Warning: This article contains brief discussions of abuse that some may find distressing.


BBC drama The Woman in the Wall is coming to an end with its sixth and final episode on Sunday 24th September, with viewers finally getting answers to all the questions surrounding the life of Lorna Brady, played by Ruth Wilson.

The fictional drama focuses on Lorna's tragic past and a central murder mystery, but it also grounds its story in the real history surrounding the Magdalene Laundries.

The Magdalene Laundries were real institutions in Ireland, which ran across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are were places where so-called "fallen women" were sent to.

The show's creator Joe Murtagh previously explained why he was inspired by the real-life stories surrounding the Laundries when writing the series, saying that it was "Peter Mullins's film The Magdalene Sisters that first introduced me to it".

He explained: "I couldn't believe that it had happened, but I also couldn't believe that I didn't know that all this had happened.

"Anyone I spoke to after that didn't know what I was talking about, and most people outside of Ireland didn't know that this has even occurred. And then I'd read the last one closed in 1996. And so, primarily, I was inspired to do this just by a sense of outrage, I guess you'd call it."

Read on for everything you need to know about the true story behind The Woman in the Wall.

Read more:

What were the Magdalene Laundries?

Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson) and Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) in The Woman in the Wall sitting down, looking concerned
Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson) and Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) in The Woman in the Wall. BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr

The Woman in the Wall takes inspiration from the real-life figures who were incarcerated in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

Magdalene Laundries were institutions run by Catholic nuns that accepted so-called "fallen women" – a broad term used to describe sex workers, unmarried mothers, abused women and any others deemed 'badly behaved' or 'problematic'.

Once admitted to the institutions, they would perform demanding physical labour for long hours and no pay, which included most famously commercial laundry as well as other exhausting tasks such as scrubbing floors.

Some survivors of these Laundries have spoken about being physically or sexually abused by those in charge, with Wilson's character Lorna Brady having suffered greatly.

In The Woman in the Wall, a young Lorna gives birth while housed in one of these buildings, but the baby is cruelly taken away from her. Wilson learned that there are cases in which this really happened.

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Wilson told BBC News: "In some of them, the girls gave birth, and then they'd have to nurse their child for two years, and then their child was taken away from them.

"Stuff like that is horrific; the fact that girls weren't given any gas and air or weren't stitched up after birth. The nuns wouldn't let them. Things like that, you just go, wow, it's pure horror."

Ruth Wilson stars in The Woman in the Wall, looking stressed
Ruth Wilson stars in The Woman in the Wall. Motive Pictures/Colin Barr

Many women never left the Magdalene Laundries but died while still confined within their walls. This is what led to their downfall.

In 1993, a former Laundry was sold by the nuns who owned it to a property developer, who discovered a mass grave of 155 women – some of whom were unnamed and had not been declared dead to the state.

In the resulting coverage, the Irish Catholic Church was criticised for its role in running the institutions, while the Irish government also came under fire for having contracts with some Laundries.

Nevertheless, it wasn't until 2011 that an 18-month enquiry was launched, the findings of which were deemed "neither independent nor thorough enough" by the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT), as reported by The New Statesman.

Even still, it did declare "significant" state collusion in admitting women to Magdalene Laundries.

Two weeks after its publication in February 2013, then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a state apology to survivors and announced a compensation package, which no religious institutes associated with the Laundries have contributed to.

The final Magdalene Laundry was shut down in 1996. As The Woman in the Wall notes, these are a more modern injustice than some viewers may realise.

Series creator Joe Murtagh added: "Outside of Ireland, in my experience, this isn't really known about, and with the people who do tend to know about it, it's because they've seen films including the Magdalene Sisters or Philomena.

"When you read into it, you see how harrowing it was, the scale of it, and how many tens of thousands of lives it's touched. It was a bit of history that interested me and engaged me emotionally, but the driving factor was just people not knowing about it enough."

The Woman in the Wall premiered on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 27th August 2023 and episodes 1-5 are now available on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.

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