Eileen Walsh found playing a girl driven mad by the Catholic church in The Magdalene Sisters was one of the most emotionally draining roles of her life.
Eileen Walsh first learned of The Magdalene Sisters while hanging out with Peter Mullan in the "smokers’ corner" during the filming of Miss Julie. Mullan did such a good job pitching his vision of the film that for months afterwards, whenever she went for an audition, Walsh would ask if anyone knew if it was casting yet.
The role of Crispina, an unmarried mother with the mind of a child, was to be one of the most emotionally draining in her career. Her character is sexually abused by a priest, she is beaten, forced to strip and humiliated by nuns and she attempts to hang herself.
Although now based in Edinburgh, the 25-year-old actress grew up in Ireland and Mullan’s story of women imprisoned by the church on dubious moral grounds and forced to work as slave labour was one to which she could personally relate.
Walsh was once described in print as a "gawky, quirky, paddy". It is an image accentuated in the film by her pudding-bowl haircut, shapeless prison garb and of course the quality of her characterisation. In real life, her short hair, styled a little more elegantly, brings out elfin features and she is lively and articulate.
Before the film she was only vaguely aware of the Magdalene Asylums and Laundries. "There was quite a big Magdalene in Cork, quite close to where I lived," she says. "My mum said that when she was growing up it was a place that bold girls or dirty girls would be sent."
She was fully aware however of the grip the Roman Catholic church exerted on Irish society. While being sent to the Magdalene was a disgrace, becoming a nun was a blessing on any family.
"I have an aunt who went off at 16 to become a nun in America... It really was a case of, ‘That’s Granddad straight to Heaven then,’ because he produced a child who has become a nun."
Big screen break
Walsh was still a student when she landed one of the lead roles in a Cork stage production of Disco Pigs, a new play about two friends, born on the same day, who develop their own language and their own little world. The other principal part was played by Cillian Murphy, recently seen in 28 Days Later.
Walsh went to the Edinburgh Fringe with the play in 1997, went for a haircut, ended up dating the hairdresser and has been based in Edinburgh ever since. Boyfriend Stuart McCaffer is now studying sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art and they plan to marry later this year.
Disco Pigs was one of the hottest tickets in the West End, in 1998, attracting VIP visitors, like Nicole Kidman and Alan Rickman. For Walsh, it led to a starring role in Janice Beard: 45wpm, a frothy comedy about a ditzy Scottish temp who lives in a fantasy world to rival Walter Mitty and Billy Liar.
Walsh was chosen over established stars, with Rhys Ifans and Patsy Kensit in support. It should have been her springboard to a film career, but it was a box-office disaster, and Walsh returned to the theatre. She has worked regularly in the West End and Dublin, though roles in Scottish productions have proved curiously elusive.
Although set in Ireland, The Magdalene Sisters shot in the South-west of Scotland, with the disused St Joseph’s convent in Dumfries as principal location.
Although the world depicted in the film would seem to belong in the dusty pages of a Dickens novel, these women were imprisoned without trial and physically and sexually abused while others were swinging to the sounds of the Beatles and enthusiastically exploring the benefits of the Pill.
The system, and the abuses, were supported by a code of silence that would have done justice to the Mafia. It has only recently been breached, threatening the future of the church, as scandal after scandal creates international headlines.
Walsh’s character is sent to a Magdalene after having an illegitimate child. Walsh researched the institutions through newspaper articles and documentaries, discovering that women were forced to give birth, not only without medication, but also without stitches afterwards, to help them atone for their sins.
She played Crispina as if she were a 12-year-old living in an adult world. She believes that, unlike some of the other women, Crispina was probably quite happy in the institution, at least initially. The sexual abuse scene was disturbing and the attempted suicide was physically difficult, though Walsh says Mullan created an atmosphere where the cast wanted to do everything they could to please him.
Unusually Walsh found it difficult to switch off at the end of a day. "It really played in my head," she says. "There was nothing better than going out and getting really, really drunk and just kind of blowing off the cobwebs, which really had to happen an awful lot, to just forget about it.
They were based in Dumfries and would head for the Sand Bar and "a very strange place called Chancers for Dancers". "Some man came over to me when I was dancing with Dorothy (co-star Dorothy Duffy) and said, ‘You can dance with my girlfriend if you like.’ Where did this come from? It’s a very strange little town. As if playing Crispina all day long wasn’t enough."
Nicholas Nickleby role
Her next film is already in the can. This time it really is Dickensian, but a lot more fun. She plays the daughter of Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries in a star-studded production of Nicholas Nickleby. "I play the Infant Phenomenon, which is a brilliant part.
"Nicholas Nickleby goes to join this drama troupe, and Barry Humphries and Nathan Lane play the mummy and daddy of the whole troupe. They say, ‘Wait till you see our actress, she is amazing, amazing, amazing.’ And out she comes and she’s awful obviously. They say, ‘Isn’t she incredible? And she’s only ten-years-old.’ And she’s so not!"
Meanwhile, Walsh has been getting very positive feedback on The Magdalene Sisters from Ireland, where it is already a hit, even from devout Catholics. She maintains the film is not anti-Catholic and that the blame for past excesses lies not just with the church, but with society as a whole, for turning a blind eye.
"I believe in God," she says. "I was brought up a Catholic and I don’t think you ever really get away from that." She no longer goes to church, though she admits there are elements she misses. "I love the idea that you can go to confession - I think it’s the beginning of therapy." Once an actress always an actress.