Magdalene Sisters, The: Peter Mullan’s Grim Tale of Teenage Girls in Asylums

Set in Ireland, Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters is a grim drama about four teenage girls who were sent to Magdalene Asylums, places for women who were labelled as “fallen” by society. The homes were maintained by individual religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

Victims of Magdalene Asylums had received no recognition, compensation, or apology, and many remained lifelong devout Catholics.

Former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene Asylums was much worse than depicted in his film.

Plot

In Ireland in 1964, three young women, considered sinners in need of redemption, are sent to the Magdalene Asylum: Margaret, who was raped by her cousin at a wedding; Bernadette, who flirts with boys; and Rose, who has a child out of wedlock. As the Mother Superior, Sister Bridget, tells them, Magdalene Asylum’s philosophy is to help young women return to God’s grace through prayer, hard work and other forms of penance; it is named after Mary Magdalene, the Biblical fallen woman whom Jesus forgave and who devoted her life to asceticism to ensure she would be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

On her first night in the Asylum, Rose, known there by her confirmation name, Patricia, is in anguish as the milk backs up in her breasts. Another inmate of the asylum tells her she must endure the pain rather than lactate because the nuns will be outraged by any “leakage.” She also warns Rose and Bernadette that if the nuns suspect they are becoming too friendly, they will be punished severely. The next morning, Katy, one of the older inmates, lectures Bernadette and Crispina about their insensitivity; rather than wash clothes in silence, they traded laundry secrets despite the fact that one of the asylum’s nuns was in trouble for letting an inmate named Una O’Connor escape.

Una is brought back by her father—she had left the asylum because she desperately longed for her family. Her father renounces her, telling her that he will cripple her the next time he sees her. Although Sister Bridget speaks tenderly to her that night, the next day she cuts all of Una’s long brunette locks off. Crispina and Bernadette are also reprimanded for speaking aloud in the laundry rooms, resulting in several blows to the back of the thighs with Sister Bridget’s switch.

Bernadette tries to seduce Brendan, one of the employees, hoping that he will help her escape. But Brendan loses his nerve, leaving Bernadette to be punished with a bloody, forced haircut. She then continues to endure the miseries forced upon her and her fellow inmates, including having their naked bodies mocked by the nuns. Crispina tries to make herself terminally ill with the flu by soaking her nightgown in cold water then sleeping in it. When she loses her St. Christopher medal, she believes God is punishing her for some wrong and tries to hang herself. Only the intervention of Margaret, Rose and Bernadette saves her. Margaret tries to console Crispina by telling her she will soon be able to leave the convent to see her son, but Bernadette scoffs at the idea. Bernadette, who has had the St. Christopher medal all along, decides to keep it rather than return it to Crispina.

The next day, Margaret sees Crispina performing fellatio on Father Fitzroy, the resident priest just before mass. She continues to protect the mildly retarded Crispina, telling her not to consider Fitzroy a man of God and fighting with Bernadette when she finds the St. Christopher medal under her bed. She also washes Fitzroy’s vestments with a caustic plant that causes him to break out in a livid rash and strip off his clothes during an open-air mass. When Crispina realises she has the same rash between her legs and that Sister Bridget will not help her, she obsessively screams “You’re not a man of God!” at Fitzroy for 10 minutes. That night, Crispina is forcibly taken to Mt. Vernon, a hospital for the mentally ill, so she cannot reveal any more about Fitzroy’s sexual abuse of her.

At Christmas, Margaret’s brother Eamonn retrieves her from the asylum; she has been at Magdalene for four years and has a difficult time accepting her good fortune. On the way out, they encounter Sister Bridget and the Bishop. When Margaret begins to pray in response to a threat from Sister Bridget, the Bishop gestures to Sister Bridget to move on without a confrontation. Bernadette finds Katy dead; when she goes to tell Sister Bridget, she sees Patricia being viciously beaten for telling Crispina’s sister that she had been imprisoned in the mental hospital. That night, she tells Patricia that they have to leave. They break into Sister Bridget’s office, and after a confrontation with Bridget and other nuns, escape the asylum. With the help of Bernadette’s aunt, who lives in a nearby town, they are able to start anew.

Patricia (now Rose again) takes a ferry to Liverpool, in England; as an adult, she will marry and have two daughters before finding the son that was taken from her in 1964. Bernadette becomes a hairstylist like her aunt and moves to Scotland but is never able to have stable, happy relationships. She marries and divorces three times. Margaret became a school deputy headmistress but never married. Crispina was found by her sister in Mt. Vernon but, her mental health having deteriorated, she died there of anorexia in 1971.

The film’s epilogue states that an estimated 30,000 women were held at Magdalene asylums throughout Ireland, and the last laundry closed in 1996.

Cast

Anne-Marie Duff : Margaret McGuire

Nora Jane Noone : Bernadette Harvey

Dorothy Duffy : Patrica/Rose Dunne

Eileen Walsh : Harriet/Crispina

Geraldine McEwan : Sister Bridget

Daniel Costello : Father Fitzroy

Mary Murray : Una O’Connor

Frances Healy : Sister Jude

Eithne McGuinness : Sister Clementine