‘He’d never have gotten a job like that if he’d stayed with me’ – the uneasy comedy of Philomena
in Legacies of the Magdalen Laundries
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This chapter explores the comedic tensions of Philomena, the 2013 film based on the life of activist and survivor, Philomena Lee. In 1951, 18-year-old Lee gave birth to a son, Anthony, at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. Lee worked there until the age of 22 when Anthony was sold to a wealthy American couple; she never saw him again. Given the tragic nature of Lee’s story, and the grave questions it raises around illegal and coerced adoptions in Ireland’s carceral system, it is striking that the film is positioned as a comedy. This chapter probes these tensions, in which the humour is made ‘uneasy’ by the terrible injustices it is based on, injustices that remain unresolved and endure for survivors. It examines the promotion of the film as a comedy and how it uses comedy as a storytelling device, arguing that this uneasiness manifests from the impossibility of detaching the comedy from the underlying state- and church-sanctioned tragedy on which Philomena is based. It concludes that the film’s uneasy comedy reflects the tension that inevitably arises from its role – pleasing an audience – while also bearing witness to one of the cruellest episodes in modern Irish history.

Legacies of the Magdalen Laundries

Commemoration, gender, and the postcolonial carceral state

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