top of page

Walk 10. Walking with sociologist Linda Connolly in Cork.

Planning the Walk

I was looking forward to walking with Linda Connolly, Professor of Sociology at University College Cork (who has since moved to Maynooth University) although I expected it to be quite harrowing too. Ireland has been rocked by revelations of institutional abuses in mother and baby homes, industrial schools, orphanages, asylums and Magdalene Laundries in recent years. Women were committed to the Magdalene Laundries, often by family members and usually because they were seen as deviant or sexually promiscuous. Linda is an expert on the Irish family and women’s issues, including women in Higher Education, and has written some brilliant work in these areas. Linda had previously sent me some material on the practice of performing symphysiotomies on women in Irish maternity hospitals from the 1940s to the 1980s, an issue she has also recently been interested in.[i]

Fig.1. Professor Linda Connolly

We met at the River Lee hotel in Cork. I asked Linda to say something about the relationship between her walk, the route she was going to take me and the themes of my Leverhulme project: borders, risk and belonging.


I was thinking about what we could cover today on our walk, in terms of my own interests and research, and thought the theme of ‘risky’ bodies, the forced incarceration of women in institutions and belonging (or ‘not belonging’) in relation to institutional abuses in Ireland was very central.
The women we are going to focus on, in terms of the first sites that I’ll take you to, were rejects, they were rejected by society and incarcerated without their consent. I cannot think of a strong enough metaphor around marginalisation to describe the former institutions we will visit today. Many of the women committed to these institutions were considered ‘sexually risky’ and they were treated very harshly by the Church, State and society.
So, if you take the Magdalene Laundries, for instance, thirty thousand women in Ireland we think, possibly more, often had their names removed, sometimes they were given religious names, sometimes a number and they were literally rejected by our society as “fallen women”. [ii] We will see physical boundaries/borders today that vividly reflect the level of coercion employed to contain these women, and it will be interesting to experience the way in which these institutions are physically set up. They are all up very high on a hill so they are away from the city, but also you will see the kind of imposing structures and high walls erected around them.
We probably cannot get into ‘the Good Shepherd’ in Sundays Well (which was a Magdalene Laundry with an orphanage in the same complex) as it is completely locked up but we will certainly go there.
I want also to take you to the former Cork Gaol which runs on to the ‘Good Shepherd’ and is now open to the public. This former women’s jail and the convent are side-by-side and they are very imposing structures surrounded by high layers of walls, looking down on Cork city.
One of the major issues currently arising in Ireland in relation to past abuses, memory and silence is the question of where some of the women who died in Magdalene Laundries are buried, as well as the discovery of burial sites on the grounds of institutions. At other Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, mass graves have been found, with no names recorded.
We might be able to see from the jail an enclosed graveyard that is located on the Good Shepherd grounds and which I have been interested in accessing as part of my work. Ascertaining whether or not there is a mass grave in there is compounded by the fact that there is no access to it currently. Moreover, it is surrounded by an inner high wall. The graveyard runs right onto the back of the jail and we will also investigate today whether or not we can access it or see it from there.
Graveyards are very important to Irish culture. Death is a big part of Irish culture and so the issue of boundaries and belonging is there, even in death.

“So they don’t belong”? Linda replied, “they don’t belong and they are still not being properly recognised or remembered, yes, even in death.” I asked if there had been moves to excavate the site having read about the Dublin site in the material Linda had sent to me.

Yes, there have been some attempts by activists to memorialise the women buried in all these graveyards.
The Justice for Magdalene’s Group, for instance, has made representations to preserve some of these institutions but very little has been done in relation to the religious run institution we are going to look at today in Cork.
The Good Shepherd was actually sold to the university at a certain point and then it was resold to somebody else, but ultimately ended up in NAMA which is the state asset disposal agency. [iii] It is now up for sale and we will see that when we go up.
The question around the graveyards and the (dead) bodies of ‘fallen women’ became intertwined with property development and neoliberal capitalism. During the economic boom (‘the Celtic Tiger’) a lot of the sites of religious institutions were very valuable.
In one former Magdalene Laundry in Dublin, 150 bodies that were exhumed and moved to another burial site included some unnamed women, so questions about what the nuns did without any public knowledge, about how and why these unnamed/unknown women died, and about how you deal with these relics of the past have arisen. [iv]

I say it is unbelievable, the denigration of human rights, and by the Catholic Church and nuns.

Absolutely, the key principles of the religious institutions were projected onto these women in Magdalene Laundries who worked so hard, they typically got up at five and worked until seven in the evening and then went to bed with enforced silence as this was seen as a cleansing for their “sins.” So you have these very deep-rooted beliefs around I was going to say rehabilitation but that’s not the word, whatever the religious term is in relation to ‘cleansing’ the soul and the body. Except this was slavery and legally, for instance, you could not automatically leave the laundries once you were committed to one.
Historians have documented how the historical origins of the Magdalene’s lie in the 19th century. The Magdalene system of sending young women into institutional homes first developed from the appalling poverty, disease, prostitution and poor conditions which existed in Ireland in the early 19th Century. Historians have revealed how the effects of the Famine in the 1840s consigned thousands of women to a life of desperation on the streets with little hope of income or shelter. This was the era of systemic incarceration in workhouses, Lock hospitals and asylums. Cork with a population of about 80,000 had a particularly high level of poor housing and bad sanitary conditions throughout the City.
In 1809 a Catholic Magdalene Asylum was established in Peacock Lane, Blackpool in Cork by a Mr Terry. Later, the Irish Sisters of Charity were asked to take over the running of the Asylum and following the completion of the St. Vincent’s Convent on the grounds, the order took over the Asylum in 1846. In 1810 another Protestant refuge was founded on the South Terrace, which took in women mainly from prison. In July 1872 the Good Shepherd nuns opened the Magdalene Asylum (later termed Laundry) at Sunday’s Well, which was followed in 1873 by the opening of the Convent and later still by an industrial school alongside it. The original aim of the Magdalene Asylums was to provide training and shelter for prostitutes anxious to reform. However, this rehabilitation gradually became a broader punitive based system for all kinds of ‘risky’ and ‘deviant’ female behaviour, particularly after the foundation of the Irish State in 1922. Women were often committed to the Magdalene’s by their families, for sexual behaviour or perceived sexual behaviour. The daily regime in the laundries involved harsh working conditions for no pay, where the women and girls were typically incarcerated against their will, not knowing if they would ever be released.
The concept that these women were to do lengthy penance for their sins became deeply ingrained in the reasoning behind their removal to the Magdalene Institutions. Some escaped, some were released to family members, while over 1,000 died behind convent walls, never experiencing freedom. A significant number remained within the institutions, dependent on the religious orders for the rest of their lives. Magdalene Laundries denied women freedom of movement, they were never paid for their labour, and they were denied their given names and identities. The daily routine emphasized prayer, silence, and work. Because women had to be signed out of the Magdalene or have a “position” to go to, many remained to live, work, and ultimately die, behind convent walls. Reflecting all this, the 2002 film ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ told the story of how in 1964, three teenage Irish girls are sent to a Magdalene asylum for “fallen women,” though their crimes aren’t criminal. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is pregnant out of wedlock, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) has been caught flirting with a boy at school, and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is sentenced for having been raped by a family member. There, the girls perform hard labour supervised by cruel nuns, led by the sneering Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) – and they dream of escape.

It appears that, ideologically and perversely, the nuns and Church, rationalised this as spiritually cleansing.

Exactly, yes, especially the women who were admitted for or suspected of prostitution. So again these were risky bodies. In many cases, it was in fact families who committed these women into the institutions, because they may have behaved in what was perceived as immoral or unbecoming of women’s role in society…it was also about poverty as well as rehabilitation the lower and working classes.

The stories of the Magdalene Laundries are incredibly sad and also remind me of why I wanted to walk with Linda as a feminist and expert on the Irish family and women’s issues in Ireland, as well as someone who undertakes critical analysis, that does not shy away from asking troubling questions.

Linda tells me that her early work was largely about feminist movements and rights of women to contraception and abortion, conjugal rights, employment, discrimination. In recent times though she has become more interested in motherhood (that is how she became interested in the symphysiotomy issue) as a feminist issue.

I think a lot of the early focus in Irish feminism was on fertility control and reproductive rights, but actually when we begin to look at maternal bodies and issues around motherhood and single motherhood in particular then a whole raft of questions about power, bodies, sexuality and institutions arise. Institutions are kind of considered old-fashioned in current social theory debates but social institutions is a term I actually want to bring back into the analysis because the institutions we are discussing today are so vivid in terms of their physical presence. These institutions also live on today in the form of the various inquiries and State redress schemes set up to compensate for the human rights violations Irish women suffered in the laundries and other institutions
The final place we’ll go to after we visit the Good Shepherd and the Jail is unbelievable and deals with the final theme on our walk, psychiatric incarceration. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it even from the plane? It was one of the largest buildings in Ireland, St. Anne’s “mental asylum” which is up high above the river also on our route. It is something else, a huge gothic looking building, it is quite phenomenal.[v] So, we will walk up to Sundays Well first to the Good Shepherd and the jail and then to St. Anne’s, and that’s probably enough of these kinds of institutions to see and experience on our walk today.

I thank Linda for taking the time and for taking me on such a powerful and important historical walk focused on the borders, risk and belonging evoked by the stories of ‘risky’ bodies and girls and women in the hospital, the Magdalene Laundry, the prison and mental hospital; the last three all situated in a row, high on a hill above Cork.

Going for a Walk: women’s history, feminism and social justice related to ‘risky bodies’ health, welfare and crime

Fig.2. The River Lee Hotel, Cork

Linda tell’s me that in the 20th century, Ireland locked up more of its people per capita in psychiatric institutions than any other country in the world. There was a range of institutions to respond to a range of social problems; public asylums, mother and baby homes, county homes, reformatories and industrial schools. Most were held in these places of ‘coercive confinement’ involuntarily. Our walk represents an exercise in dialogically exploring the spatial organisation, dramatic architecture of containment and the felt interior of some of these institutions in the Sundays Well/Lee Fields area of Cork city. On the walk, we both endeavoured to reflect on and conceptualise questions in relation to liberty, incarceration, feminist theory, human rights and ‘risky’ bodies/women.

We walked out of the hotel and immediately encountered a former school. Linda said:

We have just walked out of the hotel and we have run into our first religious institution which is the old Presentation Brothers School but it is now owned by the university.

Fig.3. Western Road

So this is just Western Road, one of the main roads going west out of the centre of Cork city, it would be typically fairly middle class around here plus it is beside the university. I’m going to bring you up this road and then through Fitzgerald’s Park on ‘the Mardyke’ because it is beautiful apart from anything else – but it will also take us on foot to where we want to go. Our first destination is actually one of the wealthiest areas of the city (Sunday’s Well). So, you will see that the institutions we plan to visit were built on the edges of the city but also quite near very wealthy areas.

Our first stop on Linda’s map en route to the park was the Erinville maternity hospital, Western Road, Cork. The hospital closed in 2007.

Erinville former maternity hospital

Fig.4. Erinville former maternity hospital


We are at the Erinville which is one of the former maternity hospitals in Cork and it is obviously a Catholic institution as well, all the maternity hospitals were in Cork. In 2007 all the small maternity hospitals were shut down and amalgamated into one large new modern maternity hospital in the university hospital. The reason we are stopping here briefly is because of the issue we discussed at the start of our walk today – symphysiotomy – which is an ongoing issue for survivors of this practice. There are very few survivors still alive because the practice of symphysiotomy was conducted in a number of Irish maternity hospitals between the 1940s and 1980s at a time when it had been phased out in the rest of Europe.

Fig.5. Linda speaking about Erinville

I asked Linda to explain exactly what a Symphysiotomy was.


It is a pre-modern procedure that was a precursor of modern, safe caesarean sections for women who had, for instance, very obstructed births. If you were in labour for days, the practice had a number of variations of it. Generally, it involves either sawing through the pelvic bone or widening the pelvic bone and it is obviously considered very cruel in terms of present-day birthing options though some medics still justify it in certain circumstances. When modern caesareans became widespread, symphysiotomy was only conducted in very extreme circumstances in isolated locations, when it was considered that it would save the life of the woman and baby. In Ireland, in the 1940s it was, however, reintroduced notably by certain doctors and in certain hospitals. It wasn’t conducted across the board and again there is a lot of debate for the reasons for it. For instance, one researcher (historian Jacqueline Morrissey) who unearthed a lot of the files on this has come to the conclusion that it was a preferred alternative to caesareans in the case of Catholic doctors particularly opposed to contraception and in favour of unlimited fertility/maternal births. Only three caesareans are recommended for a woman and after that then there was a perceived danger that Irish women would go for sterilisation or perhaps even at a later stage use contraception to limit their fertility following a number of caesareans. So this very much caught up in a Catholic ideology of women’s reproductive role – to produce as many children as physically possible without using contraception. However, the key problem with this procedure from the 1940s on in Ireland is that it was typically conducted without informed consent and often without the women’s knowledge.
The painful immediate after-effects of symphysiotomy have been documented by survivor groups. The matter was taken to the UNHRC in 2014.

I suggested it would be difficult to reproduce again given the pain, and counterproductive to the Catholic ideology of not using contraception. Linda agreed.

Yes, the impact on sex lives and on the health and well-being of these women/mothers for the rest of their lives as well as difficulty bonding with the baby and so forth have been widely reported by the women and survivor groups. There are also some examples of this being done not as an emergency but prior to full labour, in some cases several days before the woman gave birth. It is very difficult to justify this practice in the 1940s-80s though it is still conducted in some parts of the world today where safe caesareans are not a possibility. I think the latest one here in Erinville was 1984.
I could say an awful lot more about symphysiotomies. There has been a recent State redress scheme for these women, like so many of the issues that we are talking about today that the state has had to fess up and say first of all it shouldn’t have happened and secondly, to set up a redress scheme or inquiry. There are three categories of compensation under the Symphysiotomy Redress Scheme, fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, and a hundred and fifty thousand.[vi]
A lot of the medical records are up to fifty years old and the survivors of symphysiotomy are all advanced in years. I think twenty years is the received limit for keeping medical records in Ireland so the control of the women’s medical files and information has become pivotal around this scheme.
Some of the hospitals and the orders have said they don’t have them anymore or cannot give them; you need a copy of the medical records in order to put in your claim.

We talked about Linda’s interest and involvement in activism and she said she is

…interested in how at moments of State commemoration (it is the hundred-year anniversary of the 1916 Rising and State sponsored ‘Decade of Commemorations’ in Ireland, currently) questions of historical accountability come into play over a hundred-year period and in how the failure of the State to memorialise to these kinds of injustices is very telling especially around dynamics of power and gender. The symphysiotomy redress scheme was being overseen by a former judge appointed by the state Maureen Harding Clark.
One of the issues I became involved in this year is what many perceived as an attempt to destroy all the medical records that were submitted to the Symphysiotomy State Redress Scheme as evidence. A group of us got together and wrote letters to newspapers. We wanted these records automatically returned to the women. I have a letter from the Minister for Health in my office stating that the women who applied to the scheme were then subsequently ‘asked’ if they wanted their records returned or shredded but we argued these records should be returned automatically and never shredded. I think for anybody who has had children, you know that anything can happen with childbirth, but to be violated like that without your knowledge or consent to me is just unforgivable.

Fig.6. Fitzgerald’s Park

Fitzgerald’s Park

We left the Erinville and walked along University Walk through the park towards the Good Shepherd Convent on the hill high above us. We walked along Mardyke, past Fitzgerald’s Park, across the shaky bridge, towards Sundays Well and Merchant Princes, beautiful big houses, that have such “a colonial air”.

Fig.7. Fitzgerald’s Park Museum

We walked through the park. Linda said, “you could spend a whole afternoon at Fitzgerald’s Park, in the museum; the outdoor café and just watching people come and go”.

Fig.8. Fitzgerald’s Park Gardens

There were a number of statues we spotted, all of men, such as Michael Collins, who was “a Cork man” and responsible for signing the Anglo Irish Treaty that established the Irish Free State, in 1922.

Fig.9. Fitzgerald’s Park, a bust of Michael Collins

I could not see any statues of women in the park.

Noting the symbols of nationalism alongside empire in the park Linda said one of the big unresolved questions in Irish history is “who shot Michael Collins” in August 1922 during the Irish Civil War.

Fig.10. Fitzgerald’s Park, Memorial

Fig.11. Fitzgerald’s Park, Memorial

Against this socio-political context of the statues, history and memorialisation of men in Irish history sits the history of women in Ireland and particularly in this walk, the history of sexualities and social inequalities Irish women experienced in the new State whether it be symphysiotomy, or internment in a laundry, prison or mental hospital – and the secrecy, absences and silences around women’s issues. [vii] Linda tells me that:

one of the ‘forgotten Maggie’s’ interviewed in the documentary of the same phrase ended up in England after she was in the Magdalene laundry. She recalled how she never spoke about it, she never told her husband she was in a laundry because of the shame and the silences on these matters are and were just so profound for many decades. The silence about symphysiotomy likewise sustained until the year 2000, nobody spoke about it or acknowledged publicly that it happened, I think silence is such a very powerful thing isn’t it?

We had arrived at the shaky bridge on the other side of the Park. There was a beautiful view across the River Lee.

The Shaky Bridge and Sundays Well

Fig.12. The Shaky bridge

Linda tells me her children love the shaky bridge.

Fig.13. Linda crossing the Shaky Bridge

Fig.14. Crossing to Sundays Well

So this bridge brings us from the park into Sundays Well which is where we want to get. These houses would have been owned by the very wealthy banking, legal, medical people in Cork. Cork has a very long established kinship structure and you find the same names cropping up all the time in the medical profession, in the legal profession and in the university.

We were walking towards the prison and right next to it is the Good Shepherd Convent, which is up for sale and boarded up.

Fig.15. View of Cork Gaol walking towards The Good Shepherd

We stopped at the (former) Women’s Prison and it is a very imposing building. Linda told me that “a lot of the Republican women even from Dublin were taken here during the Irish Revolution, in the early decades of the twentieth century, including the 1916 rebel Countess Markievicz”.

Fig.16. Entrance to Cork Gaol

Linda said one of the things she was interested in and wanted to think more about in her work is the “architecture of these institutions and about space and their role today in terms of current issues around recent State inquiries into institutional abuses and redress schemes for victims.”.

Fig.17. Entrance View of the Prison

Fig.18. View towards the Good Shepherd Convent

We walked past the prison towards the Convent; the next stop on Linda’s map. Picking up on Linda’s point about the architecture of the institutions,I told her that one of the aims for me, was to push the method of walking to see how far and what can we do with this method, and I think one of the things that struck me in Belfast was what Michael Conlon called the architecture of conflict. To be there, to see and experience and feel, to see the way architecture had adapted to conflict situation, (the walls and roads that are’borders’ and ‘peacelines’, the grilles on the houses situated in these border areas), in an embodied, corporeal and cognitive way, whilst walking with Michael in Belfast, was very powerful.

Linda said a book by James M. Smith called the Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment -“ that made undesirable segments of the female population such as illegitimate children, single mothers, and sexually promiscuous women literally invisible”) also deals with these dynamics in relation to Catholic-run institutions. We arrived at the gates of the Good Shepherd and immediately felt an embodied sense of how imposing the building and the material site of such oppression, was and is. We stood in front of the locked gates and peered through.

The Good Shepherd Convent

Fig.19. Locked Gate leading to the convent

Linda hoped we might be able, somehow, to enter, as well as see the enclosed graveyard space. She said that she thought the order of nuns were still there, in a modern house near the entrance.

Fig.20. Relics of flowers and messages pinned onto a gate

On the gate were handwritten notes and tokens that had been attached to the locked metal gates and some flowers (long dead) had been left on the gate too. These were memorials similar to the flowers and objects left at sites in England where people had died, for example along roadsides, although the context and circumstances are very different.

Fig.21. Note tied to the gate

Together we read a note attached to the gate:

“My sister I am remembering you, I remember all of you here, I keep remembering you I am sorry for what happened to you, I am sorry for what happened to you at many levels. I offer these flowers, I make this offering to acknowledge” and then there is a blank “treated in a way that no human” it is ripped “with” something that looks like “recollect in the process”.

We pause and reflect on these symbolic relics deposited at the gates of the institution. “The sheer impact of being in these places/institutions is just so powerful, you know”.

The symbols left on the gate are a testimony to the memory of the women behind these gates, and to the shame of what happened to them inside the walls.

Linda questions the terminology of ‘survivors’.

I don’t know if survivor is the appropriate word, certainly, it is an empowering word but in terms of scholarship, there needs to be a deeper understanding of power. If you look at the literature on total institutions and Foucault’s writings on punishment and discipline, they cannot capture this kind of widespread experience as articulated in the voice of the women themselves, who were incarcerated in these places in Ireland.
In my work, I am engaged in constantly thinking theoretically through issues around power, silence, memory and experience in relation to ‘rejected’ Irish women. Clearly, these institutions are physical and they are everywhere, all over the country; they are material, they represent wealth, religion and power, abuse, they materially exist. But, issues around institutional power also need to be appropriately discussed through the experience of the women themselves; methodologically, and ethically this is very challenging.

On the subject of women’s own stories Linda had read a transcript of one woman

who was picked up on the street, she was abandoned (I don’t know if it was because her mother died or they were very poor) and she was placed in here. Often, then, there was a transition from the orphanage to the laundry, so your liberty was very ambivalent throughout the life course if institutionalised at a young age. Some women went into the Magdalene’s for a year or two and got out, others were there for their entire life, and so the reasons why some went in and got out and others remained there for their life and quite possibly went from the orphanage to the laundry and then quite possibly to the asylum (because the asylum was the ultimate punishment if somebody was particularly troublesome in the laundries plus some of the women committed were mentally disabled).

Linda told me that while the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry was church-run, the asylum we would later look at was State-run and it was built for five hundred people. However, at its fullest, there were over a thousand housed in the asylum. So the Church and State were both complicit in the mass institutionalisation of Irish women citizens.

I asked about the structure of the day in the Magdalene Laundries, and Linda told me that “the conditions there as they were reported were absolutely appalling”. The laundries were effectively workhouses where (usually sexually) transgressive and poor women were contained and put to work, in some cases on an industrial scale. An important issue in Irish culture and captured in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. The scandal of the laundries emerged in mid-1990’s when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, sold part of their convent and the remains of 133 inmates were discovered in unmarked graves. We return to this discussion at the asylum later.

Fig.22. The gate of the Good Shepherd Laundry and orphanage today. Up for Sale

We tried to get in, but it was locked, and all we could do was peer through the gates and wonder where the burial place we discussed at the start of the walk was, especially given the stories about unmarked graves on the site.

So here we are, yes we cannot get in. I think the order still has a spiritual centre there, I don’t know if there are any nuns still here. I would love to get past these gates. You can see it runs on to the jail. And it is for sale.

Fig.23. The prison walls run onto the site of the Good Shepherd Convent & Laundry

Linda tells me the building was badly damaged by fire around 2003 (due to arson) and she hoped that maybe we could get a better view from the prison. It looked very much like the convent abuts the prison, and we may well get an image overlooking the convent site. Linda thought the jail was built first in around 1830. We spotted another offering. Linda tells that she feels very strongly for the women buried here, that they should be recognised, and remembered. The enclosed graveyard that we could not access is pictured here and widely available on the internet. But physically, it is inaccessible and surrounded by inner walls within walls:

Figure 24 An inaccessible Magdalene burial plot, Sundays Well Cork

‘The Plaque beneath broken cross reads A memorial to the Residents of St. Mary’s Good Shepherd Convent, Sunday’s Well 1873-1993’

Fig.25. Locked Gates with Rosary Beads

Graveyards are such a central part of Irish culture, people tend their graves and is reflected in the traditional marriage proposal ‘do you want to be buried with my people or yours?’. I just feel so strongly about the inaccessibility of this enclosed area where these women are known to be buried. They have forgotten women whose history and incarceration has been erased and contained. For the survivor groups, a big part of what they are trying to do is to get these former institutions maintained and make such hidden graves accessible. What we have here a locked up, huge institution behind overgrown trees. And an enclosed graveyard surrounded by huge walls, within it. There are walls within walls.

We left the Good Shepherd and walked back along the road to the former prison.

As described by Fintan O’Toole (2003), the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries touched many of Irelands artists and writers, as well as academics and researchers. A BBC documentary Our World 2014 Irelands Hidden Bodies Hidden Secrets presented by Sue Lloyd Roberts interviews many of the survivors and tells the story of a number of Magdalene institutions, challenging the McAleese report. The poet Maighread Medbh wrote ‘The Price That Love Denied‘ in 1993 as a response to the scandal of Our Lady of Charity.

The mother and the daughter fall away / fall away The mother and the daughter fall away I’m staring at a grave that I narrowly escaped Fifty years ago it might be me In a Magdalen asylum / with my penitent’s dress and my baby bouncing on nobody’s knee My eternal happiness would depend upon how well I could renounce nature’s ways I could never speak my name all my work would deepen shame and I’d never be acceptable again The daughter from the mother is torn away /torn away The daughter from the mother is torn away It must take some strength to love when a number is your name You’re an untouched planet in a galaxy of shame There’s nothing special in your eyes or in your childish sparkling smile no mirror to reflect your lack of blame Darkness spreads like comfort and in your narrow bed the darkness speaks an answer in your head— You are the fallen woman or the fallen woman’s child and you’ll pay in pain the price that love denied Fathers of our House help us Fathers of our Babies help us Fathers of our World help us Fathers we never saw you leave Sisters of Mercy help us Sisters of the Good Shepherd help us Sisters of Our Lady of Charity help us Fathers of our churches—what do you call redeemed? Slavery wounds the soul it seems to me You made slaves of all my sisters some to suffer / some to see How could you say you had the cleanest need? And I wonder / you my Sisters / what you call redeemed when there’s some can wear the cloth and others never some that have to kneel / some wear crowns some can be exhumed while others lie peaceful in their ground The mother and the daughter were betrayed/were betrayed The mother and the daughter were betrayed In the Gloucester Street laundry perhaps they can’t speak In the graveyard of Glasnevin there’s no sound but history is pregnant and the truth is pushing out and there’s no virtue left in silence any more The ones who wouldn’t bow and the ones who wouldn’t swallow prove you can’t destroy all spirits with some lies One-hundred-and-thirty-three is a name that we’ll remember and we’ll celebrate their spirits with our lives For the mother and the daughter live always / live always The mother and the daughter live always

© Maighread Medbh 1993

Fig.26. Walking to the Prison

Cork Gaol: The Women’s Prison

Fig.27. Entrance to the Prison

Returning to the idea of the architecture of containment, the prison and convent were situated high above the city, side by side, hidden behind a series of boundaries or borders, city walls, and then the prison and convent walls.

Fig.28. The architecture is resonant of the total institution

These were absolutely resonant of archetypal liminal spaces on the edge of the city. We continue to reflect on the Magdalene Laundry and Linda said:

I think part of the rationale of incarceration was about disease, to contain the spread of disease. I haven’t looked at death rates for the Good Shepherd orphanage, but I have looked at other institutions. Another institution in Cork (it is too far away from here to walk to) was the 19th-century foundling institution. Do you know about those; they are still recognisable all over Europe? They have a large door with a kind of a drawer on it. You can pull the drawer out to put a baby into it, an unwanted child.
The death rates for infants in the founding institute in Cork was phenomenally high. It was a way of dealing with what we call today ‘a crisis pregnancy.’ Family sizes were large and it was also a way of dealing with another mouth to feed.

We paid our entrance fee in and Linda asked at the entrance if there was anywhere we could get a good view of the Good Shepherd from inside the jail (including of the graveyard enclosed by very high walls inside the convent grounds)? The manager was called to discuss this with us but she said ‘no’. We had a long talk with the Manager who said that the jail had somehow acquired ownership of the small enclosed burial site, but not of the rest of the convent grounds. It was unusual that the graveyard was given to the prison, which is publicly owned and not sold as part of the inclusive Good Shepherd site, which was aimed at property developers.

Fig.29. The Manager and Linda in the gift shop

The prison was a classic example of a panopticon.

Fig.30. View from the entrance hall

In the prison cells, we were able to see some amazing examples of graffiti, drawings and scribblings on the walls by women and other prisoners.

Fig.31. Graffiti on the Prison Cell Wall

Fig.32. Drawing on the Prison Cell Walls

Linda said a lot of republican prisoners were held here during the Civil War and War of Independence period in the early 1920s.

Fig.33. Entrance to Republican Prisoners Cell

Fig.34. Mary McDonnell’s Cell

There are obviously a huge amount of court records available on prisons – you could spend a lot of time looking at historical court records. We are in the cell of prisoner Mary McDonnell and she is recreated here as lying on a canvas mattress which was standard issue in prisons in the 1860s, in contrast with the less healthy straw mattress used prior to this. She was charged with neglecting her children, beating one of them and being drunk and accosting a gentleman. Her children will be taken to the Cork Workhouse while Mary serves her sentence of one month including hard labour; so this is where she was.
Her children could be sent on to orphanages or other institutions and when she is released, both work, home and family are gone. This represents the cycle of institutionalisation that accompanied poverty.

Fig.35. Mary Ann Tuthaigh’s Cell

In another cell, a woman is feeding her baby. Linda read the information:

So this is Mary Ann Tuthaigh and her baby boy. When aged just sixteen and heavily pregnant, Mary stole a cloth cap and some kitchen utensils intending to pawn them and get some money. Because of her advanced pregnancy, she was sentenced to only two months imprisonment without hard labour. She gave birth to her baby boy in the jail hospital and they were both returned to their cell two days later, so she gave birth here. You can see how poverty impacts, and is very tied up with the incarceration of these women, and it is so interesting to see an actual physical place where this is represented. It was a women’s prison first but then became a mixed prison.
In Northern Ireland, the women’s prison in Armagh is also a building of huge historical and architectural importance, and there are similar moves to try to preserve it. Ireland had one of the highest rates of incarceration in Europe in terms of all the institutions we are looking at today including very high rates of asylum admissions.
To commit people to institutions is very much embedded in the culture and evident in the very high rates of mental illness recorded in Irish historical records.

In the next cell Linda read the following information:

A man of bad character, who had a drink problem, was drunk and disorderly; he eventually went mad, was declared insane and transferred to the Cork asylum. So I suppose that’s what I’m trying to get at, the continuity and the movement around the institutions. There is mobility between institutions among this group of unwanted/marginalised children who became prisoners.

Fig.36. Edward O’Brien’s Cell

So here we have Edward O’Brien, a nine-year-old boy, well known and notorious pickpocket. However, on this particular occasion, he is convicted of stealing two brass ballcocks intending to pawn them as they were made of brass and would be worth good money. He has been sentenced to three weeks in Cork City Jail to be whipped twice a week and then, and this is what I mean, sent to a reformatory for five years. So you might just be given a prison sentence but then moved on to another type of institution. I mean, you can see how people lost their mind because of this.
Prisons tell you so much about society. Some of the Republican prisoners would have gone on hunger strikes and a lot of the women went on hunger strike as well in Ireland. The women’s supporters used to sing outside in solidarity, there are very evocative letters documenting this period. As you can imagine it was a very active and tumultuous time politically in Ireland.

Looking out of a window at the top of the jail towards the Good Shepherd, Linda said

So there is our circle, (pointing to the map) we are here so the enclosed graveyard in the Good Shepherd is literally there, it is behind that building, it is there. So they are there, yes, the graves of female penitentiaries are there on a site enclosed right behind the jail. Photographs are available online to show us what is on the other side of the wall. But we cannot physically access it or see inside it from here. We are literally looking at a relic of the past that we cannot access, there is a literal boundary of boundaries preventing us from seeing some of the vital evidence of these women’s invisible and incarcerated lives, in the laundry.

Fig.37. Map of the Good Shepherd Grounds

I replied: yes, in fact, there are three walls between this prison window and the site of the enclosed graves, it is totally un-passable.

Fig.38. View from the Prison

Linda wondered how high that wall is and I suggested the only way in would be to write and ask for permission to enter as it is literally impenetrable, you could not scale those gates.

Yes, (pointing to google maps on her phone) we can see it is surrounded, you see there is a community centre, there is a housing estate, there is a school, there is the convent. It was suggested here in the jail that, despite them being given the plot, the convent is the only physical way to get into these graves – which suggests that the convent and the State (through NAMA National Asset Management Agency) is still the gatekeeper. The memory of the abuse perpetrated in the Magdalene laundry remains closed/locked in.

This brought our conversation back to the role of power and how it operates “despite the land being for sale” as a “development opportunity” we had limited knowledge and no access. Linda said, “it is one thing to have committed these abuses but then to actually control the memory of it for the families? There are likewise also huge issues around involuntary adoptions from mother and baby homes, as well and the control of information/files. Have you seen the movie, Philomena?”

I say yes and I thought it handled the issues around the records very well.

Linda believed there to be women ‘hidden’ in graves inside the grounds of the Good Shepherd,

I have no hard evidence, but based on what has been discovered in other similar institutions, it is quite possible this convent also had very high death rates of children and incarcerated women whose deaths there were not always recorded and where there was no cause of death given. I looked up the census entry for 1911 for the Good Shepherd and there are about thirty names listed. As illustrated above, there is one cross inside the enclosed graveyard which has no names on it so we don’t exactly know who is buried there.
The question of dead babies in such institutions and in the culture more widely has also received attention. Recently in Tuam, Co. Galway, the death and nature of the burial of hundreds of babies at a mother and baby home generated international media attention. [viii] There were also very high rates of infanticide in Ireland as well throughout this period.
Louise Ryan a sociologist in Middlesex, has written a very good article ‘The massacre of innocence’ infanticide in the Irish free state ; and that again was different to the foundlings who were abandoned, whereas infanticide occurred in relation to babies who were killed likely because of the very high rates of poverty, high birth rates, and the stigma of births outside marriage, and the shame of this. What is so revealing as well about a lot of the Magdalene Laundry survivors, many ended up in England. Literally leaving Ireland was a way of erasing their own past and, typically, never speaking about it. England, in particular, has been, in so many ways, acted as a refuge for countless Irish women.
For instance, I have looked at the history of some of the mother and baby homes in London in the 50s and the 60s. There is a very good article ‘Unmarried Mothers’ in the Republic of Ireland (2016) by Paul Garrett; he looked at twentieth-century social work files and there were so many young pregnant girls from Ireland they had an acronym ‘PFIs.’ PFIs stands for pregnant from Ireland and PFI appeared all over these files. So many of these issues were exported, they were dealt with in a harsh way here in Ireland but they were also exported if that is the right word. So… shall we move on to the last part, the asylum, which is just up the road?

We thanked the manager of the jail for her help and left the prison after a quick ‘take away’ coffee from the coffee machine. It was a beautiful day. We walked towards St. Anne’s asylum.

Asylum: St Anne’s and St Kevins

Fig.39. Walking towards St Anne’s Asylum

In the final part of our walk, I’d like you to see there are two aspects to the asylum – one is to get up close to it and the other is to view it’s sheer imposing scale high above the river, from a distance.
We are now going up to the asylum, it isn’t far it is just around the corner but then if we have time, I think we could grab some lunch on the way back maybe, and then get the best panoramic view of the asylum looking up from the other side of the river.
So we are nearly there now, that’s the waterworks just up here – you are seeing parts of Cork you would never have visited normally.

Fig.40. St Anne’s Asylum

The building was incredibly imposing, large and long, an amazing example of gothic architecture and part of it had been turned into residential accommodation.

St Anne’s and St Kevin’s Asylums

So here we are at St Anne’s which was one, again I’m using the language of the time Maggie, one of the largest lunatic asylums in Europe certainly. It was built to house five hundred but as I said earlier, at various stages, there were one thousand in here…it is a very, very long extensive building with another section/building called St Kevin’s way up the back towards Shanakiel.
We are going in the front gate and what we are going to do is go in and have a look around this extensive building inasmuch as we can. Half of it has been converted into apartment blocks, with work ceasing on the other half when the economy collapsed c. 2007.
I suppose what we see theoretically here is a clash of tradition and modernity where one side of it is derelict but still very much intact architecturally and the other side gentrified and developed into expensive apartments more in keeping with neoliberal capitalism. Later when we finish here, we are going to go down to the other side of the river where we’ll see the whole enormity and dramatic nature of this complex, from a distance.

Linda was last inside around fifteen years ago “certainly before I had children when it was just like an open field and anyone could walk in”. Linda remembered to note in relation to our walk so far that she had also already sent me on some of the personal recorded stories of the Magdalene survivors, rather than recounting them today because “… I think it is through the women’s own voices the stories are most powerful.”

Here, obviously, in the asylums, it was men and women who were both incarcerated so we have moved beyond female only incarceration in the final stage of our walk.
The stories from here are shocking, the reports, and the neglect. I have read transcripts on the wards, they were totally overcrowded, there were reports on toilets not being cleaned, again I’m using the terminology, inmates being naked, a very base level of existence. In terms of the institutions that we have looked at today, this was perceived as the ultimate endpoint, the worst place you could possibly end up.
There is lots of evidence, as there is in some of the mother and baby homes, of experimentation on the patients – so ECT (electric shock therapy)for instance was widely experimented with here. In Bessborough which is the big mother and baby home on the other side of the city, there were vaccine trials conducted on the babies. The plight for justice and human rights, that has really shed international attention on our society for a sociologist, is compelling.
I think we have a role and ethical responsibility to be involved in revealing the hidden lives and stories from these institutions, along with historians and other scholars, and in theorising the underlying dynamics of power and oppression that created this situation in the first place. I don’t think a sociologist alone could do justice to the whole picture – which includes the architectural aspects of what we have been looking at today, alongside the spatial dimensions, the gender politics, the historical archives, and theorising power.
I think particularly moments of commemoration afford us an opportunity to reflect on the past critically and to go further than just ‘remembering’ in order to explore questions of historical accountability in the present. How this happened and why, as many would argue, we produce the similar problems and institutions today requires urgent accountability.
We have detention centres for refugees and direct provision centres which can be compared with these with the kind of institutions we are visiting today. How can we, with our history and knowledge of what was done in Ireland, reproduce such problematic institutions like direct provision centres for immigrants? There are a number of social justice campaigns, to counter the historical institutional narrative of shame and incarceration, which I think are very important for scholars to be involved in today.

I absolutely agreed with this point especially given my own research focus on social justice and human dignity as a counter to humiliation. Linda gave me a short history of the asylum.

This was a horrific place Maggie, but so often as you saw earlier there was a transition from the prison, or to be sent here as the ultimate endpoint. There is an anthropological text by a well-known anthropologist Nancy Scheper Hughes, you might know her name … she did her PhD in West Kerry in the 60s, an ethnography. She came with her family and lived near Dingle in West Kerry, I don’t know if you’ve been there, it is very beautiful.

I knew Dingle well.

She wrote up her findings in the book in 1979 ‘Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics.’ She became very interested in the very high rates of mental illness particularly among men in that area and it is a very controversial text because issues around consent and knowledge with the people she was studying were not clear. When she wrote the book the people who lived there were very upset and hurt by what she wrote in the book and there was a lot of media focus on her findings. She essentially implied that endemic in Irish family structures were latent incestuous relationships – because the mother/child bond was very weak, siblings as a consequence formed very close relationships.
She talked about repressed sexuality as a cause of insanity and schizophrenia. Also, the child in the family who didn’t inherit the farm and who could not emigrate – they were in a very depressed isolated, sexually repressed environment, where emotions were, according to Nancy Scheper Hughes, very cold, and issues around the body and intimacy were very highly regulated, because of the Catholic church. So she’s connecting that kind of repressed familial structures and the nature of community life and kinship inheritance structures, with the high rates of mental illness in rural Ireland.
There are lots of records around these asylums that actually have survived and the conditions were absolutely appalling. The film I sent you last night deals with these issues. Mary Raftery uncovered a lot of these issues, her documentaries have been very important in terms of exposing these human rights issues in Irish history. Mary Raftery sadly passed away but it was she who really exposed the silences behind these walls.
Mary Raftery was an Irish journalist and author who uncovered the child abuse as a producer for Ireland’s national broadcasting service, RTE. She brought it to national attention in “States of Fear,” a three-part documentary series broadcast in April and May 1999. In examining the state child-care system in Ireland, the series brought to light a Dickensian network of reformatories and residential schools for poor, neglected and abandoned children known as industrial schools. The schools, which were financed and supervised by the government and managed largely by religious orders, mainly Roman Catholic, served about 30,000 children from the 1930s to the 1990s, according to a government report in 2009. The films, making poignant use of interviews with victims, focused on the system in midcentury and presented a horrifying litany of torments the young people suffered at the schools: beatings, semi-starvation, insufficient clothing, filthy living conditions, overwork, emotional abuse and sexual assault.
Mary Raftery was not the first to report on the abuse. In 1970, in what was known as the Kennedy Report, a government commission deplored the mistreatment and recommended that the schools be closed. She further shocked Irish society with investigative programs like “Cardinal Secrets,” about the sexual abuse of children in the Dublin Archdiocese, and “Behind the Walls,” a documentary series about Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals, like St. Anne’s, and the large number of people committed there by their families.

Looking at the building and working out which way to go to get into the grounds we imagined how many staff it would take to run an institution this size and of the lives of those who were committed here. St Anne’s and St Kevin’s were State run.

Linda suggested we go up to the entrance to the section that had not yet been converted into apartments and try and get inside for a look. It looked incredibly imposing, even beautiful and the grounds were gorgeous and very well kept, with signs of people living in one side of the building. We both agreed that we probably would not feel comfortable living here.

Linda said,

we should walk up to the old part of it and I’d like you to be able to see the remnants, the relics of this. Often it is asked, well how could you not know what was going on here, why did nobody say anything, the same about the sexual abuse of children in all of those institutions. Nobody said anything, nobody did anything, nobody questioned. I grew up not too far from Dublin in the country and it could be said you know if you are bad you’ll be sent to ‘Artane’ (an industrial school) and there was this kind of threat about these places … we didn’t know what it was but it was a knowing threat and it suggested it was known these were ‘bad places’ despite the silence about them.

We guessed that the building was a mixture of social housing and owner occupiers or renters and wanted to go inside to take a closer look. The view of the city was incredible and at night it must have been equally spectacular. Given the architecture and large windows, we also imagined it might be quite cold inside. The prison, with similar architecture, had been cold and we noticed the staff had coats and fleeces on.

Looking at the entrances to the building Linda suggested there would have been male and female entrances. We noticed how incredibly worn the steps were. We entered the building and noticed the tiles under the concrete on the floor. Going towards a flight of stairs we were greeted by a man “Hello, how are you?” We said hello and Linda said “We are just looking around, is that OK for a bit?” he told us there are offices upstairs for all the apartments. Linda said, “Oh yes, OK we’ll go upstairs, thank you”.

Fig.41. St Anne’s Entrance and stairs

It was pretty much in a state of dereliction with work half completed. It looked like a lift was in the process of being fitted. The windows were incredible.

Fig.42. Looking out over Cork

It was cold inside and it looked like the renovations had stopped and we were looking at a section where the old renovation meets the new. We had walked up a staircase that literally parallels another staircase.

Fig.43. View to stairwell

Careful of our footing, so as not to go through a floor, we explored the rooms of one apartment. The pre-economic crash work looked unfinished, with older style kitchens and bathrooms half fitted, damp and mould in the kitchen.

Fig.44. View into living room in one of the flats

Linda said, “I think this probably was developed just so far and then the crash came and now things are starting again”…

When you look at it the quality, it is very typical of the kind of development that was done during the Celtic Tiger, there are lots of issues with building quality and lots of people’s homes cost a fortune in this period.

Fig.45. Linda descending the stairs

Fig.46. Entrance Hall and view of Cork

We walked along the outside of the building towards the semi-derelict section.

Fig.47. Derelict section of St Anne’s

Linda clambered on a stone and looked inside one of the windows.

Fig.48. Gothic window

Peering into the windows to the darkened rooms we paused and thought again about the people committed here.

Fig.49. View Inside

Linda said “…the cruelty, can you imagine working with a member of your family to commit somebody into one of these institutions for social reasons – and by social reasons I mean it was a way of dealing with mass poverty as well …there is no doubt about it such were the levels of poverty and alcoholism. And also, if you have a child out of marriage …the chances were that you would end up somewhere like the Laundry or the asylum due to moral shame and sheer burden of stigma”.

For instance, I took a taxi this morning because I was running a bit late and I was just talking to the driver and he says oh and are you going to work and I said yes and told him where and he said, oh, his sister was one of the children who ended up over with the nuns, an order I hadn’t heard of.
I mean there seems to have been with the Catholic Church a whole institutional kind of octopus, it is everywhere and he said ‘yes oh the cruelty, the cruelty’ and I said to him what do you mean and he said ‘they were so cruel to her he said they used to do things… if they had talked back or done something they used to make them kneel on pencils…you know things like that and again a lot of the narratives around the Magdalene’s are often, it was one or two particularly cruel nuns or brothers/priests, who made life hell. A lot of work has been done on the industrial schools it is harrowing, absolute horrible sexual abuse existed and the narratives around punishment, beatings etc indicate very sadistic behaviour.
Foucault’s history of sexuality looks at how the church became the experts on sexuality but also I think religious orders became the experts of these very grotesque forms of punishment that were about purifying sin and really it was about punishing females who were marginalised, disabled, fallen women or children who were poor or abandoned or their parents are alcoholics or destitute. It was a way of controlling people who didn’t fit the kind of civilised, class-conscious modern society emerging. Ireland was not exceptional in that you see these institutions, like the Magdalene’s, all over Europe but it is the scale and interaction with the form of Catholicism that is all-embracing and just terrible. The material I have looked at around the Magdalene Laundries suggests systematic cruelty, the women could not talk, you were given a number and punished, the conditions around the work often standing in water for hours, working with very heavy irons, burns and dangerous …it was a dangerous kind of industrial work…there doesn’t seem to be any kindness there at all. Slavery is mentioned because the women who went in young or went in from an orphanage were denied an education, they could not read or write, they were given a number, some stayed in institutions for their life, they had no liberty, their only crime was to be born in difficult circumstances.

The groundsman we saw earlier told us that young people burnt part of the building down two weeks ago. We looked up at the scorched roof.

Fig.50. View of Fire Damage to the roof

It seemed that the young man in question was not caught in the act but was also breaking windows of cars and the windows in the back. Linda wondered if his family were ever in here.

The groundsman was really interested in the history of the asylum and was happy to spend a few minutes talking with us. He said, “it is a fantastic building with a history, with two halls and a big dance hall out the back”. He said they are all connected with tunnels underneath up to the red building so that the patients would be able to be escorted without being seen.

Linda said we were over at the Good Shepherd as well and often the orphanages and the laundries were connected by a tunnel. The man had been in the tunnels and said: “they are very eerie, very eerie, most of them are blocked now, and the other buildings belong to the HSE Ireland’s Health Services)”. St Kevin’s, the smaller redbrick asylum building built right next to St Anne’s in a later period was not in use any more, nor the church.

We were able to take a closer look at St Kevin’s sitting right next to St Anne’s, though built in red brick. Linda said, “St Kevin’s was an asylum and in use when St Anne’s numbers declined”. My response was “So the numbers declined and then they built another?”

Using the torch on Linda’s phone we peered into more windows. Linda told me about one of the Magdalene’s in New Ross, New Ross (Wexford) had a big Magdalene asylum and with an orphanage and one of the stories in the Forgotten Maggie’s (a very powerful documentary made by Stephen O’Riordan and Ger Boland) is how one girl was taken from the orphanage to the laundry by tunnel because you weren’t supposed to use the children for labour. The tunnel concealed this practice and kept it hidden from view.

Being with Linda in this place, seeing it, feeling it, seeing the hugeness of this total institution and just imagining the life here, the silence and the secrets and the tunnels-so that the public didn’t see the inmates, was unnerving and disturbing. The voices of those interviewed for a documentary Behind the Walls, about abuse in Irish Psychiatric Institutions featuring the asylum were still playing in my ears. The sexual, physical and emotional abuse, the lack of dignity and the harsh conditions in the laundries. O’Riordan interviews a gravedigger in The Forgotten Maggie’s who was part of the team exhuming the 133 remains of women at High Park in Dublin. There were more bodies, in total 155 in total. “A lot of them had plaster of paris on their wrists, hands, ankles.” Broken bones, injuries sustained whilst working in the laundry. “I discovered a part of my history I did not know existed.”

In Behind the Walls, a former nurse states “the beds were back to back, no privacy, bathing facilities very poor, hot water was constantly limited.” A former patient said“we were lined up from 9m in the morning and it would take from 9am-12.00, we were told to strip, some were even naked all the time. We were dipped into a bath, reminded me of early days in my life when we lived in the country and I used to see sheep dipping. I would be given clothes and they didn’t look or smell clean.”

Linda tells me there was another huge asylum in Dublin at Grangegorman but it is now a campus, DIT, Dublin Institute of Technology.

We walked down the incredibly steep steps, helping each other down, we almost had to climb down. One of the steps had decayed and slipped so we had to take great care in passing.

It was a beautiful day looking out over Cork

Fig.51. View of Cork from St Anne’s Asylum

Linda tells me that there was a huge housing crisis in Ireland, as there are not enough houses to buy or rent and the rents are expensive, and nobody is building currently, due to the restrictions of the property crash, so housing development stalled at a certain point in time.

Fig.52. Barrier separating the renovated part of the asylum

We made our way across a piece of wasteland, past the barrier/boundary into the renovated part of the asylum, a risky boundary between old and new. The sign on the barrier read ‘Unauthorised entry, hazardous’.

Fig.53. Negotiating the Barrier

I told Linda I was feeling connected to Cork’s history especially of women’s histories and really touched by the experiences of those generations of women who transgressed and were contained, imprisoned and sectioned as a consequence of their perceived ‘transgressions’. This is common throughout history but in Ireland (and other Catholic countries) the relationship between church, the family and state is/was very particular.

Linda recommended a book on the Catholic Church by a well-known sociologist Tom Inglis (1998) called ‘Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland ’ about the institutional power of the Catholic Church historically and politically. “Inglis explains that Catholicism was not simply a faith which endured but a fundamental force that shaped Irish society, dominated the way we dealt with our families, the way we gathered as a group”.

We caught up with the groundsman again who showed us the ballroom and shared more of the history of the estate.

He points out where the church is and tells us the site is 20 acres of farmland too as well as this site and that they were self-sufficient. A tunnel leads from the church too:

all under the whole way up to the church and the whole way to the next there is a big dining hall. You see look the tunnel would go, start down at the bottom there and they used to bring them up and round and I’ll show you this ballroom. And this is the smaller one, there is a bigger one up there the dining hall but it is twice the size of it.

Fig.54. View of the Ballroom on the left

The ballroom is incredibly well preserved, with a viewing balcony looking over the hall, and stairs to the viewing gallery, accessed only from the outside of the building.

Fig.55. Ceiling and Viewing Gallery

Viewers would never have to be close to or pass by the inmates. The groundsman told us it was believed that you could heal people with music, so the owners and staff “would be up there on the stairs” but “not inside”.

Fig.56. Inside View of the Ballroom

Our attention was taken by a baby pigeon fluffing its feathers.

“So this was therapy”, Linda said, “rather than social dances”?

Linda said she was “last here with her husband about fifteen years ago and there were no apartments then so we had a great look around but we didn’t see this, we didn’t know it was here and so preserved”.

Chains hung from the ceiling to enable the lights/lanterns to be used. The groundsman said

There would have been oil for the lanterns, there was no expense spared on the fixtures and fittings at that time it was just top quality. They had a joinery shop and they made everything here on these twenty acres it. I said I’d show it to you since you were interested.

We thanked him for showing us around. He said

And sometimes I find it eerie now if you go down to the basement there is a very eerie feeling round. Then if you are thinking about it but actually the building is amazing. There is nowhere like it. It is a pity they didn’t restore it isn’t it, you know because of the history.

Linda responded, “But I suppose a lot of people want to forget the history don’t they like these people who were, there is no graveyard here is there”?

No, he said, “but they say there is a few people buried but there’d have to be you know I’d say there are a few hundred graves all around the place you know”. We asked about the church above the buildings:

I don’t know, if you go up there, there is like a statue in the middle there is an orphan, even the graffiti from the 70s are still on the walls, you know but they have steel shutters on the church and on the red building, so no one actually has got inside there.

Linda thought it must be quite preserved in that case, compared to here.

He said “Yes we opened it up there last week because they had the excavator in. He said he had met a few people who were doing projects on it.

However, there is not so much on the history when you try to look it up is there? There is a really fantastic book on it, it shows you the farm and everything in it. Everything, everything, if you go up the back because the farm was up there, so they would have had a joiner’s shop, that made all the roofs so originally it was just the centre bit, just this one built first and then they built out. Thousands of people were here, that’s true.

He said he often talks to people who worked here, like one man who was sixty-seven, he used to come up to visit.

Linda said, “Oh yes you could definitely do interviews with people who worked here, I think now they may feel they could talk about it in a way that they could not before”.

The groundsman said the space had changed from how it would have looked originally, as a lot of earth was dumped nearby when the new housing estate was being built; and the road that went from the top all the way downs was lost.

“Ladies, I’m going to go back to work.”

We thanked him again and told him it was really brilliant to hear about the place, from his experience. His response was ‘hey enjoy the sunshine’.

We made our way down to the city for lunch and a de-brief. We looked up at the asylum, the prison and the Good Shepherd convent/former laundry and orphanage over our lunch.

Fig.57. Looking up from the City, St Anne’s and St Kevin’s [red brick]

Fig.58. View of St Anne’s over the river

In summary

We closed our walk over lunch, discussing the broader social context of institutionalisation as a western phenomenon.

We watched two heron’s for a while and Linda noticed more on a tree. “Yes, there is quite a few of them around here”. I said “it is such a beautiful city Linda and she replied, “the past ten years have been very bad economically but yes it is a very beautiful place”.

I thanked Linda for walking with me and showing me the Cork connected to her research and commitment to social justice for women, especially marginalised women and women who transgress; the women and children placed in the Good Shepherd, the women who were sent to prison for crimes of poverty or for challenging and resisting their marginalisation and othering, and the women and men who were interned in the asylum of St Anne’s or St Kevin’s. And the women who had symphysiotomies performed on them without their knowledge or consent in Catholic maternity hospitals.

In our walk, we explored a rich and evocative history of sexual and social inequalities for women, and sexual abuse, alongside the impact of architecture of containment and the stories of people interned in the laundries, prison and asylum. We had talked to some interesting people along the way, the women working in the prison and the groundsman at St Anne’s, who in their own way was really important in helping to tell the stories of these places, the institutional biographies.

I commented on the value of the mobile nature of walking with Linda in connecting with more sensory understanding and meanings of, in this case, women’s transgression and incarceration in the Magdalene laundries, prison and asylum. Indeed, how Walter Benjamin ’s concept of ‘Body and Image Space’ connects all of the walks.

For the poet Máighréad Medbh (2016)

“the walk is an activity that places you on the outside for a while. You pass and observe. It’s also a kind of communication. You relate to your environment…It’s a way of engaging the body… of letting the body think for itself within the onward rhythm”.

Sociologically, taking this walk with Linda highlighted feminist issues in Ireland, especially the social and cultural history told through Linda’s own work, as well as the work of other academics, Louise Ryan and Paul Garrett and the journalists, writers, filmmakers and poets, such as Mary Raftery, James M. Smith, Stephen O’Riordan, Ger Boland and Máighréad Medbh. It also brought to my attention the State’s current attempts to provide redress for the past. A state apology was issued in 2013, and a 60 million euro compensation scheme was set up.

The walk also reinforced the connections in our work, the themes of borders, risk and belonging in women’s lives and the importance of historical, biographical and narrative research for telling the stories of the women and children who were marginalised, silenced, Othered; stories of risky bodies, transgression and social stigma and the importance of social justice in driving our work as academics and researchers.

I had learnt so much in the few hours we spent together on the walk, and potentially so much more than if I had I interviewed Linda in the quiet calm environment of the River Lee Hotel. I also felt more connected to Linda’s work. Her latest book The ‘Irish’ Family was published in 2015 by Routledge and in the same year, an e-book edition of The Irish Women’s Movement was published by Palgrave.


[i] The practice of conducting symphysiotomies in Irish maternity hospitals, well into the late 20th century, only really came to light in 2000 because it was utterly suppressed. The reason why is a lot of the women who had symphysiotomies performed on them weren’t told what was being done to them at the time and so obviously there was no consent. Many were not aware of what exactly was done to them despite the pain and suffering they experienced subsequently. Early in 2000 a woman went on national radio and said ‘this happened to me and it is X’, it had a name, symphysiotomy… then all these other women, suddenly the penny dropped, and they started coming out of the woodwork saying ‘that happened to me’ as well. For more details on this practice see:

[ii] The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, also known as Magdalene asylums, were institutions, generally run by Roman Catholic orders and operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They were established essentially to house “fallen women“. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions in Ireland. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the Dublin laundries. This led to media revelations about the operations of these secretive institutions. A formal State apology was issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors was set up, to which the Catholic Church has to date refused to contribute.

[iii] The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) is a body created by the government of Ireland in late 2009, in response to the Irish financial crisis and the deflation of the Irish property bubble.

[iv] Mary Raftery in 2011 wrote in 2011 in the Guardian newspaper about how a religious order sold a piece of land that contained a mass grave. It was full of “penitents”, the label attached to the thousands of women locked up in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, ran High Park, the largest such laundry in the country. The order split the cost with a developer of clearing the mass grave, exhumed and cremated the bodies, and re-buried the ashes in another mass grave, in Glasnevin cemetery. However, it emerged that there were 22 more bodies in the grave than the nuns had listed when applying for permission to exhume. Over one-third of the deaths had never been certified. The nuns did not appear to know the names of several of the women, listing them as Magdalene of St Cecilia, Magdalene of Lourdes etc.

The final number removed from their initial resting place was 155. All had died in the service of the nuns, working long hours in their large commercial laundry for no pay, as Raftery noted, “…locked away by a patriarchal church and society ruthlessly determined to control women’s sexuality.” The United Nations Committee Against Torture (Uncat) criticised the Irish government for refusing to acknowledge the pain and abuse suffered by women incarcerated in the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996 and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme.

[v] Our Lady’s Hospital, formerly Eglinton Asylum, Cork was built to house 500 patients. It was the largest of seven district lunatic asylums commissioned by the Board of Public Works in the late 1840s to supplement the nine establishments erected by Johnston and Murray in 1820-35. Like the earlier buildings, the new institutions were ‘corridor asylums’, but with the emphasis onwards rather than cells. There was a change in style from Classical to Gothic. Designed by local architect William Atkins, the Cork Asylum was one of the longest buildings in Ireland (almost 1000 feet), originally split into three blocks punctuated with towers and gables. The elevated site overlooking the River Lee at Shanakiel appears to have been chosen by the local Governors for dramatic effect as it was built on a steep slope.

[vii] As Mary Raftery has argued in the Guardian: Irish society was deeply complicit in the incarceration of women and girls in the laundries. In what has been described as a culture of containment, Ireland locked up more of its citizens per capita than anywhere else in the world – not in prisons, but in psychiatric hospitals, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools. Anyone who did not fit within the cruelly narrow definition of good behaviour was in danger.

[viii] Catherine Corless, who lives outside Tuam, had been working for several years on records associated with the former St Mary’s mother-and-baby home in the town. Her research has revealed that 796 children, most of them infants, died between 1925 and 1961, the 36 years that the home, run by Bon Secours, existed. She also discovered that there were no burial records for the children and that they had not been interred in any of the local public cemeteries. In her article, she concludes that many of the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home.

All the photographs in this walk are © Maggie O’Neill

The narrative was produced together.


bottom of page