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The Magdalen by Marita Conlon-McKenna

This book is called The Magdelen and is written by Marita Conlon-McKenna. The story is set in Conemara about 1944. The Doyle family lived in a small cottage in Conemara. Esther Doyle is the only girl in the family, until she delivers her sister, Nonie. Esther loved her sister Nonie, since she was the only one there when she had to deliver Nonie. Her mother was very sick after Nonie's birth so Esther had to stay at home and mind her sister and her four brothers. Esther missed the chat with the girls and she was also a very good student. She washed their clothes and cooked for the family. She was fed up of having to stay at home while her brothers went fishing with her father.

One day Dermot (her father) went fishing. His boat was called the Sady Anne. Ger, her brother, also went out but he went in a different boat. Ger arrived back but her father didn't. A search party went looking for him. The neighbours were gossiping about him saying that he was drunk and he was gone to England with a woman. The weeks following her fathers disappearance dragged on. The whole family was in a state of shock. One of the guards came in to say that they found a body and they thought it might be Dermot and it was. His body was mutilated by the fish and creatures.

Saturday night was one of the nights that Esther longed for all week. There was a dance on at the hall and Esther was going with her brothers Donal and Ger. She was very excited about this since the sorrow of her fathers death. She was also looking forward to having a chat with her friends. The marquee was like a huge cream white palace gowing in the evening light. She was asked by many men but she liked none of them. The night was almost ending when this man called Con O'Hagan asked her to dance. They moved slowly and easily to the rhythm of the music. In the marquee it was very hot so they decided they would go outside. She saw her brother Ger with this girl she knew called Carmel. They went back inside for the last set and she hoped that he would ask her out on a date or say something about seeing her again. Ger was bringing Carmel home. Her brothers were calling her to come because they were going home. She said bye to Con and Con said bye to her, hoping that they would see each other again.

Esther was allowed to go out on the boat with her brothers but she was too late, they had gone without her. She was very angry with them. She saw Con at the deck where she was and he saw her. They both decided to follow her brother to the island where her brothers were going. They got to the island but she could not find them so they decided to go back. They were nearly back when the engine failed on them. Her mother did not know where she was and she thought she was gone with her brothers. When they arrived back she could see all the neighbours out. The lifeboats were out looking for them. Con asked Esther out on a date.

He brought her dancing and she had a great time. She loved being with Con and she thought she was in love. Con worked at McGuinness farm and she would go up there most days and go and see him and talk to him. They would have great fun rolling around in the fields together. She loved him. Anytime she had to spare she would go up to see Con. Nonie used to try to follow her. Usually they would go for walks across the fields or along the roadways or down and sit by the beach finding a sheltered hidden spot. They both wanted privacy, a place to talk without all her brothers and Nonie disturbing them.

It was time for Nonie to make her Holy Communion. Her mother was preparing Nonie for it. Mr. Brennan, the school Headmaster, had mentioned that he felt that Nonie might not be ready to receive First Communion with the rest of the class. Her mind wandered and she was too giddy. The teacher in the school said it would be better if she made it next year but her mother, Majella, would not even hear of it. So they decided to help Nonie by reading her the bible and giving her make up Holy Communion. Esther tried not to laugh at Nonie when she would parade up and down the kitchen to look holy. Her mother went back to the teacher and the teacher said that she could make it with the class this year and her mother was very happy.

The Communion day dawned and Esther wore her best summer dress. After the first Holy Communion day Esther went down to see Con. They had a great time together and he was her only serious relationship. When she came back from being with Con her mother could not find Nonie. They both just thought that she had gone wandering and that she would be back. But it was getting very late and they went out to look for her. They found her in her white Communion dress with her face down in the water - she was dead. Esther blamed herself for it. Her mother could not look her in the eye for ages. All the people from the village came to her funeral as she was well loved by people. The Doyle family was very shocked about what happened.

Esther's monthly had failed to occur. The rags her mother provided were unused in the drawer. For once she prayed that the dull pain in her back and the heavy cramp period pains would come but no such luck. After another twenty-eight days she knew without a doubt that she was pregnant. She had to speak to Con and she went to the farm that he was working on and to her surprise, she saw him in bed with Nuala McGuinness. She was so shocked. She thought he loved her but he said that there was no future between them. She told him she was expecting his child but he wanted nothing to do with it.

She had to tell her mother about it. Her mother was so shocked she called her many names. Her mother also wanted nothing to do with it. Her older brothers were shocked. Majella went to see the priest to see if he could do anything. He had a chat with Esther and said that she would be sent to join the "fallen women" of the Holy Saint Convent in Dublin. She would stay there until her baby was born and then the baby would be given up to a family. She agreed with the conditions.

The Galway to Dublin train pulled slowly out of the station. Gerard had driven Esther and her mother to Eyne station, collecting her aunt Patsy on the way. They arrived too early so they went and had a cup of tea in a small cafe. There was not much talk between Majella and Esther. It was time for her to go. Gerard gave her a hug and her mother did not say much. Her aunt was coming with her to the convent. They got a taxi to the convent.

Nervous, Esther got out and rang the bell. They followed the old nun into the old convent. Sister Gabriel told Esther all the rules. She had three meals a day and in return she was expected to work as long as her condition allowed. Esther was to start work the next day. She had to work in the laundry. The laundry floor was soaking wet with water swirling across it. The only thing she liked about the place was that she could talk about the baby. The first night was very hard for her. She cried and cried, trying not to disturb the rest of the girls in the dormitory. There was a woman beside her called Detta. She had been in the laundry for fifty years. After her child she just did not bother to go back home. There were many girls in the laundry.

The maggie's loved Saturday evening when the work was finally finished. All the girls would sit down and listen to the wireless or play cards. Visitors to the Magdalen laundry were few. One day Esther had a visitor. She thought it might be Con but it wasn't - it was her brother Thomas. When she saw him she ran and gave him the biggest hug. She was doing her best to keep the flood of emotion from her voice. He talked about her mother and the rest of the family - he did not mention the baby. She asked him about Con but he was married to Nuala McGuinness. When Thomas went, Sister Gabriel gave out yards to her about having visitors during working hours.

Esther's labour had started early on the Sunday morning. Esther felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Now the pains had become stronger. Sister Bridget told her she had to start to push. She watched as Sister Bridget held her baby that she called Roisin. She did not want to be away from her. Then after one night she went up to see Roisin but she was not there. Sister Bridget told her that she was taken over to the orphanage. Esther could not believe it - her little girl was gone. Esther returned to the dormitory. She could not bear to be away from her baby. It was time for her to get out of the convent. She wrote many letters to her family but no news until finally, Sister Magarette informed her that a member of her family was coming to Dublin to collect her. She had agreed to give Roisin up for adoption. She had to, she would never be able to manage on her own. It was the best thing for Roisin.

Esther cleaned the few things she had out of the room. She could not believe that she had spent over eight months in the convent. She had snipped two pieces of hair from Roisin so that she would remember her. Down below she saw her aunt Patsy and Sister Gabriel. It was time for her to go and she had said bye to the girls.

Esther decided that she would stay in Dublin. She could not face her brothers and Con, it would be too hard. When her aunt Patsy went, she hailed for a taxi to Rathmines where she would stay. It was a small place but it was the only thing she could afford. Esther Doyle was not prepared to turn back on her life, stay hidden away like some of the Maggie's. She was a Conemara woman, a survivor, a Magdalen ready to put the past behind her and begin again.

Character Study on Esther
Esther is the main character in this book. Esther is very helpful towards her mother. Esther was a very calm and considerate person. She is a very nice loyal person. She gave up her education to stay at home and look after the rest of the family while her mother was sick which was common practice around the era in which the book is set. She loved her sister Nonie the most, eventhough she got on her nerves at times. She did not get out much until she fell in love with this man called Con but he was no good for her. He betrayed her by not staying by her when she needed him most. She was stupid and a fool to go for a man who was going to betray her but how could she have known. When she got pregnant she was sent away. This was very hard for her and this shows that she would have done anything so that the Doyle family would not be disgraced. It must have been very hard for her to just go away and have the baby and then she had to give it up. Esther was very strong and this is clear by her courage in the convent. She was very patient. Often she could not go out with the girls, instead she would stay at home and look after her brothers and Nonie. Esther was very comforting to her brother when he was trying to become a teacher. I would have to say that she is a very lovable character in this book.

Character Study on Detta
Detta is a friend of Esther in this novel. Her character is one of an old woman who has been in the Magdalen for fifty years. Detta has never left the Magdalen since the day she went in. She is a very friendly person and she is very nice and kind and helps all the women when they go into labour. She is always there for anyone who needs her and she really bonds with Esther. Esther relied on her alot when she was going through her pregnancy and went through many difficulties such as seeing a dead baby in a wash basket. Detta was like a mother to all the girls in the convent. Detta was a very hard worker and Esther could not understand why Detta would stay in a place like this for the rest of her life. But Detta told her that it was so hard to go out into the world after being in there.

When Detta was very sick Esther was the person that would look after her. Detta died in Esther's arms. This shows how much Esther really loved her best friend Detta and how much she was going to miss her. She thought that she could not survive without her friend Detta. This shows how much love and support she had for Detta.

The story of Esther's experiences is set in Ireland around 1944. The book is predominantly set in the Holy Saint Convent. This is where Esther stayed when she was having her child. The convent had black wrought-iron gates and was surrounded by a stone wall. The main door of the convent was a heavy arched door. It was full of co-operative nuns. Some of the nuns were very nice but were not at all tolerant of bad behaviour. Esther worked in the laundry with many other pregnant women. The laundry floor was soaking wet with water swirling across the tiles running in lines down into the silver drainhole. The convent was cold and the girls would wear overalls. There was many sections where the girls would work on and there was the bleaching but the fumes would get to the girls and the bleach would make their hands itchy and their eyes sore. There was very little description of the convent, eventhough it was the main setting of the story.

This books minor setting is Conemara. Conemara is in the west of Galway. The Doyle family lived in a small rural area, Carraig Beag. Carraig Beag had beautiful views of hills and lovely bay beaches. The Doyle family lived in a small cottage. The community of Conemara was very eager for gossip, but all the same, when anyone was in trouble, the community was there for them. The wide open space of Conemara was filled with nothing but open space and sky.

I thought this was one of the best books I had read in a long time. It shows how the girls in the 1940s were treated if they got pregnant. It was one of those books you could not put down. Every page had something that you think would never happen. Until I read this book I didn’t realise the mental torment suffered by women with unexpected pregnancies. It shows how the times have changed. If a girl like Esther got pregnant in today's society she would not be sent away. But it was a good thing that there was a place for her to go - in her time it was a way of avoiding the neighbours gossip and such.

I thought it was a good book overall but there were some very tragic parts. For instance, when Con wanted nothing to do with the baby, and when he was sleeping with his employer. You would never think that he was sleeping with her, it was so unexpected. It is these unexpected events in this book which makes it almost impossible to leave out of your hands. It is an extraordinary book in that there is constantly something astonishing about to happen. I found it difficult to believe that Esther’s mother wanted nothing to do with her when she got pregnant. I thought it was a very heartless and cold attitude, however, I learned later it was a common attitude.

I loved this book because of the authors very clear images and descriptions. The author is very talented and because of her excellent writing skills I was able to get a good mental picture of what was being portrayed. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a dramatic novel and teenagers especially because it shows what it would be like to be pregnant and what it would be like to go through. By reading this book you really sympathise with Esther and really appreciate the torment an unexpected pregnancy brings.

Reviewed by-
Denise Fleming,
Second Year,
Colaiste Mhuire,

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