Sunday, 19 September 2004
The scandal of the Magdalene laundries By Michael S. Rose

A dramatic exposé of the scandalous conditions inside Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries has struck a chord on the Emerald Isle.

(DUBLIN, Ireland) — Try to get one out of every four Irishmen out to the cinema to see a movie on the silver screen. It’s not an easy task, but barrel-chested Scottish director Peter Mullan did exactly that last year. The Magdalene Sisters, a purposefully punishing exposé of the scandalous conditions inside Ireland’s Church-run Magdalene Laundries, definitely struck a chord on the Emerald Isle.

At once condemned by the Vatican as “sensational anti-clericalism” and lauded by the Archbishop of Glasgow as “utterly convincing,” the film received not a little critical acclaim in both Europe and North America as an extraordinary piece of incendiary cinema.

Aside from being one of the biggest-grossing movies ever screened in Ireland, Mullan’s tale of institutionalized cruelty took the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Part of the film’s success in Ireland can likely be attributed to the timing of its release, which coincided with an Irish version of the tabloid bonanza of clerical sex abuse which has absorbed the spotlight for more than a year now in the United States. More importantly for the Irish, however, is that the film dramatizes a real-life scandal of epic proportions. The Magdalene Sisters not only puts the Catholic Church in Ireland on trial, but the whole of an Irish society of not-so-distant memory.

The film is set in 1964, behind the intimidating high walls of a Magdalene Laundry, where young women—many of them unwed mothers—were sent by their families in order to atone for what were considered to be their unspeakable sexual sins. Mullan’s four teenage protagonists are representative of the so-called penitents of the Magdalene system through which an estimated 30,000 Irish women passed during the course of the 20th century. The last laundry closed as recently as 1996.

Each character is said to provide a real life example of why women were incarcerated in these oppressive institutions: Margaret is raped by a cousin during a family wedding reception. After making the “mistake” of telling the bride about the sexual assault, Margaret finds herself sent away like a criminal the next morning by her brutish father. Rose, after being pressured to give up her illegitimate child, is handed over to the nuns by her shamefaced parents. Crispina has apparently been similarly disowned by her family after giving birth out-of-wedlock. Also forcibly separated from her baby, she is abandoned to fate as a Magdalen. The most extraordinary case is that of Bernadette, an attractive teenage orphan who is sent to the asylum for nothing more than budding into a beautiful young woman. Considered too attractive to be cared for properly by the orphanage nuns, she is figured to pose a moral danger to herself and society. The injustices suffered by each of these girls is not subtle.

Once arrived at the Magdalen Laundry, the four girls and their fellow inmates are subjected to inhuman brutality and degradation at the hands of sadistic nuns. Made to dress in rough brown potato sack uniforms designed to hide their curves, the girls are made to scrub and iron dirty (and sometimes bloody) laundry for twelve hours a day.

Though guilty of no crime, the Magdalenes (so-called after Mary Magdalene, the penitent prostitute) are exploited as slave laborers, receiving no pay for their years of work. Moreover, they are denied an education, forbidden any contact with the outside world, forced to eat poor food, and made to sleep in a damp, unheated garret.

Moreover, they are constantly humiliated by the nuns who mete out canings, beatings, and various other random cruelties as part of their daily routine. In one scene, for example, the humiliation reaches the height of absurdity: the girls are made to stand naked before the nuns, who giggle as they assess their charges.

When one of the girls attempts to escape the oppressive prison-like asylum, she is returned by her father (a cameo by Mullan) who beats her mercilessly in front of the other girls. The next day the Mother Superior shaves the girl’s head, saying “you won’t be leaving now, will ya?” It is clear that many of the girls have no future in the outside world; their fate is the perpetual slave labor of a Magdalen penitent. In fact, the escapee later “gives herself to the convent” that she so dearly hates. Clearly, she has no place else to go.

The fact that all this cruelty and abuse is happening under the auspices of the Catholic Church is the main cause for the viewer’s indignation. (After all, it is nuns who relentlessly dole out the abuse.) The whole scenario reminds one of the kind of human indignities suffered by bonded slaves and indentured servants in faraway places like India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The fact that these innocent girls suffer such horrible injustices at the hands of religious authorities who are charged with being moral leaders and role models escalates the moral outrage—and that seems to be exactly the point of the film.

Anti-Catholic propaganda?

Popular reviews of The Magdalene Sisters in the British and Irish press were mixed, but more often than not they readily acknowledged the reality upon which Mullan’s film was based. “It would be massively obtuse,” wrote one British critic, “not to acknowledge the grotesque and terrible injustice the Magdalene Laundries represented.”

For many reviewers, especially in Ireland, The Magdalene Sisters seems to have been a very moving portrayal of a difficult topic, effecting more than a fair amount of righteous indignation. One reviewer from Cork, which was home to one of the Magdalene Laundries, wrote that, as an Irishman, he felt angry and ashamed:

“Angry that these terrible places of detention and slave labor were allowed to go unchecked in my country until only a few years ago. Angrier still that a whole generation of young women, who had committed no crime, were incarcerated in these places by a cruel society, a society which stole from them, not just their freedom and their dignity, but far too often their flesh and blood; their beautiful, innocent babies; wanted and loved by their mothers, but signed away under duress, and given to strangers…Even thinking about it makes my skin crawl.”

When the film reached the U.S. this summer it received quite a different reception. Again, reviews were mixed, but there seemed to be a preoccupation with the question as to whether or not Mullan’s film is anti-Catholic.

Mullan consistently defended The Magdalene Sisters against the charge. He believes, rather, that the film is critical of “all theocracies” or “fundamental fiefdoms.” Mullan believes Irish society throughout much of the 20th century qualifies. Australia’s Fr. Peter Malone, international president of the World Association for Catholic Communicators, agrees: The Magdalene Sisters is “a critique of much of the harshness of the Church which has often been seen as characteristic of a stern Irish Catholicism. It is a critique of the abuse of power and authority in the name of the Church.”

Others, however, fail to see it that way. Film Journal International, for example, claimed that “the only real point of the script is that nuns are venal, priests lechers, and the inmates all innocent victims.” It argues that the kind of injustices depicted in Sisters—beatings, rapes, suicide attempts and random cruelties—can be found in any country at any time. Such logic, however, would seem to suggest that some topics, such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, are always and everywhere off limits in the realm of dramatization.

When the Disney-owned company Miramax announced that it would be distributing the film in the U.S., the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights criticized the decision, claiming that Mullan’s film singles out Catholics for negative portrayal. “Historians have recounted how Protestant-run institutions were similar,” the group argued in a written statement, which went on to tag The Magdalene Sisters as “anti-Catholic propaganda,” likening it to other films recently protested by the Catholic League, such as the 1999 religious satire Dogma, which Miramax later dropped because its often blasphemous humor angered Catholics.

What the Catholic League failed to adequately address is the underlying scandal that serves as the basis for The Magdalene Sisters. Mullan’s film cannot honestly be compared with Dogma, the puerile creation of a director who obviously wanted to poke fun at the Catholic Church—and certainly to no good end. The Magdalene Sisters, on the other hand, is not intended to be humorous, nor is its intent or its execution in any way blasphemous. The film is a legitimate social commentary that deserves a fair viewing.

Irish cultural critic Finton O’Toole explained to the Boston Globe that there were indeed institutions similar to the Magdalene laundries in England and Scotland. “They evolved, moreover, from a particularly English Victorian cocktail of do-gooder moral activism and sexual hypocrisy. The misfortune of Irish women was that this Victorian virus infected an institution that was on the rise through most of the 20th century, the Irish Catholic Church.”

Yet, the League’s contention that Mullan singles out Catholics for negative portrayal is even less justified, if not absurd. After all, the very nature of the film deals with a particularly Catholic scandal, a particularly Irish scandal. To say that such atrocities happened in other countries and in other times is to miss the point.

When the film was released in Mullan’s hometown of Glasgow the director received an unsolicited endorsement from the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Mario Conti. After praising the film as “utterly convincing,” Archbishop Conti, known in Scotland as one of its more conservative prelates, responded to charges made by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that The Magdalene Sisters is an “angry and rancorous provocation” that misrepresents religious leaders. Archbishop Conti’s opinion was that the film is “no more anti-Catholic than Schindler’s List is anti-German.”

The Catholic League was not the only militant Catholic group to protest the film’s distribution in the United States. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP) organized what it called an “Outrage” protest postcard and email campaign.

TFP, which has organized many successful protests against offensive movies, plays, and museum exhibitions in recent years, was invited by Miramax to screen the film before its release in the U.S. late this summer. According to TFP, the group refused to watch Mullan’s film, calling it “a kind of porno-documentary which spices up its story with scenes of nudity and implied sexual activity.” Instead, TFP based its criticism and protest on a reading of the script as well as European reviews of the film.

In a written statement, the group said it “believes that the movie gives viewers the impression that the Catholic religion is absurd and irrational, and that the Church forms people who are sadistic, immoral, and unbalanced.”

Robert Ritchie, coordinator of the protest campaign, said that he was appalled to read “how every nun, priest, or person in authority was presented as evil. [The film] seems to ignore all the good that nuns have done throughout the centuries.” That’s like saying the Boston Globe’s reporting on the priest sex scandal ignores all the good that priests have done throughout the centuries.

If the film had been invented from whole cloth with no basis in fact, then surely the hue and cry suggesting that it is a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda may very well ring true. Neither the Catholic League nor TFP seems to have tried to understand the scandal behind the movie. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League (after admitting that he had not watched the film), went so far as to characterize The Magdalene Sisters as being about the “alleged abuse of wayward girls” (my italics).

With all the corroborative evidence that has been available over the past several years about the brutality of life behind the walls in the Magdalene Laundries, dismissing the abuse of these girls as “alleged” is like spitting in the face of the victims. Donohue also disregards the fact that many of these girls were not “wayward”—a point that Mullan’s takes great pains to emphasize in his film. Rather, they are quite innocent. Some of the girls were sent there simply on suspicion that their chastity had been violated, something that would bring shame upon their families.

The reality of what happened

The film has been described as crassly manipulative and grossly exaggerated—charges that, to this writer, seem far from the mark. No one, however, has disputed the accuracy of The Magdalene Sisters. According to Mullan, the only complaint about the accuracy of his dramatization came from victims of the Magdalene Laundries who said that their treatment by the Magdalene nuns was worse than he depicted in the film.

Mary Norris, who spent several years during the late 1940’s in one of the Irish Magdalene Laundries, has spoken freely to the press over the past several years about her experiences behind the convent walls. “Plenty of people will think the events in the film have been exaggerated to make it more dramatic,” she told The Irish Independent earlier this year. “But I tell you, the reality of those places was a thousand times worse.” Norris explained that, unlike in the film, the girls at her Magdalene asylum in Cork were not allowed to speak to one another, nor did they once get a glimpse of the outside world. “In reality, we were totally incarcerated. You could see nothing but sky.”

Josephine McCarthy, who was a Magdalene in the 1960’s, described her experiences to CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1999. Locked away behind 20-foot brick walls topped with shards of broken glass that were mortared into concrete, she said, the girls were treated like slaves. “You’d have to hand wash—scrub,” she explained. “You’d have no knuckles left. Ironing—you would be burnt. It was just hard work.” And no one was paid as much as a shilling for her work.

Phyllis Valentine was a 14-year-old orphan when she was sent to a Magdalene Laundry in Galway. Describing how she was treated there, she said: “We used to get pushed about quite a bit—punched, slapped. The nuns had this leather belt that was tied round their waist. They would wrap it up in their hands and really hit you hard with it. The nuns were very, very viscous.”

Valentine only discovered the truth about why she was sent to the Magdalene Laundry after two years of incarceration. “When I was young,” she explained. “I was thought to be pretty. I was sent straight from the orphanage to the laundry.” The nuns who ran the orphanage, she was told, were afraid that she would “fall away,” that is, become sexual active and pregnant. In other words, Valentine was innocent of any wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise. “[The nuns] were so cruel to us,” she said. “They were really cruel—and we’d never done anything wrong.”

Valentine was one of four former Magdalenes featured in a 1998 documentary produced by historian Steven Humphries for Britain’s Channel 4. It was Valentine’s story that served as the basis for Mullan’s Bernadette, who was sent from an orphanage to a laundry for being too pretty.

In fact, it was Humphries’s documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, that inspired Peter Mullan to make his film. Mullan explained that he was “channel hopping” one evening when his attention was caught by a woman who explained that she had been put away because she was “too pretty.” By the end of the program, he said, he was in tears. The next morning he was so angered by the injustices suffered by these women that he outlined the screenplay for The Magdalene Sisters in just a few hours, basing the characterizations of the principal young women in his film on the women featured in Humphries’s documentary.

One can easily see the parallels. In addition to Phyllis Valentine, Martha Cooney was put away after she complained to a cousin that she’d been raped by a farmhand during an evening festival. Bridget Young was an orphan who got her head shorn with a straight razor just for talking, and Christina Mulcahey was forcibly separated from her baby boy when he was ten-months-old and then institutionalized by her father in a Magdalene laundry.

Valentine explained that Mulcahey’s situation, like Rose’s and Crispina’s in The Magdalene Sisters, was a common one. The unwed mothers sent to the laundry were desperate, she said, “desperate to find out where their children were—absolutely desperate.”

Mulcahey explains that when she found out one day that her boy had been adopted, she went “absolutely berserk.” Valentine, who was incarcerated in the same Galway facility more than ten years later, said Mulcahey’s response was typical. When a mother found out her child had been adopted, “it was really very sad, but all the girl could do was to cry. There was nothing else to do but cry.”

When Sex in a Cold Climate was first aired on Channel 4, the documentary created quite a stir throughout Britain and Ireland. After the show, some 450 former Magdalenes telephoned into a counseling hotline that had been set up for them. Although Humphries also tried to get Ireland’s major television network RTÉ to air his program, they refused to broadcast it. To date Sex in a Cold Climate has never been aired over an Irish network.

The women’s stories are so horrific that only the heartless could be unmoved after watching the documentary. Nevertheless, unlike Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, Humphries’ presentation of the Church’s teaching on sexual issues is grossly misrepresented. Judging from the narrator’s commentary throughout the 50-minute documentary, one gets the sense that Humphries is blaming the teachings of the Church (rather than the perversions of those teachings) teaching for the horrible injustices suffered by the Magdalenes in these Church-run institutions. He obviously believes that these problems could have been prevented or at least solved by contraception and sex education, a position that is hopelessly nearsighted.

Mullan at least tries to rise above this myopia in his dramatization. Despite the fact that the nuns and some of the other Magdalene workers seem to be trying to top each other with bizarre interpretations of Church teaching on sin, e.g., “you’re here girl to pay for all yer disgustin’ sins,” at least Bernadette gets it right at the beginning of the film when she says to some of the younger orphans that, “it’s not a sin to be beautiful; it’s a sin to be vain.”

Mullan has also been particularly criticized for the scene in which the girls are made to strip naked and line up in front of the nuns for inspection. “The sequence…feels vaguely exploitative,” writes one critic. “Mullan does not scruple to show [the girls] all in full, frontal,” charges another. The scene is “simply inexcusable.” But is it?

Nora-Jane Noone, who gave an excellent performance as Bernadette in the film, defended Mullan when she told the Toledo Blade that the scene was an important one. “There actually were a lot of women to whom that did happen.”

As with many other scenes in the movie, Mullan takes his cue from Sex in a Cold Climate, in which former Magdalene Bridget Young explains that the nuns did just that. “They use to line us up every Saturday night and make us strip naked in front of them,” she explained. “And they’d be laughing at us. They would shout abuse at us. We had no privacy with them at all.”

Who was to blame?

Peter Mullan hasn’t been shy when it comes to talking about his own background. The 43-year-old director describes himself as a lapsed Catholic and a Socialist. He grew up an Irish Catholic in Glasgow in the 1960’s. He looked up to Catholic matinee icons such as Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town. Mullan recounted for the New York Times how his respect for the priesthood was extinguished when, at ten-years-old, he was “beat up” by a priest in his parish church when he was caught taking candles from the church sacristy. (Mullan says he was sent there by his mother after their electricity was turned off).

The effects of this kind of childhood scandal likely contributed to his sense of injustice in the Church. When religious authorities abuse their power they create a condition of scandal, which effects can last a lifetime.

One of the many legacies of the Magdalene experience that clearly remains is a lasting hostility to the Church. The four women featured in Sex in a Cold Climate admitted that their incarcerations turned them forever away from the Catholic Church.

“I didn’t see anything in there Christ-like,” lamented Brigit Young. “They were a bunch of bullies—devils dressed up in nun’s habits. That’s the way I look at it. I left the Catholic Church.”

Phyllis Valentine explained in similar words that the nuns who were charged with her care were cruel. “The nuns weren’t supposed to be cruel. They were Sisters of Mercy. They didn’t show us any mercy.” When she was released from the Magdalen laundry, she said she no longer even believed in God. “I said [at the time] if there were a just God in Heaven we wouldn’t have had to suffer like that.”

It seems clear to many reviewers, especially in Ireland, that it wasn’t the Catholic Church alone that was responsible for these institutions, but the state as well. The Magdalene Laundries were a product of Irish society at the time. No family wanted a daughter who had been “dishonored,” and unwed mothers were a source of shame. According to Magdalene victims, it was often the fathers of the family who placed their daughters in these institutions, thinking they were reformatories designed to save “fallen women.” Many of these abandoned women were not destitute. They could have been provided for by their parents who had the means but not the will.

According to interviews Mullan has given, it seems his main criticism is that Ireland was too much like a theocracy during much of the 20th century, a theocracy without checks and balances, making it susceptible to terrible abuse. At his Venice Film Festival press conference last August, Mullan mentioned other theocracies and one example given was the Taliban. In fact, Mullan was quoted in the Italian leftist newspaper Il Manifesto comparing that nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries to the Taliban. Some may see that as confirmation that Mullan is an anti-Catholic bigot, but if the horrific stories told by the victims of these institutions are to be believed, then the comparison is not exactly beyond the pale.

One result of the film in Mullan’s hope was that the Catholic Church in Ireland would formally apologize for the wrongs committed against so many women in the Magdalene institutions. Thus far there have been no official apologies, though Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe publicly recognized the need for reparations when he told ABC News that “the Magdalene Laundries were in some instances a form of slavery… a source of pain and shame.”

In the U.S., on the other hand, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, apologized for its role in the Magdalene Laundries. According to an official statement, the Sisters said “we grieve with all the victims of the Magdalene Laundries and pray that they experience God’s comfort and healing in their lives.” The Sisters of Mercy operated three of these laundries in Ireland, all of which are now closed. Other Magdalene laundries, including one in San Francisco, were operated by other orders.

Obviously one can debate the merits of Mullan’s production. It is debatable as to whether or not his dramatization is a good one, an accurate one, an artistic one, and so forth. To dismiss The Magdalene Sisters on grounds of “anti-Catholicism,” however, is unfair.

It is the institutionalized cruelty of the Magdalene Laundries that is the real scandal. It is the abuse of authority by Church leaders that is “anti-Catholic,” not Mullan’s dramatization of it.

In the words of one British critic, Peter Mullan “is ashamed as he is outraged, not at Catholicism itself, but at its exploitation by those entrusted to uphold its principles and by those who would knowingly lock up their daughters to wash away the sins of an entire nation.”

More Arts and Culture
The Magdalene Sisters is the biggest-grossing movies ever screened in Ireland.

The film not only puts the Catholic Church in Ireland on trial, but the whole of an Irish society of not-so-distant memory.

Reviewers in the U.S. seem preoccupied with whether or not the film is anti-Catholic.
Australia’s Fr. Peter Malone, president of the World Association for Catholic Communicators, believes that The Magdalene Sisters is “a critique of much of the harshness of the Church which has often been seen as characteristic of a stern Irish Catholicism. It is a critique of the abuse of power and authority in the name of the Church.”
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