Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland

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Frances Finnegan traces the development of Ireland's Magdalen Asylums—homes that were founded in the mid-nineteenth century for the detention of prostitutes undergoing reform. The inmates of these asylums were discouraged-and many forcibly prevented-from leaving and sometimes were detained for life. Put to work without pay in adjoining laundries, these women were subject to penance, harsh discipline, enforced silence, and prayer. Their hair was cropped, and they were made to wear drab and shapeless clothing. Forbidden to mention their past lives, their children taken away, the inmates themselves were referred to as children and forced to address the nuns as "Mother." As the numbers of prostitutes began to dwindle, the church looked elsewhere for this free labor, targeting other "fallen" women such as unwed mothers and wayward or abused girls. Some were incarcerated simply for being "too beautiful," and therefore in danger of sin. Others were mentally retarded. Most of them were brought to the asylums by their families or priests. Unbelievably, the last of these asylums was closed only in 1996. Drawing on previously unpublished material, Finnegan presents case histories of individual women and their experiences in Magdalen homes, which claimed some 30,000 women in all. She looks at the social consequences of such a system, and ponders how it was able to survive into the late twentieth century, right through the feminist campaign for women's rights. Do Penance or Perish is the first study of this shameful episode in Irish history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"She provides valuable information about the nature of Magdalen asylum system in Ireland." —History: Review of Books

"The definitive account of the Magdalen Asylums..." —The Guardian

"Frances Finnegan's pioneering works on poverty and prostitution in Victorian Britain are classics, and so is this beautifully-produced book, the eagerly-awaited fruit of two decades' research. This is what social history should be... This excellent book represents a coming of age for Irish women's history... This is 'nasty' women's history; as feminist historians we will have to find a way of understanding (without excusing) women who perpetrated and perpetuated cruelty and inhumanity." —Women's Studies

"There is much fascinating detail, prompting questions about class, power, and religion... Frances Finnegan, provocatively sympathetic to her subject, has written a book that ascribes significance to lives that were carefully hidden" —Saothar, the Journal of the Irish Labour History Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195174601
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/29/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 284
  • Sales rank: 1,017,058
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Introduction 1
1 "Patented villains" 6
2 "Never free from their espionage" 20
3 The Good Shepherd Magdalen Asylum, Limerick 50
4 "A citadel of piety" 82
5 The Good Shepherd Magdalen Asylum, New Ross 114
6 "Do penance or perish" 157
7 The Good Shepherd Magdalen Asylum, Cork (part 2) 197
Epilogue 242
Bibliography 245
Index 253
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