The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander

imageDublin, 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.


Teagan is a naive girl who has done no wrong with the exception of arousing sexual feelings in a parish priest.  While she hadn’t actually done anything it wasn’t enough to stop her father from throwing her into the confines of a convent and the life of drudgery until someone can come and get her out.

Nora is the wild child. Brash and brazen trying anything to get out of her parents house, even if it means getting sexually involved with her boyfriend.

This is a depressing, sad and all to real story of what happened to some women in Ireland back in the day.  The girls in this story, along with Lea, who is a innocent that finds life at the convent good for her, end up broken and downtrodden.  They are sent to the laundries for all sorts of sins, real or imagined.  The nuns in the stories are just as varied as the women who slave away there.  Sister Anne seems to be a hard hearted woman who has it out for Teagan and we just don’t understand why.  Sister Anne has her own dark secrets that has laid buried for quite a while but at they end they break to the surface much to the surprise of some around her.  Father Mark is a weak man driven by lust and his inability to own up to his failings.  I really didn’t like the man at all. Lea was not one of the world, she had religious visions that no one took seriously.  She was serene and enjoyed living at the convent well enough.

There was some small snippets of brief joy in the friendship between Lea, Nora and Teagan but on a whole this was a joyless story as it was a joyless life in the laundries.

Having have lived in Ireland for a few years I had heard stories about the laundries.  I never met a woman who had worked and lived in one but there were enough documentaries and even radio talk shows about them that I knew they were a hell on earth.  Ireland back int the 60’s, when this book was set, was ruled with an iron fist by the Catholic Church and their rule was set in stone.  When a woman was sent to the laundries they didn’t leave unless someone would come for them, sadly quite a few never left.  I always thought it was an unfair system, men got away with doing anything they wanted but the girls or young women were the ones punished for it.  Even if someone did break out of the laundries they were easy to identify and brought back to which ever convent they belonged to. Even if they were released they lived a sad life, often shunned by others, unable to life a proper life. A Pregnant Magdalen was forced to give her baby up at birth so it could be adopted.  Cruel isn’t a strong enough word for what happened to these women.  While the last of the laundries closed only in the mid 90’s the church still has a lot of influence over Ireland now.  Not as much of a strong hold but it still holds sway and even to this day abortion is still illegal in Ireland.

It’s not an easy book or a happy one for that matter but the story is one based in truth, a hard one as well.

ARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

4/5 stars



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