31st March 2021

By Dr Louise Brangan, University of Stirling

Why do societies punish as they do? And why do these systems of punishment change, sometimes dramatically? This study will explore these theoretical and historical questions by pursuing an original perspective, examining the mass decarceration of women and girls in the Republic of Ireland between 1970-1998.

In 1950s Ireland, Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes were part of a carceral system that held over 1% of the Irish population, a staggering rate that outstrips even such outliers as Stalinist Russia and the current rate of mass incarceration in the United States (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2007). Year-on-year, several thousand women were coercively confined and secreted away in a network of Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries for deviance, such as pregnancy outside of marriage, but also other acts considered unsavoury and beyond the pale of femininity (Smith 2008). Once confined, they found their legal and informal indiscretions could result in prolonged and sometimes indefinite confinement (Black 2018).

Protest art at Rathmines, Dublin in 2012
Photo by William Murphy, Flickr

The size of the captive population in Homes and Laundries began to drop significantly from the 1970s. In 1996 Ireland closed the last of its Magdalene Laundries and in 1998 the final Mother and Baby Home closed. There had been no civil society campaign to close them, no political lobby backing their abolition (Urban 2012; Yeager and Culleton 2016). While their abandonment occurred without much fanfare or media attention, this marked the end of one of the largest penal systems in the English-speaking world at the end of the 20th century (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2007).

This research will study these sites between 1970-1998. How do we explain Ireland’s carceral system in the last decades of the twentieth century, both its existence and demise?  The history of the decline of these institutions has not yet been fully explored and has largely escaped the criminological gaze. Yet its demise presents challenges, as well as opportunities, for scholarship on punishment, Irish social history, the shape of public memory, and our conception of justice.

Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, Dublin
Photo Credit: Desert Agama, Creative Commons

While this is historical research, and more than 20 years has passed since the last site closed, this issue has returned to the political agenda, highlighting not only why we need this research, but why we need it now. This is therefore not an issue of historical injustice from a bygone era, but a serious social matter that belongs to our present. By shining a light on this decarceration we will deepen our understanding of one of, if not the, most progressive penal transformations in the Western world in the twentieth century, positively impact on our theoretical knowledge and enrich our public discourse. This study seeks to explore this penal and social transformation and in so doing make several important contributions:

(a) This study addresses historical omissions in our understanding of how this social transformation occurred. These institutions ceased with little to no public campaigning. How did this come about? To answer this question, we need a grounded investigation that charts how the wider meanings and practices of justice and punishment altered in Ireland during this period. Using oral history methods, I intend to speak to the people who were there.

(b) This study contributes to contemporary public and political debate. Central to this project is the ethical aim to amplify the voices of marginalised groups (Pickering 2018). This research will develop an oral and archival history and use participatory methods to produce a multidimensional theatre show and a radio documentary. As pieces of art and cultural discussion these will further open this history up by giving expression to marginalised voices from our past.

(c) Theoretically, the project will move our understanding of penal change into new territory. We have seen that culture – those values, morals, fears, and taken-for-granted commonsense – is integral to punishment’s forms and functions. Yet, grounded qualitative investigation of the kind proposed here is all too rare in studies of penal culture. We have even fewer studies that closely track how these cultural attitudes towards punishment actually change over time, and with what consequence for practices of punishment. It is this conceptual gap that this study will also address.

(d) Understanding progressive penal transformation. Why do deeply embedded historical practices, presumed to be indispensable, cease altogether, sometimes abruptly?  The study of dramatic penal transformation has by and large focused on pernicious penal change in the form of mass incarceration. What new insights about the urgent issue of mass imprisonment might be revealed by instead studying its opposite, mass decarceration? What lessons can we take from this for our own contemporary need to rethink the meanings of justice and systems of confinement in an unequal world? This is thus a study of how justice is reformed, one that has yet to be investigated.

Photo Credit main image Melanie Menard, Flickr

In undertaking this work, this study aims to present a unique and in-depth social history of the construction of punishment. Examining Ireland’s carceral landscape may illuminate how and why a society undergoes a progressive penal transformation. While this is historical work, I hope it will also have contemporary resonance. If we are to find a route out of mass incarceration, we will need a new toolkit of ideas. If mass decarceration is the change we want, then it is the process of mass decarceration that we need to better understand. In addition, this study is equally about the politics of remembering. So, this is also intended as a redemptive project, developed to take part in the considerations of the cultural, political and moral ramifications of Ireland’s punitive past, contributing to how we address these issues in our present.

Louise Brangan is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Stirling. She was recently awarded an ESRC New Investigator grant to begin research on mass decarceration in Ireland.

Punishment, Citizenship and Communities