Imprisoned for Their Poverty: Irish Boys, Irish Girls

     I wrote my master’s thesis on the 19th Century’s Philadelphia House of Refuge. The Houses sprang up there, in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. Before mandatory public education, urban elites began the House of Refuge movement in the 1830s to deal with growing numbers of idle, increasingly Irish working-class and poor teens hanging about city streets, more often than not raising the ire of a new and growing shopkeeper-class. Young people were institutionalized by the tens of thousands to terms in these Houses — known by the early 20th Century as Reform Schools — either by local courts — the typical charge was vagrancy — or by parents who were told that at the Houses of Refuge their children would be well-fed, clothed, and educated. Poor parents, far too often unable to care for their children adequately, at first supported the idea. Soon, however, parents learned that the incarcerations — most often not the results of trials but the results of constables’ or judges’ signatures — meant that they would not see their children for years. At least, some believed, their children would be cared for and taught reading, writing, and numbers.

     They were wrong.

     Their children were warehoused and put to work. Very little formal education was had. The Houses of Refuge used the children as unpaid labor: wood-chopping, nail-making, baking, horse-shoeing, farm labor, all manner of manual work. When boys reached eighteen thousands were consigned without their own or their parents’ consent to whaling ships. Many, of course, would never see home again. All of this was done with the imprimatur of law and in the name of giving poor youth a refuge from their impoverished (and allegedly immoral) homes.

     An awful irony was that the same elite families that founded the Philadelphia House of Refuge became Philadelphia’s earliest public school board members. Moreover, the original Philadelphia public school curricula was almost wholly a lift from the city’s House of Refuge; the public schools were the next iteration of poor-child civic management. Over time, of course, and particularly when public schooling became mandatory in the 1880s, the curriculum branched out. And, needless to say, Philadelphia’s wealthy sons, from the early 1800s, attended its real schools, the city’s finer private schools.

     I’m put in mind of my old research as I read today of Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister’s long-overdue formal apology to the descendants — and to the few still alive — of the thousands of impoverished Irish girls and women ranging in age from nine to eighty-nine remanded to what were known as the Magdalene Laundries, begun roughly at the time our Houses of Refuge were founded, places where the poorest of Ireland’s girls and women worked for virtually no money, where they were routinely physically and verbally abused by the Sisters of Mercy…how’s that for blackly ironic…where food was scarce, where dormitory heat was almost non-existent in winter, where their clothes frayed to tatters before they were issued new.

     Irish Amnesty International’s Director, Patrick Corrigan, tells us:  “Today, it is our generation’s and our governments’ reputation for honour, not that of the thousands of girls and women, from the 1850s right through to the 1970s, lives scarred by shame, family separation and servitude. Two weeks ago, an Irish government commissioned report gave a glimpse into the experiences of over 10,000 women and children inmates of ten Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland.” 

The Numbers: 

. Some 14,607 inmates were recorded across the ten institutions.

. Some 1,500 were locked up for more than a decade.

. The average age of inmate was 23; the youngest entrant just nine, the oldest, 89.

. Over a quarter of the Magdalene inmates were ordered there by the state – by the courts, the police, or social services – and almost 40% by priests or other Church bodies.

. Unmarried mothers and girls from broken homes were dispatched to live lives of servitude.

. …the report [found] direct state involvement in the operation of the Laundries.

. There are many women in Northern Ireland, aging…who were resident in these institutions in decades past.

Mr Corrigan concludes:  “Out of a sense of shame, Irish society – families, churches, courts and police – on both sides of the border – sent thousands of girls and women to lives behind red-brick walls. Not able to cope with [the poorest] girls… they were separated from their families and from wider society. Many suffered loss of identity and loss of dignity, never [recovering].”

Northern Ireland issued an apology about a decade ago.

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