TV

The Woman In The Wall: What is the true story of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries?

Thousands of women were sent to Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries – which operated until the 1990s – but their brutal story is still too little known. New BBC drama The Woman In The Wall aims to change that.

A woman lies on the road in a nightgown surrounded by cows

Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady. Image: Motive Pictures/Chris Barr/BBC

Joe Murtagh has written a drama fuelled by outrage, informed by horror. The Woman In The Wall tells the shameful real-life story of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes – but wraps up this vital account in a genre-hopping, wickedly funny, character-led series that veers from offbeat black comedy to crime caper to psychological horror. 

The Magdalene Laundries were state-sponsored, church-run institutions in which women were forced to work for no money, in near silence, kept away from the wider world. Their crimes? Some had been sexually abused, others had been raped, still more were locked up because they had a reputation for promiscuity. 

Alongside these, Mother and Baby Homes were similarly cruel church-run institutions, in which babies were forcibly removed from unmarried mothers and put up for adoption, with only sketchy records kept – leaving behind untold psychological trauma. 

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A man in a red shirt
Joe Murtagh. Image: supplied

Murtagh has no direct connection to the Magdalene Laundries. Instead, his interest was sparked by Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. So much of the wider consciousness about this institutionalised misogyny and abuse is through film – with Philomena, the 2013 film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the most widely seen. 

With a creative team led by brilliant women including lead actor (and executive producer) Ruth Wilson, the story Murtagh has produced is full of uncomfortable, excruciating and devastating detail, with characters and a community to cherish, keeping viewers entertained even as we learn tough truths. It opens with Wilson as Lorna Brady, asleep in her nightgown surrounded by cows on a country road. Eccentric, compelling, haunted by her traumatic experience at the local Mother and Baby Home and by unanswered questions about what happened to her child, she will later find a body in her home before investigating whether she has committed a murder while sleepwalking.  

Murtagh based the community on his parents’ home town in County Mayo, while the character of Lorna would be equally at home in the films of the Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh.  

“They’re these fantastic little communities and I wanted to populate it with people I felt like we all know – and then slowly uncover this very dark thing that’s happened underneath all that. It’s quite a heightened world, but I wouldn’t say the characters are heightened. They’re all very authentic. 

“It’s very true to life, especially true to Irish life, that you find humour in the darkest places. A lot of people are interested in murder mysteries and detective stories and gothic horrors and that particularly Irish black humour that subverts comedy. 

“Hopefully we are able to deliver on all those aspects, but by the end people will have the same experience I did watching The Magdalene Sisters. Which is to say, Oh my god, did that really happen – and what’s been done about it?” 

women fold laundry in one of the  Magdalene Laundries
The Magdalene Sisters, 2002. Image: PFP FILMS/TEMPLE FILMS/Album/Alamy

This shocking history was hidden in plain sight until recently. But the women involved were kept away out of sight and out of mind as their slave labour earned millions for the government and the church, and they were subjected to sexual, psychological and physical abuse. 

“This bit of history is so unique in its awfulness and in how unknown it is outside of Ireland,” says Murtagh. “The scale of it, how many lives it touched, and how long it went on for – it ended so recently.” 

When an unmarked mass grave containing 155 bodies was found in convent grounds at one of the laundries in 1993, the scandal could no longer be buried.  

It still took a further three years for the last Magdalene Laundry to close, in 1996. For reference, this was the year of Trainspotting, the year of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce and, as character Niamh says in episode one of The Woman In The Wall, this was when Macarena was flying high in the charts. These torture establishments that had operated since the 18th century continued uncomfortably far into recent memory. It was also four years after Sinéad O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on US television to protest against abuse within the church – and 15 years after she had been sent to a care facility attached to a Magdalene asylum for 18 months for truancy and shoplifting. 

Professor Katherine O’Donnell was and is instrumental in the campaign for truth and justice for survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. In 2013, her campaigning with Justice for Magdalenes won an apology from the Irish government. She now collects histories of survivors and was consulted by the filmmakers on The Woman In The Wall.  

“From the oral histories I’ve taken with survivors of the Magdalene institutions, quite a lot were like Sinéad – they were victims of child abuse and sexual abuse as young girls,” says O’Donnell. “And they were put into these kinds of institutions to hide away the problem. As if they were the problem, rather than the perpetrators.” 

O’Donnell also helped the production contact survivors.  

“These people have been through something so absolutely harrowing and otherworldly and medieval, and for them to talk about it so openly took such courage,” says Murtagh. “And they were very, very positive and receptive to us trying to tell this story a little more loudly.” 

So why do we still know so little about the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes? In whose interest is it to continue to shroud this dark chapter in secrecy? 

“That one I probably can’t answer. Or I’m scared to answer. I hope it’s in no one’s interest,” says Murtagh.

“But I’m not naive. It’s uncanny how recent this was and the scale of it versus how little is known about it. So you can’t help but feel there is something active going on behind the scenes to keep this all under wraps. So we want to start a conversation in places where it is unknown and continue the conversation and continue to put a spotlight on it where it is known – in Ireland. 

“The people who are trying to get justice for survivors or who want really clear answers about what has happened to their children – we want them to be more empowered to do whatever they need to do, by hopefully making the rest of the world a little more aware of these issues.” 

For O’Donnell, who has been campaigning for decades, the hope is that by bringing their stories to a BBC One primetime audience, the series could have real-world impact. From a listening exercise at 2018’s gathering of survivors for Dublin Honours Magdalenes, O’Donnell recalls a strong desire that this history should never again be hidden from view.  

“Something that came out really, really clearly was that they wanted this to be part of the state education system. They wanted it to be visible in museums. They wanted a place to go and visit – so they were talking about a memorial garden. So that people would know. 

“We’re still struggling to have it introduced into the Irish national educational curriculum. The government is now making steps to have the history of Mother and Baby Homes included in core courses on the Junior Certificate, which is like GCSE. And that’s to be welcomed.  

“But the Magdalene Laundries and other related institutions still haven’t been included as topics for learning. And that’s a huge gap. I hope the series will get younger people asking questions – because there are such strong forces combining to make sure that we will not know that history.” 

The Woman In The Wall premieres on BBC One and iPlayer at 9.05pm on Sunday 27 August

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