(Editorial from Church & State Magazine, No. 71, Winter 2002)

"An Overwhelmingly Catholic Nation Coming To Grips With Its Past"?

An Editorial Review of the Film ‘Magdalene Sisters’

In a scene from the film, Magdalene Sisters, a film which claims to be based on real events, the nun in charge gets the girls to stand in a line naked. "Who gets the prize for having the littl’ist breasts?", she says. Then she calls out a name and enjoys the joke with another nun. "Now who has the biggest breasts?" She calls out another name and the two nuns titter among themselves. "And who is the hairiest down there?", she giggles. When one of the girls begins to cry uncontrollably the spectacle loses its humour for the nuns and the girls are eventually ordered back to work.

The idea conveyed in the scene is that, since the girls in the Magdalene Asylum are cut off from society and many will spend their lives there, their sexuality is redundant. In this asexual environment the girls’ sexuality has no function other than as a souce of childish amusement for the nuns. That is one of the images through which the thoroughly depressing story of the Magdalene laundries is related.

In another scene one of the girls notices a garden gate that has been left unlocked. Assuring herself that she has not been seen she makes a bolt for it. On the outside she takes a few moments to enjoy looking at the countryside. Then a car approaches and she motions for it to stop. The man behind the wheel draws down the window and looks at her. She recognises that he views her as an easy conquest and fears that he may rape her. She turns down his offer of a lift and, with body language expressing utter dejection, returns to the convent.

This scene captures the choice faced by many inmates of the Magdalene system, not only in Ireland but also in Britain where they proliferated throughout the nineteenth century. In the asylums the self-esteem of the girls was bludgeoned to the point where, even if they did manage to escape, they rarely married, some found it difficult to make lasting relationships, others became victims of abusive partners and some, perhaps in recoil from the obsessive denial of sexuality that prevailed in the institutions, gravitated towards prostitution. Thus the administrators of the asylums often claimed they were protecting the girls from a life of degradation. Thus imprisonment did not end when they left the institution.

Scottish Director

Magdalene Sisters, which was directed by the Scottish actor and director, Peter Mullan, won the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival in September this year. As of the 9th of November (2002) it has been playing to packed audiences in Italy for a month and has gained the number three slot two weeks after its release in Ireland. A Reuters report on the movie states:

"What's incredible is we're getting reports that the audience (in Ireland) is of all age groups and that a large number of the clergy are going to see it," said the 43-year-old Glasgow native, who was raised a Catholic (Peter Mullan).

But he said that in Ireland, it appeared to have struck a chord with an overwhelmingly Catholic nation coming to grips with its past.

"I think a lot of it is because Ireland changed so much in the past 10 to 15 years, so maybe the time is right to stand back and take stock of what the country was formerly like," Mullan said.

The Vatican has officially denounced the film as "an angry and rancorous provocation". It will not be released in Britain until February and the distributors are unsure how it will be received in a secular society.

Mullan is publicising the movie in an overtly political manner. He has demanded that the Catholic Church issue an apology in accordance with the wishes of many of the women survivors. He has also dismissed the protestations of the Vatican as "rhetoric". Mullan is a Glasgow socialist and a flavour of his views can be gained in the following snippet from an interview with Demetrios Matheou in The Observer (7/1/01).

As often with Mullan, the anecdotal chuckle is not designed to hide his feelings, in this case a deep-rooted sense of betrayal. 'The people who we [the working class] trusted—the TUC and the Labour Party—sold us out big style, unashamedly so. Everything that the so-called New Labour stands for is beyond contempt - particularly from a Scottish context. They don't understand us, they never will understand us, they don't wannae understand us. These people, these spin doctors, these careerists…I despise them.'

Undoubtedly Mullan is a conscientious director and the film represents a technical and artistic triumph for him. And yet…And yet it is necessary to enter some serious reservations. For a start it is perfectly obvious that the film has a Scottish director. Some of the scenes contain silences with a deeply Scottish, one might even say Scottish Calvinist, resonance. And Irish Catholic misery depicted through the lense of a dour Scot is a bridge too far in the depressive stakes, even for this reviewer. One wonders what they are making of it in Italy.

Main Weakness

But the main weakness of the film has nothing directly to do with Mullan or the way the film has been produced. It is connected with a phrase he used in the interview with Reuters, "an overwhelmingly Catholic nation coming to grips with its past".

If the Irish nation was genuinely coming to grips with its Catholic past, then a movie director would have something to connect with. But the opposite is happening. Irish society is hearing about the excesses of the Catholic Ascendency in the same way that German society heard about the concentration camps in the late forties—a liberal media is disparaging traditional culture. Irish society is being forced to come to grips with an incomplete and one sided version of its past. The effect in Ireland as in Germany is to demoralise society.

Responsibility for the Magdalene System

One aspect of the Magdalene story which show this up is the way it is being depicted as a pure product of Catholic Ireland. Actually the Magdalene Asylums originated in late eighteenth century Britain where they were managed by Protestant and Catholic bodies. Responsibility for the Irish Magdalene laundries should lie more with English puritanism than Roman Catholicism.

The English prose writer, Samuel Johnson, once said, "The chastity of women is of all importance, as all property depends on it". The full implications of that statement are spelled out by the historian, Joan Smith as follows:—

The 18th century was, par excellence, the age of privatisation. Not in the modern sense of selling off publicly-owned utilities, but in a much more fundamental way: what passed into private ownership was land and bodies.On the first count, countryside that for centuries had been open to all was fenced off and became the inviolable property of wealthy individuals. As a direct result, the landscape changed dramatically, and so did the lives of millions of people who lived upon it.

The appropriation was carried out legally, through a series of acts of parliament, and meant that farm labourers who used to supplement their meagre income by turning out their hens, pigs and geese to graze at no cost on common land could no longer do so. The rich benefited hugely, which is why they resorted to legislation so often: there were 64 Enclosure Acts from 1740-1749, 472 from 1770-1779, and 574—the peak—in the first decade of the 19th century. But the effect on the rural working class was catastrophic. Families who had depended on access to common ground became landless trespassers. "An amazing number of people have been reduced from a comfortable state of partial independence to the precarious position of mere hirelings, who when out of work immediately come on the parish," observed the Reverend David Davies, rector of Cookham, Berkshire, in 1795. New boundaries - ditches, hedges and walls - not only created a more ordered vision of the countryside, but acted as a visual reminder of the power of landlords to exclude outsiders. Whatever their effects - and historians are still debating their impact on agriculture - the Enclosure Acts are seen as a significant step in the creation of a modern society. What is less frequently remarked upon is the way in which a comparable process of enclosure was acted out in the 18th century on bodies, primarily on women's bodies. The effect was to divide women into two classes: wives who were indubitably the property of their husbands, and unmarried or abandoned women who, not belonging to one master, ran the risk of being regarded as the collective property of all.

The link between the ownership of land and the ownership of women was not accidental: just as the wealthy wanted control of vast estates, they also wanted certainty about the sons and heirs who would inherit the property they had gone to so much trouble to secure. At a time when blood tests to establish paternity had not yet been dreamt of, this was hardly the easiest goal to achieve. What the ruling elite could do, and did with extraordinary thoroughness, was to take more effective control of women's bodies. They did it by outlawing all forms of marriage except one that was formal and indissoluble, except by act of parliament - and they made sure that even this perilous and expensive escape route was not open to women. (Moralities: Sex, Money and Power in the 21st Century by Joan Smith The Guardian, Saturday May 12, 2001)

The dehumanising regime imposed on inmates of the Irish Magdalene laundries had its origin in eighteenth century English property law. Women who deviated from the rule that sexual activity could only take place within marriage needed to be isolated from society and treated like criminals. The culpability of Irish Catholicism in relation to the Magdalene system (Irish Catholicism is certainly culpable in this matter) lies in the manner in which it earnestly enforced a quintessentially English version of Christianity long after Christianity had ceased to be taken seriously in England.

Ireland needs to come to grips with its past. The current flood of media revelations about cover-ups in the Dublin Archdiocese in relation to known paedophile priests, industrial schools in which young boys died in mysterious circumstances and now the Magdalene laundries, are all necessary and long overdue. Yet the manner in which they are being presented is distorting our understanding of the past. Films like Magdalene Sisters are merely reinforcing the liberal media agenda and reducing the society to a passive appendage of Anglo America.


“An Overwhelmingly Catholic Nation Coming to Grips with Its Past”? (Editorial)
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