Slaves and slavery: The Economy of the Magdalene Laundry and The Industrial School

by | 20 Jul 2011

I have been thinking about the present scandals enveloping the Catholic Church in Ireland. People say, ‘How could they do it, men and women of God?’, or ‘How could they believe in the Gospel’, etc. The bafflement is understandable since the Church has always represented itself as a form of institutionalised love. However, if you try to understand the Church as an economic entity it makes much more sense. We’re all familiar with the historical reality of the Church as the possessor of vast estates, even principalities. In the Middle Ages the Pope was a prince governing vast swathes of Italy and negotiating and fighting as a prince. But his power and pomp was supported by an even bigger tax-collection network that extended across the Christianised world, together with a system of feudal proprietorships that included all church lands in every country where the church existed. Thus, Marx describes Henry VIII’s Reformation, involving as it did the expropriation of Church lands in England, as the ‘colossal spoliation of the church property’.

Now, the existence of wealth presupposes a limited class, an elite, that will benefit from it, and another myth that the church has assiduously cultivated is that the Church is open to everyone. Nevertheless, the powers in the Church have always been drawn from the wealthiest classes. In fact the class system in society as a whole is well-reflected in the church. Popes came from the nobility until recent years, when they tend to come from the upper middle class, perhaps reflecting a downgrading of the credit-worthiness of the office! For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Church was attractive to second and third sons and unmarried daughters of the upper classes, because it was a way of maintaining their status, privileges and wealth that did not involve having to inherit. Below the rank of bishop, the clerical positions went by class with the poorest supplying the kitchen-nuns and farm-monks. Convents, for example, ever the best arbiters of class and status, demanded a ‘dowry’ of any girl entering the convent. A large dowry meant you could expect an education and to rise through the ranks even perhaps as far as the rank of Reverend Mother. No dowry at all meant you would spend your days scrubbing floors.

So, if we see the Catholic Church as a structure founded upon the creation of wealth and the maintenance of class-structures, then the Magdalene laundries and Industrial Schools come neatly into focus in their economic reality.

The Magdalene laundries took children and young women and used their labour to produce wealth for the convents (and therefore the Church), but also serviced the economic needs of other parts of the church. They washed and repaired clothes, church vestments, altar cloths etc. From time to time they also had contracts with the state – in one operation, for example, they laundered the clothes from Mountjoy Prison.

Ireland’s social services were sub-contracted to the Churches until very recently. Ireland was an economic wilderness for most of the twentieth century, sending vast numbers of its young people to emigrate. It also had the highest birth-rate in Europe. The surplus children of large poor families were absorbed into the system of slave-labour or indentured servitude operated by the church through the church-run industrial schools and the Magdalene laundries. The state was prepared to pay for this service (as Conor McCabe points out in his book, Ireland was neoliberal before the word was invented) and so these institutions had another stable revenue stream in the form of child-support from the state.

The horrific evidence of sexual and physical abuse tends to dominate talk of these institutions. But in some ways this obscures the abuse of slavery or servitude itself, even though it is insisted upon by the survivors who habitually describe themselves as having been slaves. While the physical and sexual abuse was widespread, the slavery or servitude was universal. Every poor boy or girl who found himself or herself in the tender care of Mother Church became a slave or an indentured servant, whether it was because of their parents’ inability to support them, because a social worker or a judge or a doctor consigned them there, or simply by being born within the walls of a Magdalene laundry. The ‘Maggies’ were slaves and could expect to spend their useful working lives inside. At least the boys could expect to be rejected by the system in due course, probably because they were physically more dangerous as they got older and therefore less useful as workers. It seems too, that the boys received more of an education, again reflecting the reality of society as a whole where poor girls could expect to become domestic servants either as workers or wives. Thus I tend to use the term ‘indentured servitude’ for what the boys experienced. There was little difference as it was experienced day to day.

Seen in this light it is clear that the abuse was a by-product of the slavery itself. We know very well how black slaves were treated by their masters. When you own a person body and soul you are entitled to use the body as you desire. There were decent slave owners who treated their slaves with restraint, just as there were nuns and priests and brothers who did not brutalise the children in their care. Nevertheless, in both cases the rights of property were paramount. There seems also to have been, in some industrial schools and laundries, a by-trade in sexual abuse, whereby the children were lent out at weekends or for holiday periods to people who paid for the service either in money or influence. And of course, it goes without saying that all the systems of power that surround predatory sexuality and repressed sexuality developed in these institutions. After all, having lost every right as citizens, these children only had their bodies to trade for kindness or nourishment. But this entire apparatus is familiar to us already from the institution of slavery. The ancient insult in calling a person a ‘slave’ stems precisely from the fact that a slave, by definition, could never hold any of himself back, not even his thoughts, because there is nothing like grinding labour and abuse to take possession of a free mind.

These Church institutions, then, are best understood as slave-owning factories and plantations, useful in the generation of wealth for the Catholic Church in an Ireland where there was very little wealth to spare. They developed at a time when the Church as a whole was still mired in feudal systems even though the world had moved on to industrialisation. They thrived in Ireland where, for the first half of the twentieth century, the economy still had remnants of feudalism – our biggest export by far was live cattle to England, the old colonial master. They are no longer useful now because the Church, having seen its business outmoded and its brand rejected, and having identified aid organisations as the only growth sector, is attempting to transform itself into a sort of rapid reaction force for world poverty.

I expect that the enquiries still underway here will do a very good job of revealing the extent of the physical and sexual abuse. They will emphasise the failure of ‘governance’ and responsibility that these institutions involved. They will tell of the Church’s sorrow for its sins and its humble desire for forgiveness from its flock. But they will not interrogate the economic system that is the Church, they will not describe the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools as institutionalised slavery or indentured servitude. They will not say that The Holy Roman and Catholic Church was the last slave-owning institution in Ireland.

William Wall (Ice Moon Blog)


  1. There are so many false statements in this article that it is hard to consider that it has any truth? (There are a number of valid statements hidden behind the Hypocracy and Bias)

    The Magdaline Laundries were not an invention of the Catholic Church (Neither were they limited to Ireland). We must be carefull not to confuse the social landscape of the victorian era, the effects of the so called enlightenment and the products of Institutions that have lived though many eras, fashions, and social viewpoints…

    “Ireland’s social services were sub-contracted to the Churches until very recently” Until very recently the State provided a minimal “Social Service” with volutary groups often initiatives of Church groups filling the gaps. Th state continues to rely on other groups to do what Irish citizens believe is done by the state.

    Some very rash assumptions too:
    “the existence of wealth presupposes a limited class, an elite, that will benefit from it” WHY????

    “powers in the Church have always been drawn from the wealthiest classes” do you mean the better educated? Naturally but there are notable counter examples (albeit usually falling foul of the Secular Authorities interphering in Church Affairs to get at that Wealth being squandered on the poor).

  2. @ Lorcan

    Could you give some links to historical, factual, academic sources (i.e. reliable sources) to substantiate your claims?

    Have you heard of the Principle of Subsidiarity? The Irish government was bound to and by the Catholic Church, the church resisted all attempts at any intervention by the state into ‘family life’ i.e. social services and the only compromise the state could reach was to hand over these fledgling services to the Catholic Church.

    As for your very weak (and unsubstantiated) arguments against wealth and the elite, again, could you please provide examples of these ‘counter examples’?



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