Spotlight: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy Revisited


In my recent series of Spotlight posts, I’ve highlighted reviews and essays from earlier years of my work that I feel stand out in one way or another. This week I highlight a piece that I’ve come to regard as at least a partial failure: my essay on The Magdalene Sisters.

Fundamentally, my view of the film, and my objections to it, haven’t changed, but judging from reader response it would seem my attempts to express my view in a way that makes sense to those who take a different view have failed. My critique of, say, The Last Temptation of Christ has gotten appreciative responses from those who admire the film. I’ve gotten appreciative responses to my Magdalene Sisters essay too, but never, so far as I can remember, from admirers of the film. That may not be proof of failure, but it’s a striking commentary nonetheless.

Perhaps the task was doomed to failure. Perhaps outrage on the subject is just too hot for any kind of critical response to the film. I doubt it. I don’t want to give myself an easy out. Instead, I’ve taken one more shot at it, in an addendum to the original essay.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile, partly in light of the 2009 Ryan report on abuse in Irish institutions for children. I thought of it again after Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter on Irish child abuse — and a March 2010 editorial response to Pope Benedict’s letter from, of all people, Sinéad O’Connor. (My essay addendum mentions all these factors.)

More recently, I happened across a critical online response to my essay. At first I was going to include some comments about that essay in this Spotlight post, but my response got too cumbersome, so I wound up spinning them off into another blog post.

The Magdalene Sisters Controversy Revisited

Magdalene Sisters, Spotlight



Can’t win department: Cross-examination on The Magdalene Sisters

I don’t use Google alerts or otherwise troll for people talking about me online, so it was only happenstance that I happened upon a self-labeled “rant” about my Magdalene Sisters essay from a Bill Van Dyk, whose website is called

The <i>Magdalene Sisters</i> Controversy ARTICLE

The Magdalene Sisters Controversy (2003)

That the Magdalene asylums represent a phenomenon as deserving of critical scrutiny as the trial of Joan of Arc or the ecclesiastical abandonment of the Guaraní missions, I don’t question. Mullan, however, betrays his subject with smug Catholic-bashing. It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.