The Magdalene Sisters

Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) whose life is about to change because her good looks are seen.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
August / September 2003

A disturbing movie by Peter Mullan on what happened to the “wayward” women of Ireland.


Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters opens ironically with a wedding scene. But it is not a happy occasion. Margaret is lured by her cousin Kevin to an upstairs room where he rapes her. Kevin is chastised, but it is Margaret who has “shamed” her family and is carted off the next morning by the local priest to the Magdalene Asylum run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Sound like a nightmare? For some 30,000 women in Ireland during the last century, that’s just what the Magdalene Asylums were.

Having committed no crime other than the sin of being pregnant outside marriage, or in some cases, just for being too attractive and therefore a temptation to the boys, young women such as Margaret were confined to the Asylums and stripped of all rights. They were not allowed any contact with the outside world, material possessions, or recourse in defense of their freedom. And for 364 days of the year (with the exception of Christmas Day) they worked in sweatshop-like laundries, which was a rich source of revenue for the Catholic Church. The girls were paid nothing.

Sisters, which goes on release in the U.S. in August, is a very difficult movie to watch because there is no escaping the fact that it is based on real life. And the story it tells is not old enough to wear the comforting cloak of history. Mullan sets his film in 1964 but the last Magdalene laundry didn’t close until 1996.

Mullan’s film focuses on four women. Besides Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is forced to give up her child for adoption and is then handed over to a priest by her father as her mother turns away. (The really sad thing is that in most cases the girls were sent to the Asylums by their fathers). Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), who has just reached adulthood in St. Attracta’s Orphanage, is transferred to the Asylum because her budding good looks are seen as a temptation to the boys. She is assigned a sink in the laundry next to Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a simple girl who refuses to wash the priest’s collars (we soon learn why) and swaps them for some bloody towels from Bernadette’s pile of laundry.

The acting in this well-cast movie is superb. Walsh, who starred opposite Mullan in Mike Figgis’s Miss Julie, is unforgettable as she conveys the deterioration of Crispina’s mental health. Anne-Marie Duff perfectly portrays Margaret’s bewilderment and gradual demoralization, and newcomer Nora-Jane Noone as Bernadette is stunning as she makes the transition from feisty young woman into something very dark and damaged and back again.

Meanwhile, the calculating and evil Sister Bridget is played with aplomb by Geraldine McEwan (her work in film includes Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V).

Fans of Mullan who as an actor explored the underbelly of society in such movies as My Name Is Joe and Trainspotting, may be disappointed that he appears in just one brief scene but it’s a scene that returns to haunt. In it Mullan, the father of Una, brutally returns his daughter to the Asylum after she has run away. In front of the other girls, whom he calls “whores,” he beats and disowns her, telling her that she has no family or home.

It goes without saying that ironies abound in this story. How could a supposedly Christian organization such as the Sisters of Mercy have beeen so unchristian in dealing with these girls? The Sisters were certainly not following the example of Christ, who we are taught befriended the “prostitute” Mary Magdalene (a spate of books including the recent bestseller The De Vinci Code debunk that prostitute myth and reveal Magdalene to be one of the leaders of the early Christian church). How could a people known for their love of family and children have treated their daughters so cruelly? And how could a whole country have stood silently by?

These questions don’t get answered in Mullan’s movie. One wishes Sisters explored more deeply the complexities of guilt and moral responsibility and how that absolute and paralyzing power of the Church came to promote the fear of God over a father’s love for his daughter. But perhaps that’s for another movie.

What Sisters does provide is an inside look into the hell that these girls lived through, and a strong message on what can happen when church leaders have a perverted sense of Christ’s message.

Ireland’s young people will have a lot of questions to ask of their parents and of the Catholic Church that promoted this sort of incarceration which has lasting effects. Sadly, there is still a sickening macho climate in Ireland with regard to sex offenders. In a story reported by the Irish Independent on June 19, a 30-year-old man who admitted preying on vulnerable young teenagers girls (as young as 14), having sex with them and then viciously beating them, was given a sentence of a mere eight years. And to “protect” his victims, he gets to remain anonymous!

Hopefully, Sisters, while forcing the people of Ireland to examine their past sins, will also raise consciousness with regard to crimes against today’s women. ♦

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