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.
To be sure, the horror stories of Magdalene laundry survivors are legion. One former inmate, Marina Gambold, told the BBC that:
"One day I broke a cup, and the nun said, 'I'll teach you to be careful'. She got a thick string, and she tied it round my neck for three days and three nights, and I had to eat off the floor every morning. Then I had to get down on my knees, and I had to say, 'I beg almighty God's pardon, Our Lady's pardon, my companion's pardon for the bad example I have shown."
Another survivor, Kathleen Legg, now 80, remembers:
"Every morning you would wake to the sound of a bell. You operated like a robot, and you did not dare question a nun. We bathed once a week, and I remember the lice from our hair used to float around the top of the water, so if you were one of the last ones to get washed, it was horrific."
Ex-Magdalene Lauren Sullivan told The Scotsman that: "I had my hair chopped off and my name changed, and when I was put into that Magdalene laundry all I remember was the door being locked. They beat, punched and tortured me."
Of course, few things are that black and white, and there are a few stragglers who claim that they were treated wonderfully. That doesn't change the fact that the majority of the stories are bloodcurdling, however, and many more of them can be read in James Smith's award-winning Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment.
The sordid history of laundries is an extraordinarily long one; the first Irish institution, founded by philanthropist Lady Arabella Denny, opened in 1765. Known as Magdalene Asylums (after the "redeemed" Biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene), the homes purported to be sanctuaries for "fallen" women... i.e., unwed mothers, abused girls, girls who had been cast out by their families, and your run-of-the-mill freethinking feminists who were too eccentric, original, and "troublesome" to fit into the strictures of their communities.
Incredibly, the laundries continued to operate, in various stages of utilitarian bleakness (at best) and cruelty (at worst) until 1996. It's been estimated that over 30,000 women passed through the asylums, some staying a month and some remaining for a lifetime. Even that seems to be a conservative figure, though, when you consider that the time period in question spans over two centuries.
In 1993, a mass grave was found on land owned by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge in Dublin. Inside were the remains of hundreds of "penitents" who had once been inmates at High Park, the largest laundry in Ireland. The final body count was 155.
All the corpses were cremated and reinterred in a different cemetery, but most of the deaths had not even been officially logged or certified, so it wasn't possible to notify relatives or provide closure of any kind. The general consensus, though, was that the bodies represented women or girls who had been neglected to death, mistreated to death, or some combination of both.
Many of the deaths that occurred at Irish laundries (which mostly came about through medical negligence) were not reported, according to sources citing 2013's groundbreaking McAleese Report. Though the asylums officially recorded 879 deaths, a group called "Justice for Magdalenes" interviewed survivors and "collected testimonies about death and burials, gravestones, electoral registers, exhumation orders, and newspaper archives." Eventually, from all of this research, they determined the number of un-reported deaths to be closer to 1,663... though this figure remains both controversial and denied by the powers that be.