The Womb of a Woman: Discussing The Magdalene Asylums


[NB: Watch the full documentary here at Google Video. I implore you to watch this. You won’t regret it]

In an acclaimed drama by Channel 4 in 1998, “Sex in a cold climate”, the story of the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland was unveiled with tragic tones. Four women used their voices to tell their stories: Martha Cooney, then 71, Christina Mulcahy, then 79, Phyllis Valentine, who was 58 and the time and Brigid Young, 59.

The Magdalene Asylums were institutions run by Roman Catholic nuns where supposed ‘fallen women’ such as prostitutes were rehomed, and given work as laundresses. As the voice over states: “purging of sins by washing dirty linen.” Eventually unmarried mothers, girls who were seen as ‘too beautiful’ or even girls who had been raped were sent to these homes for ‘punishment’ as one of the survivors put it in the documentary.  The work was gruelling and no wages were paid. Harsh punishments were dished out to those who stepped out of line, such as shaving the girls’ heads and beatings.

If a girl had a child out of wedlock, her parents would continue the descent into barbarism by carting off their own flesh and blood to these concentration camps. What struck me about what these four women had suffered was how any human beings, religious or not, could have subjected another person to the intense psychological torture that these women’s suffered.

In the documentary, Brigid Young recalls: “They used to stand at the bottom of the laundry. They’d be laughing at us and criticising us and if you were heavy, fat or whatever, ..shout abuse to us – we had no privacy at all.” This emotional abuse of young women, whose minds were still growing is a violation of human rights. It also proves that misogyny in the Roman Catholic church was still alive and well in the 20th century. The hatred of the image of the mortal woman, who could be sexually active or not, manifested in these nuns tearing down the spirit of the young women by psychological abuse.

One powerful story was that of Christina Mulcahy who fell pregnant out of wedlock at 21. She gave birth to a boy. Separated from the father of the child by the nuns, Mulcahy’s child was sent into care. After she managed to escape the Magdalene Asylum after 3 years, she looked for him but could not find him. After keeping her the story of her first child secret for 50 years, she told her family about him and was miraculously was reunited with him before she died of cancer in 1997 (the documentary was broadcast in 1998).

As I watched Christina’s Mulcahy’s story, my heart ached. Here was a woman who somehow managed to fight against the abuse and by the grace of whatever was reunited with her child after 50 years. That alone bears repeating. The shame of having a child out of wedlock was another way for society to continue misogyny because by instilling shame, you allow someone’s self-esteem to decay, instead of grow.

Thankfully, the last Magdalene home was closed in 1996.

What I have gleaned from this fascinating documentary was the tragedy of misogyny is even more painful when it is done at the hands of women. The Roman Catholic Church must look at the flaws in history and apologise for what happened before in order for the church to evolve. I believe in Catholicism. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the Virgin Mary. However, I also believed the Virgin Mary is a symbol of women everywhere and that all women must be respected, and not abused.

What’s even more tragic about this story is this same misogynistic view is still being continued in some societies throughout the world with honour killings, rapes and sexist behaviour.

Humanity will only evolve when misogyny ends because where would humanity be without the womb of a woman?

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7 thoughts on “The Womb of a Woman: Discussing The Magdalene Asylums

  1. how can you still believe in christianty, whereas the church is so reponsible and anxious do deny women’s existence???

    • @renee: I still believe because I just do. I don’t have to explain my belief to someone who poses a question in a confrontational manner.

      • What a great response. You can believe in Jesus if not “the Church” and be saved. People are flawed and will always make wrong decisions. They can’t, whatever they do in the name of the church and God, change the fundamental truths of mercy and forgiveness.

  2. Aulelia,

    I saw a film about this called “The Magdalene Sisters”. Have you seen it? It was a really intense film.

    Wow, it’s amazing that the home didn’t close until 1996.

    • M, Yes I have seen that film! This documentary was made in 98, and was the basis for the film. Fantastic creepy film.
      I think the character of Rose was based on Christina Mulcahy.

  3. My heart goes out to these women. What is frightening is that women did this to other women. IMO, their religion is worthless, for they lack the most essential quality – love. When I come across stories like this, it only confirms that I made the best decision by leaving organised religion.

    • @N’drea, thanks for commenting. I think this has a lot to do also with society and religion. It does make my heart bleed
      and make me very angry – but it also presents an opportunity for the church to change and evolve. I still believe 100% in Christianity
      b/c it can still achieve great things but this is a very sad thing that happened and a complete violation of human rights.

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