“The Forgotten Maggies” is the title of a shocking new documentary by 22-year-old Irish filmmaker Steven O’Riordan, that tells the stories of four women whose live were marked by their forced placement in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.

The film, screened at NYU’s Cantor film center on Thursday night, pulls no punches in its stark depiction of what happened to the estimated 30,000 women who were removed from their own familes to be held in forced servitude, often for life.

The laundries, known as the Magdalene asylums, were first opened in the 18th century and they retained the explotative and often needlessly cruel atmosphere of the workhouses of an earlier time until the last one was finally closed in Ireland in 1996.

Their inmates were Irish societies so-called “fallen women,” who had most often been sent there under the guise of rehabilitation, although it quickly became clear that they would become indentured servants, or more precisely, unpaid slaves.

Although they usually came from poor familes, with no one to take their part, the truth is these women were sent away for a bewildering array of reasons, but with one end in sight: to get them off the public streets, and to literally lock them away where no one could ever see them.

Some of the women had become pregnant without getting married, some had seemed too opinionated, some had entered prostituition, some were simply considered much too attractive to far too many men and some had been surrendered for adoption as children and had simply graduated to the launderies through neglect.

The one thing all the women shared in common was that they were considered threatening to the fundamentalist Catholic state of the era. Monitored day and night by nuns who would punish them for the slightest infraction, they were deprived of all contact with the outside world: they had no TV, they weren’t allowed to read a book or a newspaper and they were hidden away from most visitors to the premises.

The focus of O’Riordan’s heartbreaking film is on four women, Kathleen Legg, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mary King and Mary Collins – each of whom tell harrowing tales of abuse and how its legacy has blighted their lives. Their anger only intensifies in the face of official disavowals from the clergy and government agencies. Even in 2009, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, the Irish government Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe claimed that the laundries were privately owned and operated, outside the responsibility of the State.

After the screening, O’Riordan was joined onstage by Mari Steed, of the group Justice for Magdalenes, to discuss the making of the documentary and the current effort to urge the Irish government to include these women in the 2002 Redress Act, which provides financial awards to Irish persons who as children were abused whilst resident in institutions in the state. 

But how could this have happened in Ireland, O’Riordan wonders? How could so many women have become unseen, unpaid slaves? Didn’t anyone notice they’d gone missing? Didn’t anyone care? Wasn’t their plight worth recording and lamenting?

O’Riordan points his finger firmly at the Irish church, but he glosses over the culpability of the Irish people. It’s clear from the public records that the Irish Church and State operated a decades-long Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy concerning these women’s fates that could only have operated with one final element: the tacit assistance of the Irish people.

It is to be hoped that O’Riordan will also vigorously pursue that missing strand in the already proposed follow up to his hard hitting documentary.