When Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters came out in 2002, it exposed the public to a diabolical truth the Roman Catholic Church had long tried to keep under wraps: the rotten reality of Irish "Magdalene" laundries. Though advertised as charitable safehouses where "fallen women" could find guidance and good cheer (along with employment as laundresses), these institutions were actually rife with cruelty, deprivation, and human rights abuses. As the Oscar-nominated 2013 film Philomena portrays, their destructive legacy went on well into 20th century, long after the western world had supposedly emerged from the fog of religious superstition and ignorance.
Below are just a handful of details from this extraordinarily harrowing time in Irish (and religious) history.
Over 2,000 Children Were Illegally Adopted From Laundries
Because so many women and girls were destitute and pregnant by the time they arrived at the laundries, many babies ended up being born in convent hospitals, where they were quickly spirited away by nuns, lest they be contaminated by their "unclean" mothers. According to reports, "up to 2,000 children were illegally exported from Magdalene laundries in Ireland to adoptive parents in the U.S., mainly wealthy families."
This scandal has since come full circle, as many of these adult children have begun demanding justice for their birth mothers and requesting official state apologies. They represent a generation displaced by the corruption of the Magdalene asylums, even though most of them went on to lead far better lives than the slings and arrows of church-sponsored child labor could have offered.
The Church Still Largely Denies What Happened
In 2011, the United Nations Committee Against Torture launched a lengthy investigation into the laundries and found that their "management teams" had indeed likely been guilty of exploitation and abuse.
Nevertheless, while some religious orders did offer up condolences for past evils, many of the culpable organizations have refused to acknowledge that said brutalities ever took place. Moreover, officials from the group JFM (Justice for Magdalenes) aren't convinced that even the apologetic sentiments were sincere, claiming that:
"Rather than apologies, they used phrases such as 'it was regrettable that the Magdalene homes had to exist at all' and claimed the laundries were 'part of the system and culture of the time.'"
Ah, "the culture of the time." Such a get-out-of-laundry-free card, whether the issue at hand is routine lobotomies, medieval torture devices, or just run-of-the-mill witch burning.
Many Girls Tried To Run Away Or EscapePhoto: Miramax Films
The Magdalene laundries were not without their courageous heroines. Numerous inmates tried to escape or run away, and some even made it out to a better life. One survivor, Elizabeth Coppin, told Aljazeera that:
"One of the nuns came down and accused me of stealing someone's sweets. Two of the women dragged me up to a dark cell. I stayed [there] for three days and three nights, and... that was when I realized two things: no one was coming to help me, and what they were doing was wrong. I decided to run away. There were no bars on the windows at the front of the building, so me and another girl decided to jump out one of them when the nuns weren't looking. We ran into the city. We had nothing... but we were good workers, so we managed to get a job working in a hospital that trained nurses. I was 17 by then. We were happy."
However, things didn't end well for Coppin:
"One day a man came. He was from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children... [he] brought me to another laundry. When he left, he said: 'you run away from this place and we'll put you someplace you'll never get out of.'"
Another girl, Mary Norris, was luckier: after she was committed to a laundry for taking "a forbidden night off" from her job as a servant, she spent two years in hell before her aunt finally tracked her down and negotiated her release.
Survivors Are Still Coming ForwardPhoto: The Weinstein Company
While many Magdalene survivors have already gone on record and become activists, many more are still coming out of the woodwork. One such individual was Margaret Bullen, who had reportedly been forced by nuns to give her three daughters up for adoption; two of them finally tracked her down in 1995. At that time, Bullen was still institutionalized as she had been for most of her life. According to one daughter's account in The Telegraph:
"Margaret [spent] her childhood and puberty in these institutions, without the chance to grow up. At age 16, she was transferred to the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry... there she toiled, unpaid for the rest of her life."
Eventually, Margaret was entrusted to the care of the Irish state, who promptly sub-contracted that duty back to the Catholic Church.
Margaret Bullen, who had blocked out many of her traumatic experiences, claimed to have no memory of having given birth at all, though she did manage to enjoy a relationship with her daughters for a couple of years. She died in her 40s of end-stage kidney and liver failure brought on by the chemicals she'd inhaled while working in the laundries.