Is The Woman in The Wall based on a true story? Everything we know about the BBC drama

The Magdalene Laundries were real, but are the characters from the series?

Is The Woman in The Wall based on a true story, as illustrated by Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady in The Woman in The Wall
(Image credit: BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr/Future)

Is The Woman in The Wall based on a true story? Here's everything we know about the harrowing BBC drama starring Ruth Wilson.

When Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson) finds a corpse in her house, she has no idea how it got there. As a teenager, Lorna had become pregnant and was forced to give birth hidden away in a convent. With her baby daughter immediately snatched away from her, the resulting trauma and bouts of sleepwalking mean she has no idea who the dead woman is, or if she could have killed her. Detective Colman Akande is soon trailing her, and hiding secrets of his own, becomes embroiled in Lorna's life as she searches for her daughter's fate. With protagonist Lorna being sent to one of Ireland's infamous and real Magdalene Laundries as a result of her teen pregnancy, viewers are wondering if The Woman in The Wall is a true story - while others already gripped on the series want to know when The Woman in the Wall will be on TV next, and where the series was filmed. For those hooked by the series, they might want to know what happened to Joanne Hayes - her experience with the Irish police has been documented in a new Channel 4 series. 

We've also delved into the true story behind The Burial, which looks at an empowering court case from the 90s. The Sixth Commandment true story left viewers deeply troubled when a dramatization of events aired recently. Stephen Graham is back in the spin-off Boiling Point - a continuation of the film of the same name - fans are also asking if the spin-off is based on a true story.

Is The Woman in The Wall based on a true story?

Although The Woman in The Wall isn't a true story, the lives of those ruined by incarceration in Ireland's Magdalene Laundries are very real. 

The town of Kilkinure where events in the series take place, has been created by writer and executive producer Joe Murtagh, who took inspiration from his Irish family roots for the show. Murtagh said "My family is from Mayo, the county in which the fictional Kilkinure is set, and it deeply frustrates and saddens me that it feels so few people have heard of the Laundries that existed across Ireland." 

He added "I hope that by making something that has the familiarity of a genre piece we are able to shed some light on the awful things that occurred within these kind of institutions and introduce this history to the wider public, so that nothing like it may ever happen again."

Sam Lavender and Simon Maxwell, Executive Producers for Motive Pictures also spoke of Murtagh's script and the importance of the story behind it. "Joe Murtagh has crafted a brilliantly inventive and emotionally powerful exploration of the personal and collective traumas experienced by the survivors of the Magdalene laundries and Mother & Baby Homes," they said. Praising those involved with the production, they continued to express excitement at bringing a "profoundly relevant story to audiences around the world."

Abby Fitz as young Laura in The Woman in The Wall

(Image credit: BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr)

What is the Magdalene Laundries scandal?

In the 1760s, the first Magdalene Asylum opened to house "fallen women," or those who were sexually promiscuous or had become pregnant outside of marriage.

The women were incarcerated in the institutions and required to work without pay, largely undertaking laundry and needlework. The prisoners suffered psychological and physical maltreatment at the hands of the nuns in charge, and those who gave birth in a Magdalene Institution would have their child immediately taken from them, and never learn of their fate.

Alongside so-called "fallen women," it was often common to find daughters of unmarried mothers, those considered a burden to their families, and those who had been sexually abused, held alongside unmarried mothers. Inmates were often confined in an institution for decades, isolated or never allowed contact with their family or the outside world. 

The last remaining Magdalene Laundry closed on October 25, 1996. The official  figure of the number of women imprisoned has been given at 10,000, but due to poor record keeping, the figure is likely to be much higher. Many died during their time within the brutal walls, even as late as 1985, women and girls were dying in largely unregulated centres. 

A mass grave was found at a Donnybrook laundry, with poor records not accounting for many of those found buried at the site. An investigation into the institutions was opened, and a compensation fund set up for the remaining survivors.

Alexandra Moloney as Lesley in The Woman in The Wall

(Image credit: BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr)

The Woman in The Wall: Cast

  • Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady
  • Daryl McCormack as Detective Colman Akande
  • Simon Delaney as Sgt. Aidan Massey
  • Philippa Dunne as Niamh
  • Mark Huberman as Michael Kearney
  • Hilda Fay as Amy Kane
  • Abby Fitz as Young Lorna
  • Lynn Rafferty as Anna
  • Frances Tomelty as Sister Eileen
  • Alexandra Moloney as Lesley
  • Chizzy Akudolu as Lola Akande
  • Fiona Browne as Margaret Brady
  • Eimear Morrissey as Louise Byrne
  • Charles Abomeli as Tayo Akande

Ruth Wilson spoke to What To Watch about how researching the role affected her. She told the publication "The subject matter is so sensitive. There are oral histories and testimonies and a great book called The Light in the Window [by June Goulding], which was illuminating. I also went to Tuam in Western Ireland [the site of a former mother and baby home where a mass grave was found], and that was moving."

On showing survivors the sensitivity they deserve, Wilson added "I didn't [meet them], you don’t want to put them back through their trauma. But we had a consultant, Katherine O'Donnell, who works with them and we talked to her a lot. And it was interesting working alongside people in our crew and cast who had direct attachments to this. You realise how wide it spread and how many people it touched."

Daryl McCormack as Detective Colman Akande in The Woman in The Wall

(Image credit: BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr)

We also have the true story behind excellent but frenetic series, The Bear. If you're wondering if there's any truth behind ITV's The Confessions of Frannie Langton, we have the answers. Viewers have also been asking for the truth behind Netflix's Witness Number 3, as they're gripped by the terrifying thriller. 

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.