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

Monday 18 July 2011 10:22

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, for example, 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, for example, 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 anyone 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, for example, 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 tends to obscure 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 her 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 period to people 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.

Postscript: On the terms ‘slave’ and ‘indentured servant’

Originally I used the terms ‘slavery’ and ‘indentured servant’ to distinguish between the more or less permanent state of imprisonment experienced by some inmates, mainly girls (slavery) of the institutions and the fact that boys, in particular, tended to be released at some point in their teens (indentured servitude). I was aware that it was not particularly accurate.

However, since publication, Philip Casey, who knows a thing or two on the subject (he is writing a book on ‘Irish slavery and servitude, provisionally titled Unfamiliar’) has pointed out a very important distinction.

He writes:

'Indenture usually involved an agreement between master and servant, unless it was ''enforced'' indenture, in which case the agreement was between the kidnapper and the master. In any event, indenture usually lasted no more than seven years, so I''d go for slavery as a description.'

Now, while indentured servitude sometimes involved a level of mistreatment or cruelty and was often resented by the person indentured, it cannot be compared to the condition of, say, boys in industrial schools, who were usually committed there by the state and who could spend their childhood there until the age of 16. A farm labourer, of course, would ‘indenture’ at a ‘hiring fair’ for room and board and little or no wages for seven years only out of necessity, nevertheless there is an element of choice involved. The contract is, at least in legal terms, freely entered into. In no sense could a girl or a boy committed to one of the Church institutions be said to have chosen the life of misery they faced. While a servant entering an indenture would have the experience of a community that frequently had to resort to such contracts (which were the norm, for example, for apprentices or domestic servants or farm-labourers) to forewarn him/her of the conditions to be faced, the wall of deception and hypocrisy that surrounded the Church institutions prevented all but a few from understanding the reality. Equally, the level of abuse suffered by indentured servants in the worst cases is hardly comparable to the gross sadism and sexual slavery perpetrated on Irish children by the religious congregations and their allies.

The concept of ‘forced indenture’ is a tempting one, particularly as indentures sometimes were entered into by masters of orphanages for the labour of orphans in their care. However, I reject that as being inadequate to the matter in question. Such an indenture was still limited by contract.

In some cases the Catholic Church and the Irish State have sought to portray, in particular, the girls and women of the Magdalene Laundries as ‘employees’ in something akin to indentured servitude. As ‘employees’, the state has suggested, these people were paid a wage and were freely present in the laundries - this despite the fact that the laundries were not subject to the Factory Acts, inspected by the appropriate inspectors or open to unionisation. I utterly reject that description and would like to make it clear that my use of the term indentured servitude was never intended to suggest that I saw any merit in the argument.

Accordingly I append this postscript, by way of a correction. Slavery is the term that best describes the experience of the boys and girls, women and men who spent all or part of their lives in these hellholes. I have decided not to alter the original text but to leave it stand with this correction precisely because the distinction is so important.


I note with interest that the Papal Nunciature in Ireland has called for ‘objectivity’ in the assessment of the situation. No doubt they are troubled by the vehemence of some of the survivors who tell their stories on the national airwaves without sparing the details. I imagine they would prefer if the survivors took their redress money, attended counselling and kept their mouths shut.  Rather than bothering much about the rape and torture of children, they are, I suspect, mainly intent on defending their comfy relationship to the state here. As Gramsci observed, the Church ‘is prepared to fight only to defend its own corporative freedoms (those of the Church as the Church, as an ecclesiastical organisation).''