DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) When Mary Norris went to see ''The Magdalene Sisters,'' a film dramatizing life inside the forced-labor laundries that Roman Catholic nuns once ran in Ireland, she saw her reflection and couldn't stop crying.
''What hit me most was ... how they dehumanized us,'' said Norris, 70, who spent two years in one of the Magdalene asylums that housed women deemed guilty of immoral acts. Her sin, she said, was sneaking away from her job twice in a week to see a film.
Until recent years, official silence and private shame have shrouded such grim experiences.
But ''The Magdalene Sisters,'' directed by Peter Mullan, has won plaudits in Europe for shedding light on a dark chapter in Irish history. The film widens its U.S. release to about 50 cities this month.
''I did find the film depressing, but I'm so delighted that the subject is being aired so publicly, because it was very nearly swept under the carpet,'' said Frances Finnegan, a historian whose pioneering research on the Magdalene laundries inspired Mullan to make the film.
An estimated 30,000 women toiled in nine such penitentiaries from the early 19th century until 1996, when the last of the laundries shut down in Dublin. The last woman taken into the facilities entered 15 years before that.
Today, the high-walled, gray stone asylums have largely been converted to yuppie apartments and university departments. Nuns still care for several hundred former inmates, some in their 90s, in smaller houses around Ireland.
The system began as a means of rehabilitating prostitutes, but quickly expanded to become a dumping ground for any woman deemed to have committed a sexual wrong from giving birth out of wedlock to flirting.
Each woman was given a new name and forbidden to use her old one. They were confined to the building and barred from receiving everyday news from the outside world. Lengthy conversations with fellow inmates were banned, only prayer was allowed to prevent discussion of each others' sinful pasts.
Christmas was the only day of the year off from the unpaid laundry work, and the only path to freedom was through the recommendation of a close relative or outside guardian often the person responsible for putting the woman into the institution. Some women entered as teens, lived out their lives in the compound and received an unmarked burial plot within the walls.
''The Magdalene Sisters'' depicts three teenagers one the victim of a rape at a wedding reception, one an unmarried mother forced to surrender her baby for adoption, one an attractive orphan spotted chatting too long with the local boys who are ordered into a Dublin penitentiary run by the Sisters of Mercy order.
The Vatican has denounced the film as overblown and unfair, though the U.S. branch of the Sisters of Mercy issued an apology last month for the mistreatment of inmates at the asylums.
''The Magdalene Sisters'' also has touched a nerve among Catholics increasingly receptive to criticism of their church's past abuses. Among the film's first American audiences at special screenings were groups of victims of clerical sex abuse.
In Ireland, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Catholic, there wasn't a murmur of protest when the film opened last November. Here, too, Catholic faith in priests and nuns has taken a battering from a decade of pedophile scandals and investigations into physical abuse at church-run industrial schools.
''So many awful stories about the church have turned out to be true, you'd believe almost anything you heard about clerics and religious,'' said David Quinn, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper in Dublin.
Finnegan, who has published a book on some of the Magdalene laundries titled ''Do Penance or Perish,'' said a few scenes in the film were ''over the top.''
But in other ways, she said, ''the film probably wasn't as hard, as awful as the reality.''
Her research found one case of a mother who spent her life in an asylum, and the nuns never told her that the baby girl she'd been forced to give up had grown up to be one of her fellow laundry workers.
Norris was the eldest of eight children. When she was 12, her father died, and state child-protection officers took them away from her mother, who was declared a ''tramp'' for pursuing a new relationship. All the children were placed in an industrial school for orphans until age 16.
A year later, after getting work as a housemaid, she was sent to a Magdalene laundry as punishment for sneaking out to see a film, ''My Wild Irish Rose'' her second such trip in the same week.
In the Ireland of 1950, Norris recalled, ''going out twice in the one week meant I must have been going out to meet a man. But I didn't have any interest in men then, only in the movies and in the royal family in England.''
She said the laundry was ''worse than a prison because at least in a prison you could get a trial first, and you know how long your sentence will be.''
Norris spent two years scrubbing and pressing linens and clothes in a friendless environment. Older residents had become ''very institutionalized. Perhaps some were even happy to be there, because they believed they were guaranteed a place in heaven.''
Norris escaped thanks to a letter from an aunt in Boston to her old industrial school, asking what had become of her. The school tracked her down and helped get her another maid's job, this time in a more tolerant home.
''If it weren't for my aunt, I could be buried today in the laundry grounds,'' Morris said.
In the end, Finnegan said, it was technology that put the laundries out of business.
''It was the arrival of the washing machine,'' she said. ''The moment that the laundries were no longer profitable for the church, it was: Hey presto! No more admissions please.''
On the Net:
''The Magdalene Sisters'': http://miramax.com/themagdalenesisters/index.html
''Do Penance or Perish'': http://www.dopenanceorperish.com
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