The Galway Magdalen Asylum was established in 1824 by the Lynch Family and was run by a lay society called the Association of Ladies of the Saint Magdalen Society until it was taken over in 1845 by the Sisters of Mercy. The author of this month’s document, Sister Mary Joseph Xavier, her birth name Georgina Mac Dermott, became the head of the Asylum in 1892. Sister Mary’s letter demonstrates at least one aspect of fundraising for these institutions in the early 20th century. Studies of Irish Catholic fundraising have shown that priests relied heavily on their parishes and wider communities to donate funds for building projects. The Catholic church often appealed to the lay population for donations, so much so that some priests were even trained on methods of fundraising and would travel to other parishes to assist in their efforts. The growth of the Catholic middle class during the 19th century led to a reliance on Catholic lay people for funds for the building of churches and other philanthropic institutions such as schools, libraries, and hospitals. An advertisement for the Magdalen Asylum of Galway was published in the Ballinrobe Chronicle in 1892 which appealed for donations from the public. It stressed the ‘importance’ of the Asylum, and notes that a debt of £1,000 had been taken on by the Sisters to enlarge the facility. This request for donations was repeated in several issues of the Ballinrobe Chronicle in 1892. As donations were such a large source of income, it is not surprising that the Sisters would make this public plea for help.
Bequests were another source of funding for the Asylum. A newspaper article from 1908 illustrates this as Sister Mary was involved in a court case over a dispute regarding the Asylum’s right to inherit the estate of a Mr. Sebastian Nolan, which was worth over £40,000. In her testimony to the court, Sister Mary Joseph noted that the Asylum also used laundry services and sewing to help keep itself afloat. These services were completed by the inmates of the Asylum, who were not paid despite the heavy and dangerous labour they completed.
Fears about women’s sexual immorality, combined with an increasing role of social influence by the Catholic Church allowed Magdalen Asylums to flourish in the 19th century. In a society with little or no social welfare provisions, the asylums were created to remove the vice of prostitution from society but ultimately provided help for poor women. A leaflet that accompanied Sister Mary’s letter notes that women came to the Asylum, ‘from prison, some from the streets, some mere children, some old in iniquity.’ Women who did not choose the Asylums voluntarily were committed from other institutions, their own families, and the judicial system. Whether they were prostitutes, unmarried mothers, or just impoverished, women were sent to these institutions to do penance for perceived transgressions. The intention was to save these ‘fallen women’ with compassion but, as has been made apparent more recently, Magdalen Asylums would increasingly serve as a system of incarceration and punishment into the 20th century.
This document represents an interaction between the Asylums and greater Irish society that is not often recognized. We cannot know why Sister Xavier chose to write to Sheehy-Skeffington. Perhaps his public role as an advocate for women led her to believe he would support the plight of poor women, or perhaps this was just part of a larger campaign targeted at prominent individuals across the nation. Regardless, this letter demonstrates that the Asylums never operated in isolation from greater society. Just as local priests called on their parishes for donations for the local church, Magdalene Asylums also sought support from the greater public. It was public support that allowed these institutions to continue to remain open. This Asylum marketed itself as a place of refuge and rehabilitation in the full view of the public, and there was much more interaction than may be recognized.
The Magdalen Asylum in Galway closed its doors in 1984, ending a chapter of social control and religious domination in Ireland’s past. The story of the Magdalen asylums is a complicated history which continues to be unravelled today. If we can take anything away from Sister Mary’s letter to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, it is a small insight into the inner and financial workings of these institutions.
Abigail Smith, Author and Series Editor
MA in Public History, 2018
UCD School of History