Professor's book inspires Magdalene Sisters film
The Magdalene Sisters, the award-winning film that has sparked controversy in the Catholic Church, is partly-based on a book by a University of Guelph professor. The movie, which portrays Ireland's laundries where unwed mothers, rape victims and precocious teenagers were institutionalized, begins its worldwide release by Hollywood's Miramax films Aug. 15.
The film's director, Peter Mullan, cites history professor Linda Mahood's book The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the 19th Century as one of the sources for his film. Mahood has been contacted by religious watch groups, such as the U.S. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, to verify the film's accuracy since the film debuted in film festivals last fall. When the film won the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice International Film Festival, the Vatican newspaper called it an "angry and rancorous provocation."
The film gives an accurate account of the Magdalene Institutions, but the Irish Roman Catholic portrayal is a little too narrow, said Mahood. "It's a wonderful film and Mullen makes a valid point," said Mahood. "The error, I think, that he's made is he's decided to locate it within a Roman Catholic institution. My book is very clear on the fact that Protestants and Roman Catholics were running these institutions; they weren't restricted to one religious creed."
Mahood said the institutions were an extension of the treatment of women in general at the time. "Society put the women in these institutions, not individual churches," she said. "The religious controversy in the film diverted the attention away from what the real issue is: the way women were treated in these institutions."
The institutions frequently worked in conjunction with the juvenile court, said Mahood. "They were in there as a result of child welfare laws," she said. Although most Catholic institutions were run as an extension of the convent system; the Protestant girls were admitted as wards of the court.
Magdalene institutions began as early as the late 1700s and many did not close until the 1950s. The institutions were not only found in the United Kingdom; virtually every city across Europe and North America had this type of institution, said Mahood. "There was a Toronto Magdalene asylum. There's always been a place to put these girls who seemed to be in ‘sexual danger.'"
Mahood's book focuses on both Protestant and Roman Catholic institutions in Scotland. "The Roman Catholic institutions were the hardest to research because the records are all closed, whereas the Protestant records are in various archives and public libraries," she said. Aside from Mahood's book and the BBC Scotland documentary Washing Away the Stains in which Mahood is interviewed, very little has been published about these asylums.
Since thousands of women were sent to Magdalene institutions, Mahood is glad the film is helping to tell their stories. "In the late 19th Century, there was one institution in Glasgow that had 424 women a year going through it," she said. Mahood continues to receive emails from people born by women who were in Magdalene institutions trying to find out more about their own family history.
Prof. Linda Mahood, History Department
University of Guelph
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