“The Magdalene Laundries” is a song on the Joni Mitchell 1994 album “Turbulent Indigo”.
They were the forgotten women of Ireland, kept under lock and key, forced to clean and sew, and to wash away the sins of their previous life while never being paid a penny. Some stayed months, others years. Some never left. They were the inmates of Ireland’s notorious 20th century workhouses, the Magdalene Laundries.
The laundries — a beneficent-sounding word that helped hide the mistreatment that took place inside their walls — were operated by four orders of Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1922 to 1996. Over 10,000 young women, considered a burden by family, school and the state, spent an average of six months to a year locked up in these workhouses doing unpaid, manual work. Some were kept there against their will for years. Their numbers were made up by unmarried mothers and their daughters, women and girls who had been sexually abused, women with mental or physical disabilities who were unable to live independently, and young girls who had grown up under the care of the church and the state.
Here is a link to the song by Joni and an accompanying video
The movie Philomena is based on the book which was published in 2009, providing us with the story of a devout Irish Catholic woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, served in the so-called ‘Magdalene laundries’(supposedly atoning for her own sins, washing them away in the laundry) and had her baby in the convent, which was then sold to an American couple.
In the highly rated and much acclaimed BBC Films movie, we come into the story however very late, though with a variety of flashbacks. Philomena Lee is an old lady (played brilliantly by Dame Judi Dench of James Bond etc. fame) who has been trying to find out what happened to her son Anthony. An out of work hard-bitten atheistic good journalist named Martin Sixsmith (played very convincingly by Steve Coogan) is enlisted to find Anthony Lee, who of course has long since his adoption had a different name. It is an arduous process, and Philomena has many doubts and hesitations along the way. Does she really want to know what has happened to her son? What if he never wanted to know anything about her? What if he hated the mother he could not remember (being snatched from her at less than 4 years of age)? All the while, Philomena continues to pray, and hope, and preserve her Christian good graces in various ways. To the end, she sees having a child out of wedlock as a sin. To the end, she holds on to her faith in God. And when she discovers the nuns ‘from purgatory’ had lied to her about her sons whereabouts among other things, then the most beautiful moment in the film transpires where she forgives the nun most especially responsible for the disaster. And then of course she has to decide whether to allow this story to be published…. or not.
For you see, this is an absolutely true story, and the description that accompanies the video above tells a true tale, if not all the particulars. Of course it is true that it would be easy to bash Catholic nuns, and the whole process through which these unwed mothers went. But this film is not primarily attempting to do that. This film wants to tell Philomena’s story, and how her Christian charity prevailed to the very end of her search. I will not spoil the surprises or ending of the story for you, but I will say that you see Christians at their best and worst in this film…. and it is a rare sight in a major motion picture, one well worth viewing during this holiday season (though take your kleenexes with you). BTW, Philomena Lee is named after St. Philomena, whose tomb was discovered in the catacombs in Rome, and who is credited with various miracles. This story is about a different sort of personal miracle of closure, with many twists and turns. And oh yes… did I tell you that the Greek word philomena is a feminine participle which means— ‘beloved’.