by Suzanne Labry
Irish Magdalene Laundries Story Quilts
The Magdalene asylums (so named after Mary Magdalene, who was wrongly thought to have been a prostitute in the Bible) were workhouses in which, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1990s in Ireland, an estimated 30,000 women and girls were effectively imprisoned without due process or appeal. This was because they were perceived to be a threat to the moral fiber of society.
They were illegitimate children, single mothers, or women who were deemed to be sexually promiscuous. Mandated by the Irish state and operated by various feminine orders of the Catholic Church during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the asylums were commonly referred to as laundries because the so-called “penitents” confined there were forced to work doing industrial laundry under harsh conditions for which they received no pay. The last Laundry, located in Waterford, Ireland*, did not close until 1996.
Women in one of Ireland's Magdalene laundries in the 1940s. Photograph: Roz Sinclair/Testimony Films
When, in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their Magdalene convent that had included a “laundry” to a real estate developer, the remains of 155 inmates were found buried in unmarked graves on the property. This discovery triggered a public scandal in Ireland and since then the Magdalene Laundries have become a pivotal issue in Irish culture.
In 2013, the Irish Government issued a formal apology to the women who had been virtual slave laborers in the Magdalene Laundries and provided a compensation package to the remaining several hundred survivors of the workhouses.
The 20th anniversary of the closing of the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland occurred in 2016. In the decades since the closing, a variety of commemorations and public expressions, including films, books, and songs, have been produced.
One artist, “J.T.”, chose to memorialize “the Maggies” (as the women confined in the asylums have become known) in a series of wall quilts. The fact that J.T. was himself incarcerated in the Irish Prison System at Limerick when he made the quilts lent an extra poignancy to his choice of subject.
Magdalene Laundries Story Quilt, by J.T., Limerick, Ireland. Photograph by Pamela Rafferty.Paula Rafferty, a Limerick-based art instructor and quilter, taught J.T. how to make quilts. Rafferty has been teaching art at the prison for almost 20 years.
“Each Irish prison has a custom-designed school that offers a wide range of courses and exams to suit all levels, from basic skills to open university degrees. The schools are run by the Irish Prison Service and the Education and Training Boards (ETB’s) throughout the country, offering courses such as traditional state exam subjects, music, art, computers and yoga,” she explains.
“Limerick prison accommodates both males and females and I’ve worked with both, but I’ve done most of the textile work with men. The quiltmaking developed naturally, as I would bring my own patchwork and quilting work in to show my students and some of them wanted to learn the techniques they saw in my work.”
Rafferty had worked with J.T. for several years, and he was aware that quilts could be a powerful medium for telling a story. “After the news broke about the Magdalene Laundries, J.T. came to me and said he wanted to make a series of quilts about the topic. He wanted to donate the pieces to a victim support group,” she recalls.
“He had worked with me long enough to know the processes to use. I first gathered historical archive images of the Laundries for him and he used those to come up with the designs of each piece. The quilts were worked on over a period of nine months, during which time the student obtained permission to have a sewing machine in his cell so that he could continue the work at night.”
Magdalene Laundries Story Quilt, by J.T., Limerick, Ireland.
This quilt was inspired by an image from the film Philomena.
Photograph by Pamela Rafferty.“J.T. did not know a laundry survivor, but he watched the scandal unfold in the media. I know the treatment of the children affected him, as he has
a child of his own,” Rafferty continued. “He saw actors from the film Philomena being interviewed and saw clips of the film. He asked me to get a still of a particular scene from the movie, the child being taken away in the car, and he used this image as the final quilt.”
J.T. is still in prison, and Paula Rafferty has his Magdalene Laundry quilts. Thanks to her efforts, the quilts have received international recognition. She is in the process of handing them over to one of the victim support groups that has been organized to help survivors of the Laundries.
*Magdalene Laundries were not unique to Ireland. They also existed at various times (mostly in the 19th century) in Australia, Canada, England, and the United States.
To see a video of Joni Mitchell singing the song she composed about the Magdalene Laundries, click HERE.