The Magdalene Laundries were back in the spotlight recently following the death of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who spent time in one of the former asylums as a teenager. A new BBC drama examines the impact of the abuse which took place at some of these notorious institutions.
Many of the obituaries published following O’Connor’s death last month noted the time she spent as a young woman in Dublin’s An Grianan Training Centre, a Catholic-run institution which used to be the High Park Magdalene Laundry, where children and teenagers were routinely treated badly.
The laundries had been theoretically set up to house “fallen women” – a blanket term which included unmarried mothers, women deemed to have been badly behaved, promiscuous or sexually abused, or who were considered uncooperative or burdens on their families.
Shoplifting and truancy led to O’Connor being placed in the institution for 18 months in her teens. She later referred to it as a “prison”, where she said she was deprived of a normal childhood, and girls “cried every day”.
Women lived and worked without wages – O’Connor recalled being assigned jobs such as washing priests’ clothes for no pay. She said the women generally studied maths and typing and had limited contact with their families.
The singer’s time there did help set her own path to a career in music, after one nun gave her a guitar and connected her with a music teacher. But glints of light and hope such as this were rare.
Coincidentally, the BBC commissioned a six-part TV drama about the Magdalene Laundries last year, prior to O’Connor’s death. Created and written by Joe Murtagh and starring Ruth Wilson, the Woman in the Wall launches on BBC One on Sunday at 21:00 BST.
Murtagh says his primary motivation for writing about the laundries was to increase awareness of a story about which many still know little.
“Outside of Ireland, in my experience, this isn’t really known about, and with the people who do tend to know about it, it’s because they’ve seen films including the Magdalene Sisters or Philomena,” he tells BBC News.
“When you read into it, you see how harrowing it was, the scale of it, and how many tens of thousands of lives it’s touched. It was a bit of history that interested me and engaged me emotionally, but the driving factor was just people not knowing about it enough.”
The image conjured up by many when they think of the laundries is of the young women, mostly teens, who were held there. But actress Wilson, who stars in and co-produced the series, notes that women of all ages were admitted.
“Particular things shocked me, like women who were going into these laundries in their 40s – because they got pregnant out of wedlock,” she says.
“Grown women, it wasn’t just girls, it was women of all ages, the oldest was something like 89. They were shamed into these institutions.”
Wilson and Murtagh both did extensive research while working on the show – which included reading books, watching documentaries and speaking to real-life survivors.
“Another thing that shocked me, and this didn’t happen in all of them, but in some of them, the girls gave birth, and then they’d have to nurse their child for two years, and then their child was taken away from them,” says Wilson.
“Stuff like that is horrific; the fact that girls weren’t given any gas and air or weren’t stitched up after birth. The nuns wouldn’t let them. Things like that, you just go, wow, it’s pure horror.”
Some women who stayed at the former institutions have told of being physically or sexually abused, and many said they spent their time scrubbing floors and doing other physical labour.
An estimated 30,000 women were confined in the laundries over the years, and the impact of time spent there on the survivors was significant and long-lasting.
O’Connor’s time at the former laundry laid the groundwork for her appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, which saw her tear up a picture of the Pope live on air in protest against sexual and physical abuse in the Catholic Church, telling the stunned audience: “Fight the real enemy.”
Years later, Pope John Paul II would acknowledge that abuse had taken place in Catholic institutions across the world. But it took years for the women who had been housed at the laundries to be taken seriously. Wilson refers to the denial or downplaying of what happened to them as a form of “gaslighting”.
“The silence around it, if your experience is denied, over and over again… the experience itself is horrific, but the aftermath of nobody listening to you, and actively denying that what you’re saying is true, I imagine that’s deeply traumatic too,” she says.
“Any chance to get this story understood or get people to dig a bit deeper or read about it, I hope must be a little bit of validation.”
Set in 2015, the Woman in the Wall follows Lorna (Wilson) – a clearly damaged woman who is often aggressive with those around her. It soon transpires that, as a teenager, Lorna’s baby was taken from her after she was forced to attend a convent.
Wilson is no stranger to playing unpredictable and sometimes unhinged women, such as Alice Morgan in Luther.
But the inner turmoil she portrays here hints at something far darker, a woman who carries truly chilling memories. Wilson hopes the audience “will try to understand this character at the heart of it and why she’s acting the way she does”.
“Yes, she’s damaged, but she’s damaged because of what happened to her. The world has treated her like she’s mad, but actually, they’re mad for putting her inside. If someone has been gaslit their whole life, how will they feel?”
The series is set in the fictional Irish town of Kilkinure, where local women have been campaigning for the state to recognise that the convent was a former Magdalene Laundry.
Murtagh says part of the reason for setting the series somewhere fictional was to “protect any people that we spoke to” during the period of researching.
“We didn’t want anyone to be able to point their finger at any one person, institution or place, and thereby discredit them or their stories,” he explains.
“It was also an opportunity to be able to compile all the research we did and draw on as many stories as we could, and set it all in the one fictional town.”
The women in the series fight for justice and acknowledgement, pointing out how recently the laundries were in operation. “People think this couldn’t happen again, but the last laundry closed in 1996,” points out one character. “It wasn’t medieval times, the Macarena was in the charts.”
But for a series with such a grim theme, there are still moments of levity. The snappy, acerbic dialogue, delivered with characteristic Irish humour, will be familiar to fans of playwright Martin McDonagh’s style.
The first episode is both engaging and educational. While horrific historical abuse and its long-lasting impact is the core theme of the show, it otherwise plays out as a traditional whodunnit involving mystery, murder and local detectives.
Murtagh, who has said he does not have a personal connection to the laundries, says it was important not to be “exploitative” in the process of writing the series, adding that it was “tricky to balance” the blend of fact and fiction.
But, he adds, placing a murder mystery at the core of the drama provided an opportunity to “smuggle a story like [the Magdalene laundries] under the radar”.
“My natural sensibility is to play with genre anyway, but what I find really useful about genre is everyone has this inherent understanding of how genre works, how horror or comedy should function,” he says.
“So it provides a useful vehicle for everyone to grasp on to, so you’ve immediately got something that is easier to transport as dark and relatively unknown as this to a wider audience.”
The first two episodes of The Woman In The Wall air on Sunday 27 and Monday 28 August at 21:00 BST on BBC One. The series then continues weekly on Mondays on BBC One and also on iPlayer.