Few clean hands in these laundries

Published September 1, 2003

Nora-Jane Noone as Bernadette in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, a film about church-run laundries in Ireland.

The Magdalene Sisters
Director: Peter Mullan
Odeon Films
Starring Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane

A few years ago, a so-called “secondary virginity” campaign was making the rounds in high schools and on university campuses. One of the campaign’s particularly perverse rituals involved the symbolic reclaiming of one’s virginity by pouring peroxide or bleach over a red food colouring stain on a white sheet, thereby making oneself a “born-again virgin.”

That symbolism of washing one’s transgressions down the drain was in part the basis of the laundries run in Roman Catholic Ireland by the Sisters of Mercy, institutions which operated late into the 20th century.

Originally begun in 1767 as a refuge for prostitutes, the first so-called Magdalene asylum eventually morphed into an institutional system for teenage girls and women who were considered “fallen women.” More than 30,000 women were incarcerated in the laundries for such sins as having children out of wedlock, promiscuity or simply being orphaned or “simple-minded.” Unlike prisons, where inmates had the hope of being released, residents of the laundries often lived out their lives in servitude to the church.

The laundries have been brought to the screen in the fictionalized film The Magdalene Sisters. The film, released in Europe last September to the wide condemnation of the Vatican and the United States-based Catholic League as anti-Catholic, follows four years in the lives of three young inmates at the laundries in the 1960s.

The film opens with short vignettes on how each girl came to be sent to the institution: Margaret, who shamed her family by being raped; Bernadette, an orphan whose good looks brought too much male attention for the liking of the nuns at her orphanage; and Rose, who gave birth to a baby boy only to have her parents and parish priest force her to surrender the newborn to adoption.

The three actors playing the young inmates are all note perfect in their roles. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone, in her first film), who is called ?the little temptress? by one of the nuns at the institution, is particularly stunning.

All three are brought to one of the laundries on the same day. Their first morning, as they walk into the dining hall, a queue of grey-haired women – all inmates as well in their sturdy brown twill dresses – are filing out. It is then that the girls begin to realize that the only way most women leave the laundries is in a casket.

The philosophy of the laundries is simple: through hard work and prayer, these fallen women can find their way back to a good, holy life.

We have little insight on what makes the nuns – brutal authoritarians of a Dickensian stripe – tick. Like those who ran the native residential schools in this country, were they and the institutions simply products of their time?

One inmate, Una, who is brought back forcefully by her brutal father after an escape attempt, has her head shaved by the head nun as punishment. In a scene recalling Jack Nicholson after his lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she shuffles back, beaten and dejected, into the laundry room to resume her work. Not long after, it is announced that she will join the religious order. In this case, the nun will be the product of the institution.

The film is relentless in its bleak portrayal of life at the laundries.

But what it says about sin and how the church can go so very wrong in its teachings makes the film worth the watch.

As an aside, in 2001, Ireland’s minister for education and science announced a redress bill to provide funds for children who suffered sexual and physical abuse while in the care of religious institutions. Most inmates of the Magdalene laundries were specifically excluded by the bill because they purportedly entered the asylums voluntarily.


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