Dublin Magdalen Asylum / Denny House, Dublin,Republic of Ireland

The Dublin Magdalen Asylum, at 8 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, was founded in 1765 by the philanthropist Lady Arabella Denny. She had previously been involved with the Dublin Foundling Hospital, which admitted deserted and abandoned children. After discovering that many unmarried mothers had been forced to place their children in the Foundling Hospital, Lady Denny decided to establish a separate institution to care for the mothers, which became known as the Dublin Magdalen Asylum. A similar establishment had been founded in London in 1758. By the end of the nineteenth century, several hundred such institutions existed across Britain and Ireland. The Dublin Magdalen Asylum admitted former prostitutes and unmarried mothers, who were expected to perform work such as laundry work, needlework, and domestic duties. The women's labour contributed towards their maintenance in the home but could also provide them with skills that would help them find employment after leaving the institution. The Leeson Street institution was established specifically to cater for woman of the Protestant faith. Unlike other Magdalen Homes in Ireland, it admitted pregnant women, so long as they were 'first fall' cases — pregnant for the first time.

In 1768, a chapel was opened adjoining the Asylum and became a fashionable place of social contact. More significantly, it provided an important source of income for the institution in the form of pew rents — payments by wealthy individuals to reserve a pew in the chapel for their exclusive use.

The Asylum was overseen by 'guardians' and 'governesses'. Male donors to its funds were described as guardians and the home's management committee was drawn from the guardians. Women donors, or the wives of prominent men, were known as governesses, and were involved in the internal running of the home.

The Asylum occupied relatively spacious premises, three storeys in height and, in 1911, described it as a 'first-class dwelling' with eighteen rooms. The residents of the home at that date comprised three staff and eleven resident women.

The Leeson Street site is shown on the 1907 map below.

Dublin Magdalen Asylum (Denny House) site, Dublin, c.1907.

During the earlier part of its existence, the Asylum was a typical Magdalen Home. Its inmates were described as 'penitents'. They were forbidden to speak about their past or to use their own name. At Leeson Street, new entrants were given a number and known as 'Mrs One', 'Mrs Two' etc. The focus was very much on the reform of the mother. By the 1920s, however, the child and the mother's relationship to it had begun to receive attention and the institution evolved into a Mother and Home. In 1925, Emily Buchanan, a long-term member of the home's committee told a government commission that 'the secret of saving both mother and child is to be found in our system'. The objective should be to save the child 'physically' and the mother 'morally'. After giving birth in either the Coombe or the Rotunda hospitals, the mothers returned to the home with their baby. They were

'obliged, if at all possible, to nurse the infant for 8 or 9 months, during which time the girl is trained for domestic service and in needle work — making outfits for both children and mothers. There was an average of twelve women in the Home at any time; they arrived 2-3 months before the birth. When the baby is weaned the girl is sent to a situation and the child is handed over to the Boarding out Committee who place it with a 'nurse' carefully selected and who visit the foster homes at least once a month.

The Asylum expected a payment, or at least a partial contribution, from every woman who was admitted. These payments might come from her family or a local clergyman and it appears that women who had not paid an agreed contribution were pursued. By 1920, the Asylum was also receiving financial support from the British Government through a scheme to assist voluntary social agencies. The Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) reimbursed the home for half of the cost of maintaining a mother and child, up to a maximum of six weeks before the birth and one year afterwards.

The Asylum building was formed from what had originally been two houses. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to maintain and appears to have regularly suffered from heating problems. At the end of the Second World War, there were frequent shortages of fuel which meant that the kitchen range could not be used. In 1953, the Matron recorded that the open fire in the day nursery had been replaced by 'the continuous burning fire'. In 1954, due to colder weather and fewer numbers, the 'girls' were eating their meals in the kitchen and the staff were eating in the boardroom. In 1955, the boardroom was turned into a nursery with a new 'stove fire'. At around the same time, a governor provided two 'Aladdin' paraffin heaters. In the same year, the Matron complained that the nurse was running an electric fire off the light plug in her bedroomwhich was expensive and frequently caused blown fuses. A gas fire was subsequently installed in the room.

Despite its location in the centre of the city, the home had quite a substantial garden. It apples were bottled and the gooseberries, rhubarb and blackcurrants used to make jam. In 1948, there was a large crop of turnips.

In 1955, when Miss Alice Litster, a DLGPH inspector, visited the premises, she observed that most of the domestic work was done by the mothers although the home's records also note the hiring of temporary staff to carry out nappy washing and cleaning.

During the 1950s, the Matron's book records excursions to gather blackberries, and visits to the zoo, the cinema, and the Gaiety pantomime. In 1956 a doctor who was associated with the charity, drove three mothers to the 'Children's Fold', a children's home in Monkstown, 'which pleased them a lot' — this may have enabled the mothers to see their children who were being boarded out there. In a later entry, she wrote that she was 'Glad to say that the girls all go out from time to time, church, shopping, visiting another girl in Rotunda and occasionally going to the cinema'; 'on probably the wettest day of the month', she had taken three women to Glendalough 'where we had a picnic tea'. The Matron recorded the Christmas day menus, which followed the traditions of Irish homes at the time, with either turkey or a goose, and other trimmings.

By the mid 1950s, the Leeson Street building was in need of major repairs and by 1955 efforts to sell the premises had begun. The home and its adjoining chapel were sold in 1958 to the state-owned Irish Sugar Company for £23,000. The new owners demolished the existing buildings and erected offices on the site.

New, smaller and more comfortable premises were purchased at 83 Eglinton Road, Dublin. The property — a detached, nineteenth-century suburban house with spacious gardens — cost £5,250, with a further £4,000 was spent on fitting it out. The additions included the construction of a delivery unit, plus a new laundry and bathroom. Initially, a temporary chapel was improvised until a new one was built. Mothers, children and staff moved to Eglinton Road in March 1959. Modern facilities that were installed at the site included a new washing machine, Burco boiler, spin drier, tumble drier and television.

The numbers being admitted to the home began to fall towards the end of the 1960s. In 1970, the Matron noted her concern about the lack of upcoming bookings. She had also been advised by an inspector from the city's Maternity and Child Welfare Department that the length of time that the girls stayed in the home, before and after confinement, would probably have to be shortened. The inspector also suggested that to her that it was time that they changed the name of the home.

In 1974, following the closure of the Bethany Home and the sale of its property, the Asylum received the major share of the proceeds, amounting to around £35,000.

In the mid-1970s, a volunteer arranged for the women in the home to assemble the boxes used to package a board game, and be paid for this work.

In 1979, the establishment was renamed Denny House, in honour of the Asylum's founder. At the same time, the home's admission policy was changed. Denny House would still give priority to Protestant unmarried mothers and their children, but they could now admit separated, deserted or recently widowed women with their children, and Catholics if accommodation was available. The decision to admit Catholic women had an immediate impact. In July 1981 there were six mothers and five babies in Denny, one infant being in hospital. All five of the recent admissions were Catholics

A set of house rules drafted in 1981 stated that 'Each mother takes full responsibility for her baby with the help and supervision of the staff. Mothers are expected to play their part in the day to day running of the house'. Visitors were welcome in the afternoon and evening. Mothers would continue to meet their social worker, if possible, while in Denny House; if that was not possible the Denny House social worker would fill that role. They recommended that each mother and her social worker should visit Denny House before booking a place. Breakfast in the home was at 8.30; lunch at 1 p.m. and tea at 4.30. Visiting hours were 2-4.30 and 6.30 to 9. Alcohol was forbidden; a mother was required to take her baby if she was going out unless she had made an arrangement with the staff or another mother. Women were required to be back by 8.30 p.m. unless given permission. Disposable nappies were not permitted and babies were not to be in 'other rooms'. Women had to supply their own washing powder and soap. Smoking was forbidden in the kitchen, dining room and upstairs.

Many mothers and children who were in Denny House in the 1980s were awaiting long-term accommodation. Housing remained a major difficulty, perhaps the major challenge for mothers who wished to keep their child. Other women were in Denny House because of difficult relationships with their family.

In 1982, Denny House told the Department of Health that 'a wind of change' had blown through the home, with the appointment of a new Matron. They planned to offer cookery and budgeting classes, elementary biology (presumably a euphemism for birth control), and marriage counselling. The home, which accommodated ten women, then had a waiting list.

Denny House closed its doors in 1994.

In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which included an examination of the operation of the Magdalen Asylum and Denny Home. An analysis of its records revealed that 1,416 women were admitted to the institution in the years 1921 to 1994. The busiest period was from 1981 to 1993, when a third of all admissions to the home took place. The rise followed the decision to admit Catholic women. In the period 1921-80, sixteen women on average were admitted each year.

Around 99 per cent of the women admitted were single. Women admitted to Denny House in 1924 stayed there for 341 days on average; this had reduced to just 175 days for women admitted in 1935, and for women admitted in 1983 had decreased to just 41 days. In the 1920s, most women spent between six and twelve months in the home after giving birth. In the 1990s, 84.5 per cent of women left within 50 days of giving birth and all remaining women had left within six months

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the most frequent exit pathway for children was being 'nursed out'. This accounted for 73 per cent of exit pathways in the 1920s and almost 76 per cent in the 1940s. Legal adoption was the primary exit pathway in the 1950s and 1960s and accounted for 51 per cent and 62 per cent respectively. In the 1980s and 1990s approximately 60 per cent of children left Denny House with their mother; around 30 per cent of children transferred to other institutions and less than 10 per cent were placed for adoption in this period. Eight children were identified as being placed for foreign adoption from the home, their destinations being: USA (3), Great Britain (3), Australia (1) and Canada (1).

Compared to other institutions, the home had a relatively low child death rate. The total number of child deaths associated with the home during the period being examined was 55. This includes children who died in Denny House, children who were admitted to Denny but died elsewhere and children who were never admitted to Denny but whose mothers had been resident there prior to their birth. The 1930s was the worst decade for child deaths in Denny; the peak was in 1936 when seven deaths were recorded. The majority of child deaths (35) occurred in external hospitals and 17 occurred in Denny House.

Records

Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • Pact, Arabella House, 18D Nutgrove Office Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14 D14 FC03.

Bibliography