In Review: “The Magdalene Sisters”

A movie that lifts the lid on Catholic totalitarianism.

By Ruth Riddick
Summer 2003

From the opening moments of The Magdalene Sisters we know we’re in primitive territory. A furious crescendo on abodhrán, backing a ballad about illicit sex sung by a priest at a wedding, immediately alerts us to award-winning writer-director Peter Mullan’s scrupulously researched themes. That a drama almost unrelieved in its portrayal of a mad theocracy, sexual repression and rage should be so compelling is a measure of how our sympathy, as much as our outrage, is engaged.

Setting his drama in 1960s Dublin, Mullan unapologetically confronts the Catholicism of the time, a religion described by a contemporary Irish cardinal as appealing to the ignorant and peasant in a country rapidly becoming urban, educated and sophisticated. The late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich saw this transition as the major challenge facing the church in Ireland. It’s arguable whether it has been met, three decades later.

The Magdalene Sisters is a girls-in-prison movie telling the story of three young women-Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone)-who have the misfortune to be sentenced by their families, the Catholic church and society at large to an indefinite period, possibly a lifetime, of involuntary, coerced and unpaid (i.e. slave) labor in laundries named for the original “fallen woman,” Mary Magdalene. Their “crimes” are sexual: Margaret is raped at the wedding which opens the movie, Rose has just given birth to a baby outside of wedlock (this arcane phrase is employed), and orphaned virgin Bernadette talks back to boys.

This Ireland, obsessed with sexual sin, may be unfamiliar to American audiences nostalgic for the Hibernian myth. It is, however, the historical Ireland where birth control was illegal and married couples were counseled by notionally celibate priests to sleep in separate bedrooms if they wished to space their children; where abortion was illegal but available at grave risk in back alleys; where sex education was forbidden and divorce subject to a constitutional bar; where cuckolded men could use the courts to secure financial compensation from their rivals for the sexual use of their wives; where women in public service had to choose between marriage or a career, being prohibited by law from having both; where tampons were denounced by the Catholic archbishop of Dublin; where women were not permitted to serve on juries and the prospect of a female newscaster, cab driver or airline pilot was met with derision; where male homosexuality was criminalized; and where books and movies were censored for sex more strictly than by the Hays Code that ruled Hollywood.

Above all, this is the Ireland where some 30,000 women were imprisoned in Magdalene laundries, literally washing the country’s dirty linen (clerical and lay), their babies taken for largely undocumented adoption by Catholic families at home and in the US, their exhausted bodies laid to final rest in unmarked graves, until the last of these church-run institutions closed in 1996.

Primitive territory indeed.

In one memorable scene, Crispina (Eileen Walsh) shows a newcomer how to clean menstrual blood from pure white sheets. She is immediately rebuked by the warden (herself an aging “Maggie”) for breaking the no-talking rule, and she (and we) told that the blood itself–femininity itself–is “dirty.” Even the linen carries the message.

An unwritten rule of imprisonment is that every prisoner’s first duty is to try to escape, however futile the effort. Early on, one escapee is returned by her enraged father whose repudiation of her is total. For revenge, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) shaves her head. “You won’t be going anywhere now,” she crows. (The 1960s was, after all, the era of the bouffant. Germaine Greer devotes a whole chapter to hair in her contemporary feminist classic, The Female Eunuch.) One internee, Una, so internalizes her oppression that we later find her a postulant, signing up to join the very order that has brutalized her.

Another young woman on the verge of freedom finds the outside world so alien that she retreats to a kind of safety behind the institution’s walls. Meanwhile, Bernadette’s first escape attempt is foiled. In consequence, she is taught a vicious lesson about her supposed “vanity.”

In the one story taken whole from the record, Crispina, surviving an in-house rape (by the visiting priest), reluctantly and inadvertently “escapes” into an insane asylum, later dying there, of anorexia, at twenty-four years of age.

What were they thinking? This is the question the viewer is moved to ask of the assorted clerics, nuns, parents and businessmen (and they were all men in this period) without whom the laundries could not have existed, much less flourished over the decades.

It’s worth putting this scandal in context.

Post-colonial Ireland was partitioned by Britain in 1920 into the nationalist, Catholic south (now the Republic) and the loyalist, Protestant north. From its 19th century beginnings, the Catholic dimension of the nationalist project was explicit, if contested. The Constitution, adopted in 1937, acknowledged the special position of the Catholic church in Irish life and enshrined Catholic social thinking of the day. (It would take forty years before this theocracy began to be challenged.)

Newly independent Ireland may have been castigated by its writers as “a nation of shopkeepers,” but the emergent Catholic petite bourgeoisie was the mainstay of the state. (Kate O’Brien’s mid-century novels, banned in the writer’s lifetime for sexual content, capture the sensibility and pretensions of this complicit class.) Bernadette references it when she remarks, “nobody pays attention to you if you’re ‘respectable.'” Public decorum-defined by the invisibility of sex-became an end in itself, and the motivator behind so many parents’ sacrifice of their children and grandchildren-all unflinchingly portrayed in this movie.

Predictably, the Vatican has protested. L’Osservatore Romano called The Magdalene Sisters “an inept caricature.” Without having seen the movie, Cardinal Tonino of Turin accused Peter Mullan of libeling Catholics.

Europe, however, has embraced it, awarding both the prestigious Golden Lion at the 2002 Venice Film Festival and the European Union Media Prize for Best Film of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Presenting the latter award, Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding called The Magdalene Sisters “a magnificent film that is a credit to European cinema.”

And the other good news is that the God of love does put in fleeting appearances in The Magdalene Sisters, always with the powerless. Crispina, Rose and Bernadette all experience moments of grace. We are reminded-though not directly by the filmmaker–that Christ enjoined the original Magdalene simply to “sin no more,” and the rest of us to “love one another.”

Herein, perhaps, lies the hope for Christianity in a country damaged but not defeated by its once willing embrace of Catholic totalitarianism.

Irish reproductive rights activist Ruth Riddick is former press officer of the Cork International Film Festival and film diarist with the Irish Times.

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