'Magdalene Sisters' Depicts Irish Girls at Forced Labor

By David Yonke
The Blade
Downloaded August 17, 2003

There's a frightening quietness about The Magdalene Sisters, with nobody speaking up for the girls who are trapped in a world of such religious brutality and abuse that it chills viewers' souls.

The drama is set in the mid-1960s in an Irish convent as cold and stony as its exterior. The story is fictional, but based on witness accounts, factual reports, and documentaries about the prison-like conditions at convents scattered throughout the country. An estimated 30,000 young girls were punished for their sins, real or imagined, at Magdalene laundries.

The movie, which opens next week in Detroit and Ann Arbor (no Toledo screenings are scheduled yet), centers on the experiences of three teenagers, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Rose (Dorothy Duffy), and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), who are sent by their parents and their priests to a convent to "wash away their sins" in a laundry.

It opens with a festive wedding scene. A musician thumps a bodhran, or goatskin Irish drum. The drumbeat builds; glances are exchanged. Margaret nods and sneaks off to meet a boy, but he strikes her and then rapes her as the music and party sounds drown out her pleas.

Margaret reports the crime. Fingers are pointed. There are lots of worried glances. Disturbingly, it becomes clear that Margaret is being blamed for the assault. A few days later, a priest arrives and drives her to the convent.

Rose is in a hospital, holding her newborn son. Her mother is beside her, tight-lipped, staring fiercely into the distance. Life as she knows it is over, it seems. Rose's father won't look at the baby, either. "Isn't he beautiful?" Rose cries, but signs the baby over to the church for adoption. "You don't want him to pay for your sins," a priest tells her, and she is sent off to the Magdalene Convent.

Bernadette is scrubbing floors at an orphanage. At recess, the neighborhood boys flock nearby, talking to her. She's a temptress, say the priests, tsk-tsking. She needs to spend time doing penance at the convent.

For these sins, which today would barely raise an observer's eyebrow, the girls were stripped of all their possessions, forced to work countless hours hand-washing and scrubbing clothes, banned from talking to each other, fed bowls of gruel, whipped and beaten, verbally and emotionally humiliated, and sometimes sexually abused by priests.

There was no schedule for their release. Some were let out when their families came back for them, but because of the stigma associated with sexual sins in that time and place, most girls were abandoned by their kin forever.

"These are the earthly means to cleanse your souls," the mother superior tells them. Bernadette tries to ask a question, but the sister snaps: "Don't ever interrupt me!"

This is a stark, depressing movie. One young girl, after escaping despite the heavy locked doors and high stone fences, is dragged back, late at night, by her father. She's screaming hysterically, "I hate it here! I want to go home!" Her father whips her with a belt. "You've got no home!" he snarls. "If you run away again, I'll cripple you." A nun watches, silently. "Don't leave me here, Dad!" the girl pleads. "Go to sleep," the nun tells her.

Like prisoners of war, the girls are systematically beaten down, their spirits drained. The convents, after all, had been around for centuries. They had learned their bitter trade over time.

It's unclear if the nuns are sincere: Do they truly think these girls need to do their penance in order to go to heaven? Or do they just want to use them as slaves to clean the town's laundry and rake in the cash.

Director Peter Mullan leaves the answer hanging for many of the nuns, but the mother superior's motives are clearly painted as she counts the stacks of paper money, rolls them neatly, and tucks them into tin cans.

"I wonder why I'm here," Bernadette asks her at one point. "I've never been with any lads. God's honest truth."

"But you'd like to!" the nun sneers. "All men are sinners and all men are open to temptation."

Bernadette's fiery spirit and righteous indignation lead to several escape plots. She knows she did nothing to deserve such punishment. And, as an orphan, she knows there is no hope of a family member setting her free.

Released last fall in Ireland and Europe, The Magdalene Sisters won the Best Film Award at this year's Venice Film Festival. Some pundits predict it will be as critically acclaimed as it is controversial.

Mary-Jo McDonagh, a real-life survivor of the Magdalene laundries, said the movie was too kind, if anything. "It was worse. Much worse than what you see [in the film]. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns."


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