The Making of Ireland’s Carceral State

Sarah-Anne Buckley

During the last century, the Irish state imprisoned a greater share of its population than any other country on Earth: not just for crimes against people or property, but for falling foul of a repressive moral code. The victims are still counting the cost.

An unidentified Magdalene laundry in Ireland in the early twentieth century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

During the last century, church and state in Ireland built up a system of mass incarceration for women who didn’t follow a repressive sexual code. They also locked up countless children whose parents didn’t have a conventional relationship or simply didn’t have the money to look after them.

Violent abuse was pervasive throughout the system of industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, and mother and baby homes. After a long conspiracy of silence, Irish public life began coming to terms with this dark history from the 1990s. It is still a major political issue in Ireland today.

Sarah-Anne Buckley teaches history at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is the author of The Cruelty Man: Child Welfare, the NSPCC and the State in Ireland, 1889–1956.

This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.


What was the nature of Ireland’s carceral state in the last century?


At present, Ireland holds the title for having institutionalized more of its population than any other country in the world in the twentieth century. One of these institutions was the system of industrial and reformatory schools. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse found that abuse in these schools was systemic and pervasive, ranging from sexual abuse to physical and emotional abuse. About 100,000 to 150,000 children were placed in these schools during the nineteenth century.

The Magdalene laundries were primarily for women who were pregnant or had a child out of wedlock. They were also for women who had been convicted of an offense. The estimated number of women who stayed in Magdalene laundries varies from 30,000 to 50,000. The last laundry closed in 1996.

In the Magdalene laundries, women faced emotional abuse, physical abuse, being detained without their will for numerous years, having their names changed and their identities taken, and not being paid for their labor. The work that was done in these laundries was backbreaking.

There are stories of women who were sent as children to the industrial schools, and then went to the Magdalene laundries or other institutions until they were twenty-one. Another interconnected story is the history of Ireland’s forced adoptions, which is threaded through a lot of these institutions. The mother and baby institutions were a product of independent Ireland. The first opened in 1921, although the idea to have an institution only for pregnant, unmarried women was twenty years older.

The recent Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse looked at eighteen institutions: fourteen mother and baby homes and four county homes. They found huge rates of infant mortality. Mortality rates for infants under the age of one were as high as 80 percent in one institution. They also showed that many of the women sent there were treated incredibly badly.

This is a history of women being forced into institutions by a range of individuals in their community. These institutions had no respect for unmarried women or their children. We’re still seeing the effects of that intergenerational abuse in Ireland today.

Even though the population of the Irish state in the 1950s had dropped below three million because of emigration, Ian O’Donnell and Owen O’Sullivan found that in the 1950s, 1 percent of the population was institutionalized in one of the myriad institutions. It’s a huge part of our national history.


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ireland had an extraordinarily high rate of emigration compared to almost any other Western European country at the time. How was this related to the country’s climate of sexual and cultural repression?


Emigration is a huge part of the Irish story. Over the course of two centuries, single women emigrated more than men. There was a reason for that. Many of them left because of the culture of repression, a culture in which respectability mattered to the course of your life. Many left because they had to: they were pregnant, they had suffered abuse, or they had been institutionalized.

St Vincent’s Magdalene cork. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stigma attached to these things was so great that many people emigrated. Many radical members of the society left, especially after independence. This created a situation in which it was easier to control the repressive culture. It was easier to control the narrative with a smaller population and with the enormous power of the Catholic hierarchy.

Ironically, many women who left Ireland’s repressive environment moved to the UK and came into contact with the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau and other organizations that maintained the repressive culture. But the research of people like Jennifer Redmond and Lorraine Grimes shows that these women seem to have fared slightly better in the UK than they did in Ireland. Their time in the institutions was shorter. It was possible to get a new start, or to leave whatever stigma or situation behind.


What were the origins of the carceral state? Did it exist before Irish independence in the 1920s, and which groups of people were most affected by it?


Women — particularly poor women — were overrepresented in all of the institutions, except for prisons. One of the first institutions in this system, the Dublin Foundling Hospital, operated in the eighteenth century. Its infant mortality rate of 75 percent can also be seen in twentieth-century institutions.

The mother and baby institutions, as well as the Magdalene laundries, were nineteenth-century institutions. Initially, they were intended to reform women who came in, but those women were allowed to leave if they wished. By the twentieth century, women began to stay in the institutions for much longer periods. Many of them could not leave. Either they hadn’t been told that they could leave, or they were being forcibly detained.

The industrial schools were specifically for children from the ages of four to sixteen years. They were intended for orphaned or deserted children. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the categories of children eligible for placement in residential schools had been expanded. In the twentieth century, parents were brought to court for child neglect, which was a very broad category. It could be a result of the parents not having enough resources to keep their children.

The religious orders also played a role. Most of the institutions, except for the psychiatric institutions, were run by Catholics in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, they were run by Protestants, but then subsequently by Catholics.

The mother and baby homes were specifically for pregnant women. According to the recent commission report, 97 percent of these women were unmarried. But a lot of the other institutions, like the county homes, had a large proportion of single women who became pregnant and needed financial assistance to support themselves. It’s complicated, but there was an overarching theme: your gender, your class, and often your religion had a big effect on whether you were institutionalized, and what type of institution you would be in.


The Catholic Church in Ireland seemed to have a particular concern with regulating sexuality and controlling women, even by the general standards of Catholicism in Europe at the time. Where do you think that impulse came from?


The type of Roman Catholicism that developed from the late nineteenth century was entrenched in the Free State. This state directed a raft of legislation at women and children, but primarily at women. When the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, its constitution guaranteed equal rights and opportunities “without distinction of sex,” but, by 1937, there was no guarantee of equal citizenship for women. They had a role as wives and mothers.

Those two constitutions showed the church and state’s changing views on women. A lot of the legislation, from the censorship of contraceptives to the banning of women on juries and the gender quotas in industry, curtailed women’s lives. It also placed a focus on men, and on male employment. It curtailed the rights of women so as to ensure a traditional family model, with a male breadwinner and woman within the home.

This is the ideology that the Irish Catholic Church promoted. It’s visible in the sermons from this time. It’s visible in the influence of the hierarchy on political and other decisions. Catholic social teaching became part of the norm through legislation, particularly in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.


Women, including some prominent feminists, did play a role in Ireland’s struggle for national independence during the early twentieth century. How did the new Irish state go from that opening to the repressive atmosphere of the 1930s and ’40s?


Women played a huge role from the beginning of the twentieth century up until Irish independence. There were tensions between feminism, republicanism, and nationalism, but the radicalized women of that time didn’t think that they could have been curtailed as much as they were. Some organizations continued to oppose the course of discriminatory legislation, but they were drowned out over time.

The culture of the 1920s became more and more centered on women within the home. Some feminists kept the message going, but it was a minority message. Between the first and second waves of feminism, a small group of women continued to organize, although they probably did not have a huge impact on the ground.

We probably have not acknowledged their role enough. Organizations like the National Council for Women and the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers fought against the 1937 constitution and the banning of contraceptives. But bringing this fight into the culture of the state was difficult.


In some of your writings, you’ve made the point that the Irish carceral state wasn’t cost-effective, strictly speaking. It took children away from families when the main issue for those families was poverty, instead of providing them with financial support. Why did the state prefer to place children in the industrial schools when it was more expensive to do so?


One of the reasons that the state persisted with institutionalization, especially while other countries curtailed it, was its allegiances with those who ran the institutions — mostly the religious orders. Keeping the children with their families would have involved building up social services and social work. If children were to be helped within the family home, they would need to be visited. The development of this type of social service and welfare model did not fit with the ideology. But the institutions had already been built. They existed. They were run primarily by the religious orders.

What was the alternative? Was the state going to train people? Was it going to deal with the reasons why children lived in poverty and parents couldn’t afford to send them to school? In 1926, tens of thousands of children were sent to the residential schools because of school nonattendance. Many of those were young men and women, between the ages of ten and fifteen, who were working and contributing to the family wage.

These children were penalized for not attending school, but their reason for truancy was not that they preferred to be hanging out. Up until the 1960s and ’70s, there were few welfare supports that families could draw upon. That is why the institutions continued to operate until the late twentieth century.


What role did the Irish courts and police play in the confinement of women to Magdalene laundries?


The work of organizations like the Justice for Magdalenes Research group and the testimonies from women who have spoken about their time in the laundries show that the courts played a key part. Women might be sent to the Magdalene laundries for one or two years. Records and testimonies show that the women often didn’t know when they should or could have been released.

The courts and police didn’t just play a key role in sending women to the laundries. Often, when the women ran away, they would be brought back. Again, they didn’t know their rights when it came to their release.

In the mother and baby institutions, many women were not sent there by the courts, except in the case of the Bethany Home, which was a Protestant institution. It took in women who were pregnant out of wedlock, as well as women who had gone through the courts.

Many women there had been told that they had to pay for their time and assistance through manual labor. They had already gone through a traumatic experience, but they were then told that they had to work in the institution. Many of these women had children who were adopted or taken from the institution; they were given no notice that they were gone. In this system, those in positions of power — often the courts and the police — were complicit in the institutions’ operation.


At the beginning of the 1950s, Ireland had a coalition government with Noël Browne as its health minister. Browne wanted to introduce free medical treatment for mothers and their children, known as the Mother and Child scheme. The medical profession opposed the scheme, and the Catholic bishops threw their weight behind the doctors. Browne’s cabinet colleagues refused to support him. He had to resign from the government, but he refused to go quietly and publicized the role of the Catholic hierarchy. What was the historical significance of the clash between Browne and the bishops?


Many historians and academics see the controversy of the Mother and Child scheme as the first moment when the Irish state confronted the Catholic Church. Noël Browne wanted to bring in free public health care for pregnant women and children younger than sixteen. It’s often described as a political showdown between Noël Browne and the Catholic hierarchy, and it certainly was. It was well covered in the newspapers at the time.

Less publicized was the fact that some of the biggest concerns around the Mother and Child scheme had to do with women accessing any reproductive healthcare, including any information on contraceptives, which was banned under the Censorship of Publications Act in the late 1920s. This also included any information on abortion services. The feeling was that if such information or services were made publicly available, women could attend any doctor, whether that was a Protestant doctor or a Catholic doctor with more liberal views of reproductive rights.

The other issue was that the third player in this controversy was the Irish Medical Association, which was against the scheme for financial reasons. They did not feel at the time that a public model would ensure their payment, or that they would be seeing the class of patients that they wanted to see.


Was there any real public scrutiny while the mass incarceration of women and children was taking place? Did anyone from the Irish political class or the media challenge it directly?


The situation taking place in Ireland’s institutions was addressed on very few occasions. Some left-wing organizations, particularly the Communist Party of Ireland, reported on it. John Byrne died in Artane in the 1930s; his father tried to follow up the inquest at the time, and to raise funds for a proper and independent investigation into his son’s death. There were references to the Daingean reformatory in the late 1960s.

But even though the politicians at the time did not speak up, inspectors sent reports to local governments — particularly the female inspectors of the mother and baby institutions — and reported incredibly high infant mortality rates. The number of yearly deaths in the industrial schools was also reported. While this issue was not taken up widely on the airwaves, and concerns were reported in more left-wing papers, officials and local councils knew about the high infant mortality rates.

Why they didn’t act in a more effective and timely manner is difficult to understand. If you get a report that 70 percent of infants under the age of one have died at an institution, that says a lot about what those in positions of power thought of the women and children in these institutions.


Since the 1980s, there has been a sharp decline in the influence of the Catholic Church in Irish society. This decline was encapsulated for many people by the outcome of the abortion referendum in 2018, but clearly it went back much further than that. What were the main factors behind that shift?


From the late 1960s, there was more discussion, even in the Irish Times and more mainstream newspapers, about the need for Ireland to modernize. This became a discussion around Catholicism, individual rights, and the state. By the 1980s, the McGee case had resulted in contraceptives being made available for married couples. In the 1970s, the Irish Family Planning Association was founded. There were other organizations that wanted to campaign for the liberalization of the laws on divorce.

Because the Catholic hierarchy was opposed to all of these changes, a cultural shift emerged. This was also affected by free secondary education, which came in 1967. Now, people from a broader range of social classes were becoming educated, getting into positions that were once completely outside of their reach.

As a result, the media reacted. The legislation surrounding censorship was loosened, and significant welfare reforms for single women were introduced. The horribly named Deserted Wife’s Allowance was introduced in 1970, and in 1973, the Unmarried Mothers Allowance was introduced.

The Marriage Bar was reviewed and discarded, so that women no longer had to give up their jobs in certain public roles after becoming married. This was the impact of decades of activism by women’s societies. And there were more and more calls for the liberalization of legislation.


What were the main landmarks in public exposure of the industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, and mother and baby homes?


One of the most public landmarks came in 1996, when Christine Buckley’s life story, Dear Daughter, was viewed by a lot of people in the country. States of Fear was a three-part documentary series in the late ’90s. It had a huge impact, because it exposed the industrial schools in a way that had never been done before. Its release led to a state apology and the formation of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. These were the key cultural moments at which many people became aware of this.

Prior to that, in the previous decades, a number of survivors and activists attempted to get the story into the Irish media. One of the most poignant books was Founded on Fear, the story of Peter Tyrrell. He sent chapters of the story of his experience in the industrial schools to Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, who preserved them. The manuscript was found in the Sheehy-Skeffington papers before it was published.


How would you assess the official reports examining these practices? Do you think there has been an honest reckoning with the past by the Irish state?


One of the first reports into the industrial schools and reformatories — the CICA [Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse] inquiry, or the Ryan report, as it became known — includes a lot of harrowing testimony. Individuals could see their stories in that commission.

The commission, however, had huge issues, particularly the indemnity deal between the Irish state and the religious orders. The religious orders have paid a very small minority of the redress to survivors. That’s an issue, because obviously it doesn’t demonstrate their responsibility for the operation of the schools.

Other issues came with the treatment of survivors when it came to redress, and with the organizations that followed. The so-called gagging order meant that those who had given their testimony were not allowed to give it in any other forum. Lastly, prosecutions would not follow from that report.

However, compared to the recent report into the mother and baby homes, we can almost champion the CICA inquiry as a model. This has been one of the worst inquiries we’ve had. We’ve had the McAleese Report, which looked into the situation in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. Campaigners such as Justice for Magdalenes Research have huge issues with it. The current inquiry is most known for the 2014 work of Catherine Corless, a Galway historian who exposed the infant death count at the Tuam mother and baby home. At that time, the figure was 796.

The Mother and Baby homes inquiry, which published its report in January 2021, took six years. It has recently become clearer to academics, survivors, and those affected by the institutions how that final report came about. One of the biggest issues with that final report is that the 550 testimonies that were given to the confidential committee were not used to influence the main body of that report. Only the testimonies to the investigative committee were used to come to conclusions on systemic failures in the institutions.

When I first saw the report, I was very surprised that no physical abuse was found. Apparently, there were no other types of abuse, or they were only in a limited number of cases. Now that it has become clear that those testimonies were not integrated, this provides a clarity to the situation; it shows that these testimonies were not given the same weight as an official document, like a register or a recording from someone in a position of power in the institution.

Not only were these testimonies not given the same weight, but they weren’t given any weight, barring a general report where many survivors have said they can’t identify their story. They can’t see themselves in that report. That’s incredibly problematic. The way that the Irish state moves forward needs to be survivor-led. It needs to be cognizant of the principles of historical justice, which hasn’t been true so far. And we have a lot of international examples in other commissions that could have been utilized here, but weren’t.