The Magdalene Sisters is a fictionalized story that portrays some true themes.
This cinematic endeavor is based largely upon the personal stories and recollections of women who spent time living and working in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland in the 1940s through the 1960s. The story is a composite of personal recollections of a few individual women who have told their stories publically in addition to disclosures of sexual and other abuse within Magdalene Laundries which were revealed in the Irish media during the late 1990s. Similar stories concerning similar abuses were disclosed in Australia as well.
There is a feature production included on the DVD in which a small group of women who had spent time in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland in the pre-Concilar era are interviewed on videotape concerning their experiences as inmates of the Magdalene Laundries. This included feature is well worth watching in addition to the movie.
One of the women interviewed for this said, in the course of telling her story, that the character portrayed in the movie as having been sent to the Magdalene Laundries for “being too pretty” (presumably being sent to such a total institution having committed no wrongdoing was intended as protection for her, or at least for her virginity) brought an old black and white framed display photo in which she did look very beautiful in the style of the 1940s.
The storyline and the very negative portrayal of the laundries and many of the nuns who ran them doubtlessly arose from the fact that in the time period in which the story is set, the population for which institutions similar to this one may have been genuinely helpful, prostitutes and other “sex workers” looking to make an exit from “the life”, and shut out of opportunities for mainstream housing and employment, were not finding their way to the Magdalene institutions nearly as much any more. Instead, places such as the Magdalene Laundry depicted in the movie were means of societal “sweeping under the rug” for young women who were unwed mothers, or who otherwise engaged in premarital sex and got caught and punished for it. Many of the girls who got sent to this and similar institutions were underage girls at least some of whom had gotten pregnant by means of rape or incest, not the professional sex workers for whom such places were intended.
In the movie, one of the girls portrayed is presented as “feeble-minded”, or mentally retarded, having a very simple vocabulary and obvious signs of Down’s Syndrome in her facial features, so she may very well have not known what she did.
According to Wikipedia’s article on Magdalene asylums:
“Magdalene asylums grew out of the Evangelical rescue movement in the United Kingdom during the 19th century, which had as its formal goal the rehabilitation of women who had worked as prostitutes. In Ireland, the institutions were nicknamed for St. Mary Magdalene, who, according to Roman Catholic tradition, had been a prostitute but repented her sins and became one of Jesus’ closest followers.
The Magdalene movement in Ireland was quickly appropriated by the Catholic Church, and the homes, which were initially intended to be short-term refuges, increasingly turned into long-term institutions. Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries since the facilities were self-supporting and not funded by the Catholic Church.
As the Magdalene movement became increasingly distant from the original idea of the Rescue Movement (the goal of which was to find alternative work for prostitutes who could not find regular employment because of their background) the asylums took on an increasingly prison-like character.”
As in The Shawhank Redemption, The Magdalene Sisters movie does a very good job of portraying the passage of extended periods of time by showing changes in the inmates’ uniforms and other clothing, as well as changes in laundry technology. The movie starts with the girls wearing dresses in styles seen from the 1920s-1940s, having uniforms consisting of brown dresses with blue pinafores/aprons, and washing laundry with washboards in old-fashioned set tubs. Some years later, the somewhat bigger girls are using wringer washers. Later in the movie, the girls wear sweaters and skirts, and having squirreled away large quantities of banknotes in cookie tins, the nuns in charge of this particular institution invest in a number of industrial-sized automatic washing machines.
The movie implies that the increasing availability of fully automatic washing machines and more prosperous post-war economic times that ultimately reduced the incoming revenue to all commercial laundry operations, marginalizing the Magdalene Laundries out of existance, as they became gradually unprofitable, the cake tins becoming harder and harder to fill.

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