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The Woman in the Wall: The tragic true story behind the BBC drama

The BBC drama premieres on Sunday, 27 August

The Woman In the Wall,02-08-2023, Lorna Brady (RUTH WILSON),Motive Pictures,Colin Barr
Ruth Wilson as Lorna in The Woman In the Wall (BBC) (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

*Note sensitive content throughout*

In The Woman in the Wall the BBC is exploring the horrific experiences faced by countless women in Ireland, including the late Sinéad O'Connor.

Starring Ruth Wilson, the drama follows her character Lorna as she deals with the aftermath of her traumatic past that has left her with extreme bouts of sleepwalking after she was incarcerated in a convent and gave birth to her daughter, who was then cruelly taken away from her.

Read more: Everything you need to know about The Woman in the Wall

The BBC show also centres on a murder mystery after Lorna finds a corpse hidden in the wall of her home, and she doesn't know for sure if she wasn't involved because of her condition.

What Lorna went through is tragically true for many women throughout the 18th to 20th century. Here is everything you need to know about the real-life events that inspired the BBC show.

The tragic true story behind The Woman in the Wall

The Woman In The Wall,Lorna Brady (RUTH WILSON),Motive Pictures,Colin Barr
In The Woman In The Wall, Wilson's Lorna Brady is dealing with the trauma of her experiences at a Magdalene Laundry. (BBC) (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

The Woman in The Wall examines the impact of the Magdalene Laundries, state-funded institutions in Ireland that were usually run by the church and institutionalised "fallen women".

The term "fallen women" referenced a multitude of women and girls, including unmarried mothers, women who were seen as badly behaved or promiscuous, those who had been sexually abused, and even those who were deemed uncooperative or burdens on their family.

Read more: Ruth Wilson: why my Magdalene Laundries drama The Woman in the Wall is ‘really vital’ (Evening Standard, 3-min read)

In these institutions the women had very little contact with their families and were forced to live and work without pay. The last of the Magdalene Laundries was only closed in 1996, and an estimated 30,000 women were confined in them over the decades.

The exterior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin's north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996.   (Photo by Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Magdalene Laundries were church-run institutions that institutionalised "fallen women", pictured is Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry (PA Images via Getty Images) (Julien Behal - PA Images via Getty Images)

O'Connor was sent to one such institution when she was 14, and she spoke about her time there in an interview with Irish Central in 2013 where she likened the place to a prison.

Read more: Sinead O’Connor ‘gave us strength’, says Magdalene laundry survivor (PA, 4-Min read)

The singer had been institutionalised at Sisters of Our Lady of Charity laundry in Dublin because she was deemed a "problem child" after she started shoplifting.

Looking back at the experience, she told the publication: "We were girls in there, not women, just children really. And the girls in there cried every day.

WAREHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03:  Sinead O'Connor performs on stage at Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle on August 3, 2014 in Wareham, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Rob Ball/Redferns via Getty Images)
Sinead O'Connor was sent to one such institution when she was 14 after she was deemed a "problem child" for shoplifting, and she likened it to a prison (Getty Images) (Rob Ball via Getty Images)

“It was a prison. We didn’t see our families, we were locked in, cut off from life, deprived of a normal childhood.

“We were told we were there because we were bad people. Some of the girls had been raped at home and not believed."

Despite the horrific nature of the laundries the institutions are not widely known about outside of Ireland, which is why The Woman in the Wall writer Joe Murtagh felt the best way to make it public knowledge was to feature it in a drama.

Members of the Redress for Magdalenes campaign group pickets the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley Centre on Baggot street Dublin to demand that religious orders pay redress to former residents of Magdalene laundries.   (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)
he last of the Magdalene Laundries was only closed in 1996, and an estimated 30,000 women were confined in them over the decades (Getty Images) (Niall Carson - PA Images via Getty Images)

In a column written for The Guardian, Murtagh explained that he did extensive research into the history of Magdalene Laundries, and he also spoke with survivors and worked with organisations in a bid to do so.

"The story we came to tell wasn’t based on any one person or place, but rather inspired by many stories from across the country," the writer said.

Wilson spoke about the show's approach to the story of the laundries in an interview with the BBC, saying that she hoped by including it in the show that it would help survivors.

Ruth Wilson in The Woman in the Wall (BBC)
Ruth Wilson has said she hopes the drama will help validate survivors of the laundries (BBC) (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

The Luther star said: "The silence around it, if your experience is denied, over and over again... the experience itself is horrific, but the aftermath of nobody listening to you, and actively denying that what you're saying is true, I imagine that's deeply traumatic too.

"Any chance to get this story understood or get people to dig a bit deeper or read about it, I hope must be a little bit of validation."

The Woman in the Wall will premiere on BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday, 27 August at 9.05pm.

Watch the trailer for The Woman in the Wall: