Journal Volume 6 2010

‘Wild, Ideal, Romantic and Absurd’: Lady Arbella Denny and the Establishment of Dublin’s First Magdalen Asylum (continued/5)

In only one instance is the entry into prostitution and the subsequent decision to enter the Asylum fully documented. Sarah Lucas, about twenty-two years old, was admitted in 1777 on the recommendation of the rector of Drogheda, who in a letter to Lady Arbella pleaded:

‘The uncommon and hideous circumstance, that her parents, tho’ nearly allied to some persons of special worth in this town, did by their own profligate lives, and even instigation, chiefly promote the prostitution, which soon became common, of their unhappy child … She, now struck with horror at the view of her crimes, and at the prospect of her consequent misery, shows the most apparent marks of contrition, and seeks … admittance into your asylum.’

Sarah stayed for about a year and a half, and left ‘with a good character having behaved very well during her residence in the House’. Nearly three years later, however, Lady Arbella received word that she had been dismissed from her place, having been found in bed with a man by her mistress. On the Asylum’s own standards, then, Sarah must be counted among its failures, but her subsequent lapse need not negate the sense of ‘contrition’ which she had claimed earlier, and which was the basic requirement for entry to the house. In many cases, however, other factors must have played a part in prompting women to seek admission. Pressure from family members was clearly decisive in some instances, with parents, grandparents and other relatives listed as recommending individuals for admission. Others were nominated by employers, some of whom promised to take them back after their release. Destitution and illness must also have acted as incentives. Despite the fact that ‘good health is a necessary qualification for admittance’, it was inevitable that some inmates would subsequently be discovered to be ill. Where this occurred, the patient was either cared for on the premises or sent elsewhere for treatment, to be returned to the House on recovery. Those found to be suffering from venereal disease were apparently subject to the same policy as those with other illnesses. One woman, found to have the ‘bad disorder’, was given the opportunity of going to the Lock Hospital, and a number of cases were actually received from the Hospital, having presumably completed their course of treatment there. According to the registers, however, several of those sent to hospital for medical treatment subsequently ran away, or behaved so badly there as to be forbidden re-entry to the House, suggesting that their initial application may have been prompted less by penitence than by need and infirmity.

Pregnancy was another circumstance which affected a woman’s earning capacity, and which might have led some to apply for admission. However, very few such cases are recorded. Where women were discovered to be pregnant, they were apparently sent to hospital for their lying-in. Catherine Carroll, admitted in January 1795, went on 13 May to the Lying-in Hospital, where she gave birth, dying there twelve days later. Mary Meskell was more fortunate: admitted in October 1777, she ‘prov’d to be over four months with child, therefore was sent to the House of Industry to pass her time in safety till she should be brought to bed’. Meskell later returned to the Asylum, from which she was dismissed with credit three years later.

The registers contain no record of the fate of the child in either of these cases – both may, of course, have died. However, it is very unlikely that these were the only instances of pregnancy among magdalens in the course of these years, or that some women did not already have children. The House itself seems to have made no provision for the care of infants at this period – it is possible that some remained in the care of relatives or were placed in one of the parish or privately-run orphanages. Alternatively, lady supporters of the House may have helped to find homes for them, as they did for the penitents themselves. Certainly, a number of those listed as friends of the Asylum subsequently lent their support to initiatives established during the closing decades of the century to meet the needs of homeless and unprotected children.27

For some applicants, the Asylum may have served as a temporary shelter during the winter months or during the absence of a male partner or breadwinner. Mary Sarsfield was reported to have spent time in the Marshalsea with her lover, who was confined there for debt, and came straight to the House from the prison. ‘A very bad-minded woman … totally ignorant of everything that was good’, she was expelled after six months for causing disturbance. Another woman, Mary Stephens, behaved well for two years, ‘but a soldier coming to Dublin who (she said) was her husband’, she insisted on leaving with him.


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