'They really thought they were doing well by these women'

Phyllis MacMahon plays the role of Sr Augusta in Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters

Phyllis MacMahon plays the role of Sr Augusta in Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

INTERVIEW: Magdalene laundries became society’s dumping ground, says former Sister of Mercy Phyllis MacMahon

In her early 20s Phyllis MacMahon was Sr Adrian of the Sisters of Mercy in Galway where she stood in charge of dozens of girls and young women as they scrubbed clothes in the Magdalene laundry on Forster Street.

Decades later MacMahon, who became an actor after she quit the order, played the role of Sr Augusta in 2002 in Peter Mullan’s Magdalene Sisters, the film that did much to bring the existence of the laundries to national and international attention.

She has written a play, Divorcing God? based largely on her experiences in the Sisters of Mercy – a congregation she had wanted to join since she was a seven-year-old attending Mass with her mother in Dublin

On entering the order in 1952, she was filled with hopes of following the path of Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley: “I was 17; I thought I was going to do wonders for the poor and save the world. I was very idealistic.”

‘Fights would break out’

Six years later she was sent to Forster Street to run part of its operations. However, it was a punishment, not a sign of favour: “I had been sent to the boarding school in Spiddal, but I was reported for talking too much to the locals.”

From Finglas in Dublin, MacMahon, who had joined the nuns against the wishes of her family, struggled in Forster Street: “I was too young to be in charge of the girls. Often, fights would break out. Not surprising that they would, given that you had all these people held in one place. Sometimes I got the wash-board in the face when I tried to stop them by standing in between them. That was accidental; they weren’t trying to hit me.”

Some of the women opted to stay by “consecrating themselves to the house”, wearing a black dress. Most, though, wanted out quickly, some by escaping through a window: “They were brought back by the guards.”

Punishment was meted out for escapes: “They were taken to a small room where two of the girls would hold the escapee down and a nun would hit them on the back of the legs with a stick. It was like how children were beaten at the time.”

Today, the religious congregations who ran the laundries stand in front for blame, as they should, says MacMahon, but Irish society cannot escape its responsibilities: “Society locked them up in institutions and sent them its laundry.”

The laundries had begun with high purpose, she believes, but changed over two centuries into “asylums and institutions” where society “dumped the people that it wanted to be rid of”, including “sisters raped by their brothers on farms”.

Religious turmoil

“I remember asking one nun why these girls were here. The reply was, ‘Ah, sure, God help them, they can’t help themselves’. They really thought that they were doing well by these women, even if it was said with a note of moral superiority.”

Nearing her final vows, McMahon’s doubts about her vocation were rejected by the Rev Mother, who dismissed a letter from her mother saying it could not have been written by her. Soon, MacMahon, in a state of emotional and religious turmoil, was sent to a Jesuit priest for counselling. Surprisingly, he advised her to quit.

Having become an actor, she appeared in Shaun of the Dead , an episode of A Touch of Frost and as a prostitute in the hit TV mini-series, Pennies from Heaven.

Later, she ran a restaurant, Trattoria Filomena near St Paul’s Cathedral with her Italian husband, Bruno, until his early death and then for a further 12 years. “I had one photograph of me as the blonde whore in John Boorman’s Leo The Last and one beside it from my days in the Sisters of Mercy.”

Despite quitting the order, she was unable to leave behind all of her life in the cloth. “When my husband died, do you know the people I rang first after he died? The nuns. I spent the most impressionable years of my life there. I just couldn’t get away from them, really.”