Stories from the Magdalene Laundries: Philomena’s Lost Child

Originally, I had no intention of going to see the movie Philomena. My dad wanted to see it, and I had heard that Judy Dench was in it, but I decided that I would much rather see The Book Thief than a movie about an old woman. But then I watched the trailer and decided that maybe I should give it a chance after all. I mean it had Judy Dench and it was set in Ireland, so it had a promising start. Not long after the lights dimmed in the theatre, I realized what the movie was really about: Magdalene Laundries.

Mention those words to most Irish people, and they cringe with both horror and resentment in some cases. Through studying Irish women poets, as well as having lived in Ireland for a semester and taking an Irish literature course, I had learned quite a deal about this dark stain on Irish history. Run by the Catholic Church in Ireland, Magdalene laundries were usually convents where girls and women were sent when their families believed that they either had, or were in danger of committing sexual acts. Some of these women were pregnant at the time of their incarceration (and it was, since they were not allowed to leave), and their babies were almost always taken away from them after their birth.

Obviously many reviewers have accused the filmmakers of being intolerant of the Catholic Church. The real life Philomena has said in response to these accusations that the movie is instead about, “…the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children…It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it…” These ideas of the relationship between mother and child alone are complex and intimate experiences, which are only heightened when something, or someone, complicates that relationship. The movie takes it’s source material from the book by Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee based on the real life struggle for a mother to find out what happened to the son that was taken from her without her consent. Throughout her journey to discover her son, Philomena continually questions whether or not she wants her story to be told not only by a journalist, but at all.

The experience of reading, for many, is an intimate experience with the author, especially if they are telling their own story. Although Philomena herself did not pen the story that defined her life, the act of reading such a traumatic and heart-rending story is easy neither for the author, nor the reader. And yet memoirs and books about women’s experiences in and surrounding Magdalene laundries are on the rise, with Philomena’s being only one of them. It’s understandable why so many people are interested in these women’s stories. Not only was this an overlooked part of Irish culture, but these women’s suffering went largely unrecognized until the last twenty or so years.

The old adage goes that we have to look to the past to prevent atrocities from happening in the present. But where do we draw the line between getting the story out there, and informing the public of the reality of these women, and making these stories into a fad? Perhaps it is simply a wave following the exposure of these places. It’s not to say that these women shouldn’t be allowed to have their story told if they desire to; it is more a question of profiting from another’s misfortune. Writing something down can often make it real to a person. Memories fade, and psyches can override painful memories to protect ourselves from what we wish to forget. But writing. Concrete words on paper solidify memories as well. They no longer can overlook what has happened, but must confront it head on, along with their readers. This often makes for extraordinary writing, and fascinating pieces of literature, but at what price?

Obviously there have been innumerable memoirs written about difficult circumstances, and how people have endured and overcome overwhelmingly difficult experiences all over the world. Maybe my often intense feelings about the subject is based on my own life experiences, living in Ireland for a semester, and possibly talking to women with similar histories without ever knowing it. And of course this is my culture. Although I’m an American by birth, my ancestors came to America to make a better life for their future generations.

I’m grateful to Philomena, and women like her, as well as poets such as Evan Boland, who tackle such difficult topics in their writing. They are able to reach out to their readers and invite them not only to learn, but to forgive. As Philomena herself says, forgiveness is never easy, but it’s better than carrying around a hateful heart. The popularity of such pieces perhaps cannot be helped, and the necessity of having their story told perhaps makes the monetary gain a kind of retribution for the wrong committed against them.

During a particularly beautiful scene in Ireland, after Philomena learns everything she needs to know both about her son and her church, and about herself as well, my friend elbows me. “Is seeing this difficult for you?” she whispers. I know that she was asking about whether seeing the rolling hills made me miss Ireland. My response, “Yeah, it is,” was about much more than the hills.

–Lauren Jaenecke


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