Church cruelty exposed

Issue 

The Magdalene Sisters
Directed and written by Peter Mullan
With Geraldine Macewen, Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh and Noora-Jane Noone
Showing at independent cinemas

REVIEW BY ALEX SALMON

Based on a true story, The Magdalene Sisters, depicts the story of three woman who were detained in the Magdalene Laundries home run by the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland.

Directed and written by Peter Mullan, who starred in Ken Loach's My Name is Joe, this film won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It has been criticised by the Catholic Church for its exposure of the Magdalene Laundries.

The story begins in 1964. Bernadette (played by Nora-Jane Noone) was sent to the home after being sexually assaulted by a relative. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) was sent there for having a child out of wedlock. Margaret (Anne Duffy) is an inmate because she is an orphan.

The Magdalene Laundries (named after Mary Magdalene, the biblical prostitute who "redeemed" herself by hard work and being a handmaiden to Jesus) were repressive institutions in which inmates were subjected to a daily regime of work, prayer and sleep, along with physical and psychological abuse. They were sweatshops which enabled the church to make immense profits.

This film's institution is ruled with an iron fist by Sister Bridgett (Geraldine Macewen) who punishes even the most minor infraction with beatings and humiliation. She keeps the women divided and in fear.

The film shows the grim and repressive atmosphere of these places. However, there are moments of rebellion, including one in which Rose washes the garments of a lecherous priest in nettles and reduces him to a scratching, screaming mess.

Women forced to work in these institutions were condemned to a life of virtual slavery. The only way they could get out was if a male relative demanded their release or if they could escape. People would be disturbed to know that an estimated 30,000 women lived and died in these terrible institutions in Ireland; they existed until 1996.

In Australia, the Catholic and other churches also operated such barbaric institutions. It is estimated that 40,000 Aboriginal children, 10,000 child migrants and as many as 100,000 non-Indigenous children were placed in similar institutions last century. Until the 1970s, commercial laundries were run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, a Catholic order of nuns, using the labour of female inmates.

This film is a very powerful documentation of an injustice that existed until so recently.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
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