The Magdalene Sisters – a film by Peter Mullan – follows the story of four fictional women who writhe against the fate of 30,000 real Irish women who were punished for their sexuality between the 18th and the late 20th century in The Magdalene Laundries, or Asylums, as they were often called. These institutions were sponsored and maintained by branches of the Catholic Church and known to, if not supported by, the state for over 200 years. The poignancy of the story has only been intensified by the recent events in the Republic of Ireland. Repelling the 8th is a momentous occasion for this country which has long struggled with its checkered past regarding women’s’ rights. Films such as The Magdalene Sisters celebrate the women for whom this shift of opinion came too late.
Laundries, like those seen in this film, were originally designed for ‘fallen women’ who were forcibly imprisoned, maltreated and made to pay a life’s sentence of hard labour to wash away their supposed sins. The facilities were self-supporting, exploiting the unpaid and often mistreated women, whose hands would scrub and press and bleed to fund the laundry. By the late 19th century, women were incarcerated for erotic behaviour, for being seduced or for having children out of wedlock, as is the case with Mullan’s characters. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) reveals to her family that a boy raped her at a wedding; she is seen as the criminal, not the victim. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has given birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child which shames her silent, immovable parents. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone)’s only crime is her flirtatious nature; she is seen as morally corrupt, a danger to herself and others in her orphanage. Elements of the film may be sensationalized but the portrait of injustice it paints is very real and undeniably accurate.
Mullan’s film is raw, harrowing and at times blackly comic. Father Fitzroy, one of the men entrusted with the spiritual care of the laundry, is seen sexually abusing one of its most vulnerable captives, Crispina. As he delivers a special annual service, Father Fitzroy is overcome by a need to scratch and scrape at his skin and strip in front of the congregation. Margaret has seen fit to punish him for his abuse of power, laying nettles in his vestments to make him feel how they have been humiliated day after day. Yet, the scene turns from comical to sinister when Crispina cannot stop repeating the refrain ‘you are not a man of God’. Her cry echoes again and again to an uncomfortable pitch, reverberating words which remind us of the painful reality of what can happen when those in power misuse that power to subdue others.
After this incident, Crispina is dragged from the laundry and locked away in a mental asylum. Her real name, Harriet, was stripped from her by the Sisters, like her dignity and eventually, her sanity. Mullan’s jarring image of the slow, degrading decline of Crispina becomes a haunting symbol of the brutalisation of female sexuality, of how real women suffered and still suffer today. Yet, while three of Mullan’s protagonists escape the drudgery and violence of the laundry in the film, this was not the case for thousands of women across Ireland and other parts of the world. The last Magdalene asylum, we are told at the end of the film, did not close until 1996.
On Saturday 26th May 2018, Ireland voted to repeal the 8th, an amendment which made it illegal for any woman to have an abortion. It has taken to this day for Irish women to be granted autonomy over their own bodies and many women, like Mullan’s characters, have felt imprisoned, waiting indefinitely, working tirelessly for something to change. A few days ago, something finally did.
In the UK, women were first given the vote 100 years ago, and yet our sexuality is still assaulted, threatened by individuals, organisations, and industries. This year has seen women across the world standing up once again to say ‘No Means No’, to say ‘MeToo’, to repeal the 8th. Like Crispina, our voices resound, shouting for equal pay, for equal opportunity, clamouring against the kinds of abuse exposed by The Magdalene Sisters.