Term of Award

Summer 2014

Degree Name

Master of Arts in English (M.A.)

Document Type and Release Option

Thesis (open access)


Department of Literature and Philosophy

Committee Chair

Howard Keeley

Committee Member 1

Joseph Pellegrino

Committee Member 2

Dustin Anderson


It is hard to escape the portrayal of what twentieth century life might have been like for a penitent living in one of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries. With its saturation in contemporary pop culture, the morality of these Irish Institutions has been called into question through blockbuster films and best-selling books. However, some believe that the many public representations of the Magdalen Laundries fail to tell the whole story. As tension surrounding Magdalen Laundries, as well as Church and State involvement in them, has continuously grown over the last couple of decades, many citizens of Ireland and, indeed, the world have begun demanding to know the realities behind the phenomenon. In order to help elucidate the details of the controversy—and to begin moving forward in the pursuit of enlightenment— this thesis reviews and explicates several texts that predate what could be deemed Ireland’s Magdalen literature, arguing that they constitute réamhscéala, or pre-tales, useful in establishing a genealogy for such influential texts as Patricia Burke Brogan’s play Eclipsed (1992) and the movies The Magdalen Sisters and Philomena. The réamhscéal (singular form) is a staple of ancient Irish epic literature: a tale that precedes the core narrative and without which that narrative can stand; but a tale that nonetheless helps enlighten the main action. Before the emergence of the identifiable genre that has come to be known as Magdalen literature, certain authors were already writing on or at least alluding to the matter of women and their institutionalization (whether in fact or in effect). Two major figures, Kate O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, produced novels—Without My Cloak and Murphy, respectively—that may be counted among the réamhscéala of the Magdalen texts that have been emerging since the early 1990s.