Magdalene Asylums were institutions for so-called "fallen" women, most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labour such as laundry work. In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalene Laundries. It has been estimated that 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions, often against their will. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.
On a slightly related note, see also the video for Radiohead's All I Need.