`Too pretty' to be allowed out

 

Phyllis Valentine was sent to a Magdalene home because she was too pretty. Martha Cooney was put to the Magdalenes because she was regarded as "tainted" after her cousin assaulted her. These women and the others who tell their harrowing stories in Sex In A Cold Climate are a telling reminder, in the midst of Celtic Tiger complacency, of the darker side of our history.

The story of the Magdalene laundries is not new to us, but the stark and moving testimonies of the women in Steve Humphries's Channel 4 film bring home powerfully the bleakness of life for some women in 1940s Ireland and the film illustrates the degree and intensity of the searing misogyny which existed then in Irish society.

Humphries is a respected English documentary-maker whose social history style of film-making has been much copied. Over the past 15 years he has shone a light in many dark corners of British history and given voice to historical witnesses who had either been ignored, neglected or written out of history altogether. The hallmarks of a typical Humphries film are meticulous research,

gripping personal testimonies and telling use of rare archival footage. He has an unerring gift for letting people tell often harrowing stories and time and again one wonders how he manages to elicit such painful truths from his subjects and what's more, persuade them to say it on camera. (In the flesh Humphries is a deceptively boyish-looking man in his 40s, which may go some way to explaining his knack for getting people to speak about the unspeakable.)

The story of the Magdalene women brings together a number of typical Humphries preoccupations - the unheard first person accounts of a forgotten social history, the institutionalised cruelty of those with power, and attitudes to sexual mores and women made pariahs because of them. He covered some of this territory in two earlier films: A Secret World Of Sex (1988) and Forbid- den Britain (1994). Now he has turned his attention to these themes in an Irish context, partly because he feels Ireland has been much-neglected by the makers of historical documentaries, particularly those on the other side of the Irish Sea.

And despite the sensitivity of the subject of Magdalene asylums, he has managed to make a disturbing yet enlightening film and to record for posterity voices that were previously ignored.

It is chilling to watch these ordinary yet immensely brave women sitting in the safety of their modest living-rooms, recalling how they were vilified by friends, family and Church, and subjected to grim physical and sexual abuse. Mothers, grandmothers and aunts, the sort you'd meet anywhere in this country, the middle-aged and elderly ladies in their floral suits and dresses tell how they were branded as "devils" and punished over and over for supposed wrongdoings. The innocence of the faded photos of their earlier selves with bright, shining, hopeful faces make the anger at their fate more potent.

It is hard to say which story is the most disturbing. That of Phyllis Valentine, condemned to eight years in the Magdalene home in because she was "pretty as a picture" and the nuns feared she might "fall away", become pregnant and give them yet another mouth to feed. It was a case of prevention rather than cure, and Phyllis was incarcerated in the Galway Magdalene Asylum so as not to be a temptation to men. The moment she entered the asylum her long shiny hair, her pride and joy, was shorn.

Christina Mulcahy was separated from her son, born as a result of a wartime romance, when the child was 10 months old and she was still breastfeeding him. She recounts how she nearly went out of her mind with grief: "There was no time to say goodbye" she says tearfully to the camera. It was to be 55 years before she would see her son again.

Brighid Young, who was brought up in an orphanage attached to the Limerick Magdalene laundry, was savagely beaten by a nun because she spoke to one of the Magdalene women. After administering the beating the nun forced Brighid to look in the mirror at her swollen and battered face. "You're not so pretty now," she said. Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the film, however, is the tales of resistence and the refusal of the women to submit totally to the brutality of their daily lives. Christina Mulcahy sat on the convent stairs and refused to work. Phyllis Valentine went on strike, neither eating nor working. All four women tell of many other strategies for resistance and subversion, the plots for escape and the schemes of women to catch even a glimpse of their babies and the endless longing of the women to be reunited with their lost children. Tantrums, screaming and physical confrontation with the nuns were also common methods of fighting back.

So, although they were victims, they also found the strength to engage in small defiant acts of heroism. Sex In A Cold Climate holds a mirror up to our unpalatable past and we should not shy away from looking into it.

Witness: Sex In A Cold Climate is to be shown on Channel 4, next Monday at 9 p.m.