Journal Volume 6 2010
‘Wild, Ideal, Romantic and Absurd’: Lady Arbella Denny and the Establishment of Dublin’s First Magdalen Asylum (continued/3)
Magdalen Asylum Registers
The registers of the Leeson Street Asylum, which survive from the date of the first admission, are a unique source of information on rescue work at this period and on the women towards whom it was directed. The eighteenth-century volumes cover the years 1767-95, and list a total of 388 women admitted over those that period. While the registers contain an entry for every individual, the information provided is not uniform. The applicant’s name, the number assigned to her, the name of the person who had referred her18, and her final report from the House are supplied in every instance. Other details, such as age, religion, literacy level, skills and former occupation, are recorded in only a minority of cases. Age of entry, for example, is recorded in respect of 140 applicants. On the basis of these figures, the average age at admission was nineteen. There was a theoretical upper age limit of twenty, but this rule was not strictly observed: thirty per cent of those whose ages were given were aged twenty-one or over on entry, and the oldest entrant recorded was thirty-two. The youngest recorded were two girls of thirteen, and two of twelve years old.
Information on the religious affiliation of penitents is provided in only 129 cases: forty-nine are described as Catholic and seventy-eight as Protestant, while the remaining two declared their intention of becoming Protestants. In fact, applicants’ denominational background seems to have been largely irrelevant in the early years. Indeed, the bishop of Dromore, in his 1773 charity sermon, specifically dismissed any suggestion that the asylum should cater for only one denomination, arguing ‘that distress pleads too strongly against prejudices of this kind’. Another clerical supporter, defending the admission of Catholics, pointed out that all faiths condemned equally the ‘crimes’ of which the magdalens were supposedly guilty, and that Catholic women, therefore, stood as good a chance of redemption as their Protestant sisters.19
At the same time, it is clear that both clerics harboured hopes that some of the Catholic women might ‘be convinced of their errors … and consequently become converts, not only from vice, but superstition also’.20 All inmates, whatever their faith, were expected to attend services at the Magdalen Chapel and received instruction from the Church of Ireland chaplain, but there is no indication of more strenuous proselytizing, and only one magdalen is reported to have ‘turned Protestant in the House’. By the closing decade of the century, however, the admission policy had shifted decisively in favour of Protestants, and a late nineteenth-century account stated that the charity was ‘especially intended for Protestant young women’.21 This policy change may have been a necessary decision by a small institution faced with more applicants than it had places to allocate, or it may have reflected a public preference for denominationally-based organizations. In any case, the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a number of other rescue work agencies, the great majority of which were run on denominational lines, with religious-run homes catering for Catholic women and Protestant girls going to lay-run homes, such as the Leeson Street Asylum.22
The administrators of the Asylum were more concerned with the individual’s capacity for reformation than with the details of her past life, and the registers contain no systematic account of entrants’ social and economic circumstances. Indeed, the rules specifically forbade ‘all enquiry into their names or families, except such as the parties shall consent to’.23 However, note was taken of factors which might assist the woman to find work in the future, such as any education, accomplishments, training or employment which she might have had. Thus, thirty-eight women were reported to have some level of reading ability, while a further forty-five were described as being able to read and write, or as having had a good education. One of these, Leonora McCarthy, could speak French, Alice Scott, a ‘gentlewoman by birth’, was said to have had a very good education, and Anne Fenton brought with her a small library which included a number of novels as well as a prayer book. In the majority of cases, however, no such information is supplied, suggesting that many entrants were illiterate. Indeed, a 1770 account of the Asylum’s work ascribed the women’s fall from virtue to the fact that ‘the education of most of them has been shamefully neglected’.24