. Poor standards of physical care were reported by most male and female complainants. Children were frequently hungry and food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools. Accommodation was cold, spartan and bleak. Sanitary provision was primitive in most boys’ schools and general hygiene facilities were poor.

Emotional abuse. Witnesses spoke of being belittled and ridiculed on a daily basis. Private matters such as bodily functions and personal hygiene were used as opportunities for degradation and humiliation. Personal and family denigration was widespread. There was constant criticism and verbal abuse and children were told they were worthless.

Supervision by the Department of Education. The system of inspection by the Department was fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective. Complaints by parents and others made to the Department were not properly investigated. The Department did not apply the standards in the rules and their own guidelines when investigating complaints, but sought to protect and defend the religious Congregations and the schools. The Department dealt inadequately with complaints about sexual abuse, which were generally dismissed or ignored.

The group, Justice for Magdalenes (here Magdalenes, which is sometimes shortened to Maggies, refers to victims), created the Name Project an attempt to document all the women who died in the Laundries.

The same organisation submitted a report, State Involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, which details from point 88 on how 155 bodies of women were moved from one unmarked grave in Drumcondra.

Selection of survivor testimony

There is also an hour-long documentary featuring interviews with survivors. Sex in a Cold Climate

Note: in this context, "girls institutions" and "laundries" mean the same thing. The laundries were the workshop component of girls institutions. However, in Ireland, these are colloquially referred to as Magdalen Laundries or "the Laundries".








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    Sorry, but you can't use things that happened in other institutions as evidence of things that happened in the laundries. Mar 13, 2013 at 13:24
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    I'm not. The only thing missing from the Laundries (referred to as "girls institutions" in the conclusions) is systemic sexual abuse. This differentiation is clear above.
    – puppybeard
    Mar 13, 2013 at 13:49
  • Then you should remove the part that says " It doesn't particularly apply to the Laundries" and cite references that apply clearly to the laundries, and not 'institutions' in general. Mar 13, 2013 at 13:56
  • I've added a note at the end, hopefully this should remove the ambiguity.
    – puppybeard
    Mar 13, 2013 at 14:02
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    What evidence do you have that 'girls institutions' refers only to laundries? There were certainly other institutions for girls, and the report refers to 'institutions run by the state', which the laundries weren't. Mar 13, 2013 at 14:13

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