Skip to main content

The Magdalen


The Magdalen

Growing up in rural 1940s Western Ireland, Esther Doyle longed only
for the simple things in life --- to earn the acceptance and
approval of her family and the church, to fall in love with a kind
and sensible man, and to raise and care for a family of her own. A
helpful and obedient child, Esther never would have imagined she
could end up alone and abandoned by her family in the Sisters of
the Holy Saints Magdalen Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women in
Dublin, unmarried and about to give birth to a child she will be
expected to leave behind. But at age 22, confused and completely
without options, that's exactly where Esther finds herself as this
luminous novel, a bestseller in Ireland, opens.

As Esther waits for her child to be born, she reflects upon the
events that led her to such a shameful and hopeless position. Her
memory travels back to 1944, where Esther, at age 13, is forced to
help her own mother, Majella, through the difficult and premature
delivery of child number seven --- a nightmare ordeal that nearly
kills both mother and child. With last minute help from the local
midwife, both Majella and the baby girl, Nonie, make it through.
However, because of a lack of oxygen to the infant during birth,
Nonie suffers moderate brain damage. Doctors predict that she will
forever have the mind of a young child.

Confronted with the added pressure of yet another mouth to feed,
family patriarch Dermot Doyle spends his days working aboard his
fishing boat and his nights at the local pub. With her father away
and her mother on constant bed rest, Esther is forced to drop out
of school to help run the household as Majella recovers. When
Dermot's boat goes missing in a storm and his body is washed ashore
days later, Esther's role as caretaker in the home becomes
permanent. As years go by, she is run ragged cooking and cleaning
up after her five brothers and caring for troublesome Nonie. The
only spark of light in Esther's otherwise dreary life is the
Saturday night dances held each week in Connemara, where she hopes
to meet the man who will take her away from it all. And find him
she does in the form of Conor O'Hagan, a rogue drifter newly
arrived from West Cork and working as a farm hand for a local
widow, Nuala McGuinness. Esther instantly falls for Con, and the
two spend every free moment over the next few months secretly
meeting, until in a moment of weakness Esther allows things to go
too far and is seduced by smooth talking Con. Weeks later, when she
discovers she is pregnant, she hardly worries, certain that Con
will marry her. Con has other plans --- he has his sights set on
the McGuinness farm and aims to marry the widow McGuinness as soon
as possible. He rejects Esther and the baby.

Stunned, Esther drifts around the house in silence, trying to hide
her growing belly. Majella notices and confronts her daughter.
Esther tells all. Knowing Con will never marry Esther and
embarrassed for the shame this pregnancy will bring upon the
family, Majella seeks the help of parish priest Father Devaney, who
instantly arranges for Esther to be sent away to the Sisters of the
Holy Saints Magdalen Home in Dublin where she will work in the
home's laundry until she delivers. Afterwards, she will go back and
the baby will stay.

It is after Esther arrives at the home that her story really takes
off. She finds camaraderie and identification among the other
"Maggies." She feels more at home and accepted with the women than
she ever did with her own family. Working conditions, however, are
far from ideal. The nuns running the laundry are merciless when it
comes to the penitents (as the girls are referred to by the
church). They are forced to work long, hard hours up until the day
the go into labor, given meager portions of nearly unpalatable
food, and belittled and criticized at every turn. As her due date
approaches, Esther must decide if she will go back to Connemara and
the way things were or stay in the home and continue working after
the baby arrives, as so many of the Maggies have chosen to do. Or
will she be able to create a third choice for herself --- a life
outside of the walls of Magdalen Home and lived on her own terms.
Told in a straightforward and unadorned manner, THE MAGDALEN is
among the best of the contemporary Irish tales out there today and
deserves to be embraced here as it was in Ireland.

Reviewed by Melissa Morgan on January 22, 2011

The Magdalen
by Marita Conlon-McKenna

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765305135
  • ISBN-13: 9780765305138