Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the psychological architecture of surveillance

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCultures of Surveillance
EditorsAntonia McKay
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 10 Apr 2018
Just as the mental asylum was at one time perceived as the panacea for the mentally ill (Brown, 1980), so too were the Magdalene laundries of Ireland seen as the solution to the problems of ‘loose morality and deviant behaviour of young women’. This paper will use the site of a former Magdalene Laundry in Waterford as a case study to consider both the psychological architecture of surveillance, as well as how the physical site operated to enforce a sense of containment. Schutz and Wicki (2011: 49) have argued that, “architecture can convey the natural existence of psychiatric structures within our society”; thus, both the outer architecture of a facility, as a representation of outside people’s fears of those contained within, and the internal architecture (and the changes in these structure) may be representative of the prevalent views of ‘othering’ of patients (in the case of psychiatric facilities) and women (in the case of Magdalene Laundries) and their treatment over time. Post-independence Ireland contained what it perceived as sexual immorality by locking it away across a range of interconnected institutions, including mother and baby homes, industrial and reformatory schools, mental asylums, adoption agencies, and Magdalene Laundries. Smith (2007) describes this system as Ireland’s “architecture of containment”, which functioned to remove troublesome women from society. As a result, the Magdalene women existed in a dichotomous state of constant surveillance behind high walls and locked doors, while being hidden from view from the rest of society. Taking a psychological approach, this paper will frame the Magdalene Laundry as a cultural phenomenon, and consider how the performativity of gender is framed and manipulated by the constant surveillance of the Religious Orders within the physical site of the Laundry, whereby it is theorised that even subtle cues of surveillance can impact behaviour (Bourrat, Baumard, & McKay, 2011). This analysis will be further contextualised within the frame of Foucault’s (1979; 2006) discussions on the enactment of disciplinary power through architecture and Bentham’s principle of Panopticon order. 

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