The Magdalen Asylum in Galway was founded in 1824 by a private person, Ms Lynch, and was managed by a society known as the Association of Ladies of the Saint Magdalen Society. At the request of the founder, the Sisters of Mercy became responsible for the operation of the institution following her death in 1845. The laundry and living quarters were separate from the convent/mother house in Galway. The living quarters included three dormitories, a kitchen, dining room, infirmary, recreation room, and a chapel. There was also a farm across the road.
In the late 1800s there were at least 41 Magdalen institutions in Ireland and they were known as asylums, refuges, or penitentiaries. The 1911 census lists 101 inmates in Galway, there were 110 in 1951, 73 in 1954, and 18 in 1984 when it closed. There was never an inspection between 1922 and the closure.
The inmates were known as ‘Maggies’. They had to wear ‘penitence caps’, large boots, and heavy skirts down to their ankles, never any flesh showing. After Mass each morning, they started work in the laundry at 8am. They had no days off and got no wages apart from ‘a few bob’ at Christmas. The food was poor and inmates were often found scrounging in the bins at night looking for food. They were always enclosed, there were keys for every door. Their mail was censored. On Saturday mornings they had to scrub down the dormitory and laundry from top to bottom. There was no such thing as education, no reading, no writing, and for the most part, intellectual development was ignored. They were allowed listen to Radio Éireann for an hour on Sunday.
There were six outsiders working there known as ‘paid hands’. When the inmates got their few bob at Christmas, they asked the ‘paid hands’ to go out and shop for them, to buy penny bars, religious ornaments and prayers, the smallest thing that would make them happy.
Mother Superior revealed in a 1958 interview that 70 per cent of the Galway inmates were ‘unmarried mothers’. “A girl cannot leave when she likes. No, we are not as lenient as that. The girl must have a suitable place to go. Some stay for life.” Not all were there because they had a baby, there were a number of Down syndrome girls there who had to do the same work as everyone else. There were some mothers and daughters there. If an inmate had a daughter in St Anne’s in Taylor’s Hill, she was allowed to see her once a year.
Some of the nuns left, they could not stand what was going on. Others were tyrants and dished out punishments liberally. These consisted of bad beatings and head shavings, one often saw blood and scars on bald heads.
In the early 1960s some of the Maggies used to go to the post office to collect their pensions. The local Legion of Mary noticed they had no coats so members put together a collection of coats which they sold to the inmates for 2/6 each. Some days later, the ‘Great Escape’ took place. A group of workmen were repairing the windows of the laundry. These were very thick and one could make out nothing through them. They removed the window frames and went off to lunch, leaving ladders propped up against the windows. A number of the Maggies appeared at the windows, and with the encouragement of some locals, 22 of them came down the ladders. Most of the van drivers were in the laundry at the time, which was unusual. They drove a number of the women out of town to places like Oranmore, in other words the drivers and their wives put up these women for a time as they were preparing to move further afield. Some got jobs locally, some went to England, and sadly, some were so institutionalised they returned to the laundry.
Some time before the closure of the laundry, the inmates were paid 10/- a week. One of them, named Mary, was allowed to go to Spellman’s shop nearby with a list of requests for sweets, etc, for the others. Eventually it was decided to allow the inmates out on a Sunday afternoon. Mary arrived in Spellman’s with another Mary, and having made their purchases, they went as far as the Square where they sat on a bench for an hour. The following week, Mary brought a different woman to Spellman’s and on to the Square, and she was followed by the other Mary who did the same thing with another inmate... and so began the process of de-institutionalising them.