If ever there were an antidote to the syrupy, singing nuns of The Sound of Music, it is Peter Mullan’s 2002 award-winning The Magdalene Sisters. A fictitious account of life within a Magdalene Asylum based upon reports from survivors, the film generated further outrage over the (at-the-time) newly-revealed scandal of the institutions run in Ireland by the Magdalene convents.
The Magdalene Asylums were founded in the 18th century, as a refuge for “wayward” women (mostly prostitutes). At some unknown, murky point, the asylums began to function less like half-way homes and more like prisons. The “Why” of this will prove (for generations to come) a vexing societal problem, but the Magdalene Asylums (founded after Mary Magdalene, the “Fallen” Woman of the New Testament, who found Redemption through Christ- not that, as a Pagan, I think it might have been the case, that the Bible was re-written periodically, to reflect current political-tastes)- if allegations are to prove true, by at least the 1960s (the period reflected in the film), the Irish Magdalene Asylums proved less a voluntary home for women anxious to “re-orient” themselves, than a slave-labor imprisonment system operated by Sisterhoods of the Catholic Church.
The scandal of the Magdalene “Asylums” broke in 1993, when a Dublin order of Magdalene nuns sold a portion of their property. Oops (and tellingly, it apparently hadn’t occurred to them to think of this), said property contained some 155 unmarked graves, of women who had died while “charges” of the Sisterhood. Little effort had apparently been made to contact survivors of the deceased; asked to provide details, the nuns in some cases apparently identified the deceased as “Magdalene,” tantamount to going “anonymous,” “unknown,” or “danged if we know.” Alarmingly, in roughly a third of the cases, no death certificate had been issued- implying that the authorities had not been notified (illegal in Ireland as in the United States), and suggesting ominously- what did the Sisterhood want to hide about those dead women, in a secret that they apparently thought could be buried in a backyard, out of sight and forgotten forever? (The stray thought emerges- who was digging those 150-plus graves? I suspect, not the Sisters.)
Survivors of the “Asylums” came forward to tell their stories of life within the Magdalene walls. Apparently, male family-members could “send” females into the “Asylums” with appalling ease; once incarcerated however, liberation was excessively difficult to obtain, and impossible for the female inmate. (Among other things, women were often given new names once inside the “Asylums,” making records-tracking nigh-to-impossible.) As the Magdalene Institutions sustained themselves as laundries, the female inmates (imprisoned against their will, and forcibly prevented from leaving) were forced to work grueling hours at hard labor- for no wages. Many apparently died within the system, and every identifying detail of a slave-labor camp might be readily apparent.
Peter Mullan met with several of these survivors (in some cases, revisiting the sites themselves), and composited this movie together from representative samplings of their stories. An important thing to remember is that the movie is a fictitious account, however much it may resemble a historical representation. (For instance, a controversial move on Mr. Mullan’s part was to provide fictional “Whatever Became Of” addendums to the end, providing fictional endings to the lives of his fictional characters.) But this fictitious account of Mr. Mullan’s- however fictitious- is meant to be understood as based upon genuine allegations (kind of backed up by evidence such as 155 unmarked graves in the Dublin Magdalene Asylum’s back-lot); allegations as serious, and as damning, as the Church pedophilia-scandals of the latter 20th/ early 21st century.
Never mind the Inquisition and the 300-years Burning Times (when accused Witches were tortured into confessions of devil-worship, in order to be burned at the stake): such modern outrages as Catholic Church pedophilia scandals, and those of the Magdalene Institutions, make me joyful for the Mind-Liberation and Transcendent Consciousness of Neo-Paganism. For more about the Magdalene Sisters, please read this CBS story and this from The Guardian.