23 January 2010


In Ireland during the 1800s, Magdalene homes were set up as places of refuge for prostitutes and “fallen” women. They were named after Mary Magdalene who repented before Christ. As the 20th century approached, the homes were taken over by nuns, who, instead of making the homes places of forgiveness and compassion, brought them under the strict and cruel dogma of Catholicism and turned them into institutions worse than prisons. Prisoners had rights. Magdalene inmates had none.
In 1996, the last Magdalene asylum was closed in Ireland. It is almost unimaginable that such a misogynistic and horrific institution survived for so long, and it is almost inconceivable that women had been treated so badly by other women.
Irish girls were not instructed in sex education, yet were condemend to a miserable fate if they were poor, had been raped, had a child out of wedlock, or were “too beautiful” or flirtatious and thus might be in “moral danger.” Of course, abortion was illegal and a mortal sin. Many girls were rejected by their own families and given over to the “mercy” of the Catholic Church. The women were locked up to “scrub away” their sins by working 10-hour days 6 days a week for no pay in insitutional laundries run by nuns. The church earned money from local hotels and univeristies to do their laundry with what amounted to slave labor.
For an estimated 30,000 young women, life with the Magdalene Sisters was harsh and miserable. Some victims were kept for a few years. Many stayed for the rest of their lives.
The plights of these women seemed amazingly similar to the treatment of women by the Taliban. The Magdalene Sisters perpetrated a form of religious terrorism directed at women. Perhaps their positions of power and their own fear of sexuality resulted in their depriving their charges of any freedoms.
In Ireland, the Catholic Church was so powerful that no one questioned its practices. Women who escaped or were released didn’t speak about their experiences because they were too broken, ashamed, or afraid.
Researcher Dr. Frances Finnegan received documents from one of the religious orders at a time when they thought themselves invulnerable. Much of that research resulted in the 1998 documentary “Sex in a Cold Climate” which, in turn, inspired the 2002 fictionalized version “The Magdalene Sisters” based on the lives of four women in the asylums. (The DVD of The Magdalene Sisters includes both the documentary and the fictionalized version.) Although the film is set in the 1960s, the stories on which the film is based happened in the 40s and 50s.

Critics claim the film portrays conditions much more brutally than the reality could ever have been.
Inmates watched nuns eat buttered toast and bacon while they breakfasted on porridge. As punishment, they were beaten, their hair cut off, and they were frequently subjected to humiliation. They were not allowed to speak while working and were forbidden to form friendships. They were isolated from the outside world. Their names were changed and they were denied any contact with or knowledges of the fates of their illegitimate children. Many were sexually abused by priests.
Filmmaker Peter Mulian said, "In any oppressive regime, you take away people's ability to think once you take away their ability to express themselves. The church is a pretty sophisticated organization. It simply didn't serve their purposes to educate these women. They held them with fear, guilt and shame - its oldest and vilest weapons. The methodology they applied is shared by torturers all round the world. The prisoner's self-esteem is taken away, you deny them education, you deny them access to the outside world, you deny them communication to one another, you don't allow friendships to form and you take away their identities and give them new names. It is about breaking people down.”
Writer Fiachra Gibbons writes, “Every...‘Magdalene’ I've talked to says...the reality was more brutal [than the film.]”
"It was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns," says Mary-Jo McDonagh, who spent five years in a laundry in Galway. After being molested by a neighbour, she was spirited away early one morning by a priest and told she had "brought shame on her family". McDonagh eventually escaped to England after she was farmed out as a servant to a cousin of one of the nuns.
Often children born out of wedlock were placed in orphanages. At age 17, many of the female orphans were placed in Magdalene laundries, not for any sexual misbehavior, but because the nuns didn't know what else to do with them ---or maybe just to acquire more free labor. One woman had worked beside her own daughter for more than 20 years. Knowing the mother had pined for her daughter the entire time, the sadistic nuns had not revealed their relationship. The daughter was told only after her mother had died.
It should be noted that the actions of the nuns were entirely contradictory to the tenets of the faith in whose name they claimed to act. Accounts of Jesus say that he pardoned, showed kindness to and frequently spent time with women caught in adultery, whereas the Magdalene Sisters forced such women into brutal work for their salvation and pardon.
Predictably, The Magdalene Sisters film outraged the Vatican. Victims of Magdalene Asylums have received no closure in the form of recognition, compensation, or apology, yet many ---brainwashed with an eternity in hell for even thinking of questioning church authority ---remained devout Catholics. However, some of the women highlighted in the documentary film have wisely abandoned the church.


The DVD (including Sex in a Cold Climate and The Magdalene Sisters) is available from Netflix. Read more about these films on the Internet Movie Database


Snowbrush said...

Thanks for sharing this. My own last blogpost was one that you would surely enjoy.

Rita said...

Who knew the vagina was such a powerful weapon that it had to be locked up & hidden away? What a bunch of pansy asses those catholic priests are...afraid of a little ole vagina. :)

Seriously, it's a fascinating story, I'm going to read up on it.

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