Journal Volume 6 2010

‘Wild, Ideal, Romantic and Absurd’: Lady Arbella Denny and the Establishment of Dublin’s First Magdalen Asylum (continued/7)


The registers for the period immediately following Lady Arbella’s departure show evidence of some lessening in the House’s effectiveness, as reflected in the numbers admitted and in the success rate reported.30 Such a decline, however, is not uncommon in institutions heavily dependent on the commitment of a single individual – Nano Nagle’s ventures in Cork, for instance, suffered a much more severe check in the period after her death. But both Denny’s and Nagle’s initiatives did survive, largely because both women had the opportunity and foresight to create institutional frameworks and a sisterhood of co-workers and supporters from which other women emerged to carry on their work. By 1814 the Asylum had received 726 girls, and it was claimed that ‘so far as it was possible to trace their future progress through society, those who have been dismissed have evinced, with few exceptions, a thorough reformation’.31

As the service read to the departing penitent reminded her,

‘You will find the world you are returning to the very same as when you were rescued from it. You will find the same levity, the same dissipation, the same vanity, the same follies, the same vices; in a word, the same temptations … to shame and ruin.’

But, it continued, she herself was now a different person, armed not only with vocational skills but with moral training, and with her own experience of the ‘bitter fruit’ of vice.

It might be objected, of course, that in preparing its inmates for employment, the Asylum simply directed them back into those areas from which many had originally come but, given the increasingly strict division of labour between the sexes in this period and the declining number of occupations open to women, this was a problem almost impossible to circumvent. It should be said, moreover, that female philanthropists, a number of whom were actually associated with the charity, did increasingly concern themselves with the plight of homeless and destitute young women in an effort to provide some sort of safety net and to deter them from resorting to prostitution in the first place.32

Another factor which should be taken into account in assessing the charity’s effectiveness is its very limited capacity: during these years an average of twelve to thirteen women were admitted annually to the House. Meanwhile, as one contemporary account noted, the Dublin Lock Hospital treated approximately 2,000 patients in one eleven-month period in 1792-3. The Asylum, as this report observed, was:

An institution noble in its design, but when the multitudes who need the relief are compared with the few individuals who can receive it there, it must be acknowledged too, too narrow in its plan.33

It should be remembered, however, that this was a pioneering initiative, the first institution of its kind in Ireland and one of the first in these islands to offer any prospect of shelter and rehabilitation to women who had fallen foul of the orthodox moral code. Nor should it be assumed that those involved in the project were blind to defects within their own society. Poverty was readily identified as the primary factor behind prostitution, and others, besides the woman herself, were asked to bear a share of the guilt. While her choice was the ‘wretched’ one, ‘to sin or starve’, her plight was exploited by ‘the opulent’, who preyed on the distressed, the unwary and the ignorant. Once a woman had ‘fallen’, society’s attitudes made it almost impossible for her to change her way of life. As Dean Bayly demanded in one of his sermons, ‘can she work, whom no one will employ, or can she serve, whom no one will receive?’ There was even some recognition of the existence of a double standard in relation to sexual morality. Thus:

‘While the character of the betrayer remains perhaps untainted in the eye of the world … the sad victim of his perfidy is often doomed to sufferings of every kind … Outcasts from all good members of society, and estranged from those before united to them by the strongest of ties, their fate is the shocking alternative of persisting in their vices or of becoming an immediate prey to want and hunger.’34

The aim of the House, however, was not to change the world but to equip its graduates to survive within it. Far from being the ‘wild, ideal, romantic and absurd’ concept which its opponents alleged it to be, the enterprise made a rational and comparatively effective attempt to deal, on a very small scale, with a very large problem. If its aim was modest, it was also realistic and – in the context of its time - humane, and on that basis the project compares favourably with any of the rescue work initiatives which were to be undertaken in the succeeding century and a half. 


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