Are factual inaccuracies in movies justified by role in highlighting issues?
The Magdalene Sisters: the 2002 film depicts the laundries as profitable, money-making rackets and shows the women subjected to indignities including head-shaving
McAleese report raises questions about accuracy of how Magdalene laundries have been portrayed
A feature of the campaign for justice for the women of the Magdalene laundries has been the role of historical dramatisations on stage and screen.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a series of plays and movies about what went on behind the institutions’ walls. These played a major part in shaping public opinion as well as bringing the issue to international attention.
None has had greater reach than The Magdalene Sisters, the 2002 film directed by Peter Mullan which won the coveted Golden Lion award on its release at the Venice Film Festival.
It tells the harrowing story of four teenage girls admitted to a laundry where they experience or witness routine physical and sexual abuse by nuns and a priest. Like many dramatisations, it depicts the laundries as profitable, money-making rackets, and shows the women subjected to various indignities including head-shaving.
But the question arises from this week’s report: how accurate were such narratives?
A striking feature of the McAleese report is the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns, and strongly rejected allegations of physical abuse. Against this, the vast majority reported psychological abuse. One woman said she was sexually abused during her time in a laundry by a fellow “Magdalene” who had been in the institution for some time.
The report says the 118 women it spoke to comprises a “small sample”, and is “biased towards more modern years” but it remains the largest single collection of such testimony to be published.
Criticism from the women may have been tempered by the fact that half were living in nursing homes under the care of religious orders. However, there is no escaping the fact that the report jars with some popular perceptions.
“We have always said the one-size-fits-all model of survivor does not apply,” says James M Smith, a leading researcher on the laundries and a member of the Justice for Magdalenes advisory committee.
Of Mullan’s film, he says: “I have said then and since, no survivor I have spoken to has alluded to women suffering sexual abuse in the Magdalene laundries. They were predominantly female and run by female religious; sexual abuse was endemic in male institutions.”
He notes survivors have also denied that women were stripped naked and examined by nuns, as depicted in The Magdalene Sisters. However, the use of hair cutting as a punishment is confirmed by a set of laundry “house rules” that Dr Smith discovered.
This document is included in the McAleese report, along with testimony of three women who said they had either experienced or seen hair-cutting as a punishment. Head-shaving was reported only once, however, in a case of head lice.