How did The Magdalen Girls come about?
It’s an important part of Irish history and the history of the church as well. It’s a little known subject to most Americans, so when the idea was presented to me, I decided to write the book.
How much research did you have to do?
I read books by native Irish writers in order to get a feel for the accent. Because the book was written for an American audience, I used the accent only sparingly for effect. Brendan O’Carroll’s wonderful novel, The Mammy, is a crash course in Dublin dialect. I also read historical articles, viewed video pieces and searched out survivor accounts regarding the laundries. Because the book is “claustrophobic” in its setting, I didn’t have to do a great deal of research regarding Dublin proper. I also have Irish friends who helped me with fact verification.
Do you feel this book is fair to the Catholic Church?
I attempted to present a balanced portrait. There were rather specific reasons girls and young women ended up in the laundries, most of these are well known to the Irish. Many Magdalens have stated that previous attempts to fictionalize the actual events underplayed the horror of the laundries. The Church has consistently denied that the living conditions were as bad as presented. I didn’t set out to write a “horror” novel, but a work of dark historical fiction. However, fiction consists of antagonists and protagonists. There are good and bad characters. Every good character has some bad and every bad character some good. Nothing is black and white. Not all the nuns were bad, nor were all the Magdalens good.
Why were girls and young women sent to the laundries?
For various reasons: premarital sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, being an orphan, poverty, being too beautiful. In the latter case, if the woman was considered too handsome, in other words, a temptation to men, her situation was even worse. The threat of sex hung over her head.
Who were the Magdalens?
Generally, the term refers to the all the girls and women who were housed in the convent. Most worked the laundries, a profitable business for the church. The proper name comes from Mary Magdalene, the “fallen” woman who became a penitent and follower of Christ. The Magdalens were instructed to follow the example of Mary who reformed her life and, as announced by Pope Gregory the Great, “turned her crimes to virtues.”
Why do you like dark fiction?
I’m a particular fan of the gothic. Gothic romance was one of the earliest literary conventions. I craved ghost stories when I was a kid and was always a fan of the creepy house, the noises in the attic, the things that go bump in the night. Chilling, supernatural tales with a twist of the psychological were always more interesting to me than slice-and dice. Poe was an early literary hero. So, this particular story lends itself to the gothic as well. All the elements are there, although it’s neither gothic nor romance, per se. One of the earliest books in this style, and, yes, it dealt with the church, is The Monk by Matthew Lewis, published in 1796. I’m sure many would still consider it scandalous today.
What is your writing day like?
Fortunately, I’m disciplined enough to get the work done, but I don’t binge write like some novelists. I usually write for three hours a day, at most four. I’ve always found that after four hours my brain goes numb. I usually can write any time of day or evening; I don’t have a set schedule. I like to give myself the freedom to be flexible, so if I want to go to lunch with friends I can, or take off a day here and there. Oddly enough, I do some of my best work on weekends, when other writers may take a break. I think that may be because for years I had a day job, which forced me to write on weekends. I have a set word output per work day depending on the job to be completed. I sometimes trick myself into writing by saying my output for the day will be 100 words—really nothing—and then I get rolling. Normally, I edit the previous day’s work before I begin.
Dublin, 1962. Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of the city’s Magdalen Laundries. Once places of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses. Some inmates are “fallen” women—unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Most are ordinary girls whose only sin lies in being too pretty, too independent, or tempting the wrong man. Among them is sixteen-year-old Teagan Tiernan, sent by her family when her beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young priest.
Teagan soon befriends Nora Craven, a new arrival who thought nothing could be worse than living in a squalid tenement flat. Stripped of their freedom and dignity, the girls are given new names and denied contact with the outside world. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, who has secrets of her own, inflicts cruel, dehumanizing punishments—but always in the name of love. Finally, Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, who helps them endure—and plot an escape. But as they will discover, the outside world has dangers too, especially for young women with soiled reputations.
Told with candor, compassion, and vivid historical detail, The Magdalen Girls is a masterfully written novel of life within the era’s notorious institutions—and an inspiring story of friendship, hope, and unyielding courage.
A Reading Group Guide
The Magdalen Girls
About This Guide
The suggested questions are included to enhance your group’s
reading of V.S. Alexander’s The Magdalen Girls!
The book is set in Dublin in 1962. What political, cultural and musical changes occurring at that time would have affected the characters?
How does Teagan Tiernan’s relationship with her parents affect the outcome of the story?
Do you think Father Mark should have entered the priesthood considering his background and thoughts about Teagan?
Do you think Teagan left her sweater in the parish house basement on purpose?
How would you describe the differences in home life between Teagan and Nora Craven?
Why would Sister Anne base her punishment of the Magdalens on “love?”
Each of the nuns portrayed in the book has a different set of characteristics. Which one did you find to be most sympathetic to the Magdalens? Besides Sister Anne, which was least sympathetic?
Why do you think Nora’s and Teagan’s escapes from the laundries were doomed to failure?
Father Mark tries to make amends with Teagan. Do you think his apology and offer went far enough?
Teagan leaves Ireland with her Aunt Florence. What do you see in her future?
The history of the Catholic Church has been fraught with war, religious intolerance and scandal; yet, in fairness, the institution has been tempered throughout the centuries by its charitable actions, the lives of its saints and the devotion of its faithful. In recent years, the Church has been scrutinized for financial malfeasance, priestly overindulgence and sexual abuse. The story of the Magdalen Laundries has only come into the cultural spotlight within the past two decades.
Perhaps this story has not been as exploited as something so overtly inflammatory as the sexual abuse scandal of priests because of the nature of the Magdalens’ “crimes.” The girls and women under servitude were mostly categorized as “fallen women.” Could our own cultural biases have served to favor their punishment? They deserved what they got, many might say. Some girls were sent to the laundries for being mentally unfit or too pretty, too attractive, inducing sin by the very nature of their looks. Others ended up there because of promiscuity or their involvement in prostitution.
The Magdalen Girls is set in Dublin in 1962. It should be noted that the laundries were not confined to Ireland. In fact, the asylums, as they were also known, existed in England, Scotland, the United States, Canada and elsewhere. They were also not solely under the province of the Catholic Church. Secular interests, as well as other religious entities outside Catholicism, developed laundries to rehabilitate prostitutes.
The first reported laundry opened in 1758. The last closed in 1996. Once incarcerated, a woman’s reputation was ruined. Many stayed in the institution for years, calling it home, because there was no other option for the “penitent.” Through its strict doctrine, the institution often managed to make the Magdalen unfit to adjust to a normal life outside the laundry. They were, in effect, prisoners both inside and outside its structure.
In 1993, a mass grave of children was found on the grounds of a Dublin laundry. This led to a formal state apology nearly two decades later. As far as I know, no compensation or formal apology has ever been given by the Church. The history of the laundries remains a contentious subject on both sides of the debate, one calling the actions criminal; the other portraying them as beneficial and rehabilitative.
Despite the arguments, there is no doubt that the lives of many thousands of girls and women were changed by their time in servitude. Some lived, some died, but their story continues to touch us all.