One of the most harrowing scandals in modern Ireland arose from the Magdalene Laundries, an Irish Gulag for “fallen” girls where sadistic nuns tormented and humiliated inmates. The powerful 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, by Peter Mullen, hung the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church for all the world to see. “There is a fundamental air of truth about it, a sense that, horrific though things seem, this is how it must have been,” said the review for the Los Angeles Times. Sister Bridget, played by Geraldine McEwan, is “a twisted diabolical autocrat” who is “horribly believable”, in the words of the New York Times.

The evil stench prompted others to memorialise the victims. There have been several documentaries, in England and Ireland.  Patricia Burke-Brogan, a former nun, described it in her 1992 play Eclipsed. Joni Mitchell wrote a song, ‘The Magdalene Laundries’, in 1997. The then-President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, unveiled a plaque in honour of the victims in the middle of Dublin in 1996.

The Irish government stirred itself to investigate these horrors in 2011. It appointed a committee of public servants chaired by Senator Martin McAleese “to establish the facts”. Early last month the 1,000 page report was published. Its findings were astounding, but not in the way you might expect. It turned out that the horrors of the laundries had been greatly exaggerated. It wasn’t the Ninth Circle of Hell that the media was expecting. Here is how the report put it:

“Absence of direct information about the living and working conditions within the Magdalene Laundries has been largely replaced by historical (pre-State) experience and fictional writings or representations. It is also likely that assumptions have been made regarding these institutions based on the evidence of the grievous abuse suffered by male and female children in Industrial and Reformatory Schools in Ireland throughout the twentieth century”’.

The report reveals unequivocally that the prevailing mindset about the Catholic Church’s involvement in these institutions, and what went on in the institutions themselves, was misguided and ill-informed. “The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps,” says Brendan O’Neill in the London Telegraph, “seem to have been taken aback by “the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns”.

Mullen’s film, along with other contributions by the media in recent years, has hardly furthered the cause for understanding among those who lack closure on a difficult time in their lives, as well as a confused and frustrated public. So how does the fiction compare to the facts? Not well. Here are some correctives supplied by the McAlesee Report.

Was the system generally accepted by the Irish public while it lasted? When did grievances begin?

from The McAleese Report: Not a single woman who testified to the committee made allegations of sexual abuse against the nuns. “However a significant number told the Committee that they had suffered sexual abuse in the family home or in other institutions, either before or after their time in the Magdalen Laundries.”

Another woman said “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns. As long as I was there, I was not touched myself by any nun and I never saw anyone touched and there was never a finger put on them. … Now everything was not rosy in there because we were kept against our will … we worked very hard there … But in saying that we were treated good and well looked after”

Who had the power to send the women to those institutions? 

David Quinn, The Independent (Dublin): “The first Magdalene asylum in Ireland was established in 1767 by a Protestant benefactor named Lady Arabella Denny as a home for ‘penitent prostitutes’. The first Catholic Magdalene asylums in Ireland did not appear for several more decades. As mentioned, Magdalene asylums were founded in other countries also. The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, for example, was founded in 1800 by, among others, Quakers, with the intention of ‘restoring to the paths of virtue those unhappy females who in unguarded hours have been robbed of their innocence’.

“In Northern Ireland, both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians also ran Magdalene asylums. So far as they were concerned, they were responding to a real need. The asylums didn’t exist only for prostitutes. Many of the women in them suffered from intellectual disabilities and were placed in them by their families. Others were indeed unmarried mothers. A small minority were guilty of crimes such as infanticide and were in them as an alternative to prison.”  

Who was responsible for the women?  

David Quinn, The Independent (Dublin):  “Many women were placed in institutions without any real justification and that they were placed in them is testament to the often harsh climate of the times. We don’t know the breakdown between the various categories of women because, in Ireland’s case at least, the archives of the institutions haven’t been properly investigated. Maybe by a certain point in time they did mainly house unmarried mothers. We need to find this out. But according to the Government’s own report to the UN committee, the overwhelming majority of women in the Magdalene Laundries were there voluntarily.

“In the 19th and for much of the 20th Century, institutionalisation was the response to all sorts of social issues and problems. But let’s also be clear about a number of other things. First, Magdalene homes in Ireland were not established in the first instance by the Catholic Church. Second, they existed in other countries, too, and not just in Ireland. Third, they were not established primarily with unmarried mothers in mind and to this day it is not clear what percentage of their residents unmarried mothers comprised’.

Conditions in these institutions were harsh. The women who were mistreated there deserve to have their stories heard and to be compensated in some way. But Ireland in the 30s, 40s and 50s was a poor and harsh place for children without homes or families. Institutionalisation was bound to leave scars. But it now appears that the black legend of the Magdalene Laundries owes more to the imaginations of writers who came a generation later than to the facts.

Ronan Wright writes from Belfast. 

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...