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Showtime To Air 'The Woman In The Wall,' About A Murder And Ireland's Infamous Magdalene Laundries

Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormick will co-start in the Showtime/BBC show about a murder set against the background of Ireland's abusive Magdalene Laundries.

By Megan Carpentier
A split photo of Daryl Mccormack and Ruth Wilson

A new dramatic series from Showtime and the BBC aims to shine a light on a long-standing human rights issue in Ireland.

In "The Woman In The Wall," starring Ruth Wilson ("The Affair," "Lester") and Daryl McCormick ("Peaky Blinders," "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"), a woman named Lorna Brady in the fictional town of Kilkinure — set in County Mayo, in northwest Ireland — finds a woman's corpse in her home one morning.

Lorna has no idea who the woman is or if she murdered her because of her ongoing, severe mental health problems dating back to her time incarcerated at one of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, where she was sent at age 15. 

McCormick plays Detective Colman Akande, a man with his own secrets who is investigating her for another, unrelated crime.

The Magdalene Laundries, which the Irish government acknowledged as a rights violation in 2013, consisted of 10 facilities which operated between 1922 and 1996 in which at least 10,000 women were (usually involuntarily) incarcerated. The government estimates that over 26 percent of the women held in those facilities were referred there by the state, and acknowledged that they were all forced to work without pay as a condition of their incarceration.

Though established by both Catholic and Protestant religious orders in the 1890s (while the country was still occupied by the British) allegedly as way to help sex workers repent for their supposed sins and turn over a new leaf, they became known for being a way to warehouse and exploit young women — usually ones who became pregnant outside the confines of marriage — against their will and facilitate the (sometimes coerced) removal of their children.

However, the Irish government has since acknowledged that the women confined in the Catholic-run facilities after the establishment of the Irish Republic in 1922 were often not sex workers at all, and were not even all unmarried pregnant women and girls. Instead, the facilities were used to house women convicted of such crimes as vagrancy, girls who had aged out of (or had almost aged out of) the country's orphanage and juvenile detention facilities at age 16, girls whose foster families kicked them out after the state ended maintenance payments, girls over age 16 who had been orphaned or abused, girls and women with development disabilities or severe mental health issues, poor and homeless women and girls forced into the facilities by their families for unknown reasons.

The youngest girl known to be admitted was just 9 years old, while the oldest was 89. The average age of women in the facilities was just under 24, and the average stay was seven months (though around 7 percent of women stayed more than 10 years.)

All of them were forced to work in the facilities' laundries and endure often-abusive conditions. Many died at the facilities and were buried without the knowledge of the state or their families. Many of those who had children removed from them only later discovered that those children were often not adopted, but rather raised in connected orphanages or sent to reform schools.

"My family is from Mayo, the county in which the fictional Kilkinure is set, and it deeply frustrates and saddens me that it feels so few people have heard of the Laundries that existed across Ireland,” said Joe Murtagh, who wrote, co-executive produced and directed some of the series, in a press release. “I hope that by making something that has the familiarity of a genre piece we are able to shed some light on the awful things that occurred within these kind of institutions and introduce this history to the wider public, so that nothing like it may ever happen again.” 

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