The Magadalenes and I: Compelling voices illuminate unspeakable institutional truths from Ireland’s recent past

Podcast review: Steven O’Riordan’s follow-up to 2009 documentary lacks narrative shape but makes up for it in the sheer force of his stories

“Irish people have an awful habit of brushing things under the carpet,” says Mary Norris, who was sent to a Magdalene laundry for going to the cinema without permission. “‘Don’t talk about it; it will go away.’”

But Norris talks about it. She tells us how she was examined by a doctor to determine whether she was a virgin. She tells us how she worked cleaning linens for Harrods, in London, work she did daily and for which, rather than being paid, she was given “marks” that could be used for things such as toothpaste and soap. She talks about the lack of laughter and jokes in the laundry, where companionship was discouraged. She talks about losing two years of her life there.

Norris’s is one of several voices we hear in The Magdalenes and I, a new podcast about people who spent years in institutions run by Irish nuns, abused and abandoned by society, and about one young man who took up their cause.

Steven O’Riordan was in his early 20s, studying in Bath in England, when he first heard about the laundries, introduced through The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s 2002 film. He couldn’t square what he was seeing with his view of the modern, progressive Ireland he had grown up in. So he went home and took to the internet, scanning for news and information. That’s how he found out that the bodies of 133 women who had died at a laundry had been exhumed and cremated, to be reinterred in a common grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. Only one of the bodies was claimed by relatives.

There’s a poignant moment in this podcast when O’Riordan reads the list of women in that initial 133, many of them unknown, unidentified, forgotten. All of these women had died in a laundry, largely abandoned by their families and their country. The dates of their burials range over the past century, making clear how long these laundries operated and how many women lived and, often, died in them.

That’s where O’Riordan’s documentary The Forgotten Maggies, from 2009, began. In this new podcast he draws heavily from the footage and interviews he recorded while making it, interspersed with commentary about its genesis and how he found his interview subjects. It’s an uneven approach, and although much of value is laid out in short episodes, it feels as if the podcast hasn’t quite figured out its throughline yet. Is the subject the film-maker or the women? It’s not a tidy story, with bursts of audio and jumping timelines, but it’s compelling nonetheless, in large part because of the women O’Riordan tracked down and the stories they told him.

Maureen Sullivan* was 12 when she was put in a laundry after the death of her father. She slept in an industrial school and worked in the laundry by day, a fact that should have made her eligible for State compensation. In an extraordinary recording, we hear a meeting she and O’Riordan had with the Good Shepherd nuns who ran the laundry and who gaslit Sullivan about her memories.

“For your own sake, Maureen,” the nun on tape says as she urges her to abandon her claim to have slept in St Aidan’s while working at the laundry. But Sullivan doesn’t let it go, and nor does O’Riordan: that’s the value in The Magdalenes and I. It’s a messy story about our messy past, and what it lacks in narrative shape it makes up for in the sheer force and raw truth of the stories told. “Nobody wanted to listen to us,” says Mary King. But O’Riordan did, and so should all of us.

*This article was amended on Monday, April 15th, 2024. An earlier version of the article misnamed Maureen Sullivan

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