The Lourdes Effect: The Miracle Club director Thaddeus O’Sullivan on Irish trauma and miracles

Laura Linney stars in an Irish comedy set in 1967 about a group of women confronting their past on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The director talks about the trauma that Irish movies set in this timeframe tend deal with, and what he calls the “Lourdes Effect.”

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

From the trailer, you might get the impression that The Miracle Club—starring Laura Linney, Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, and Stephen Rea—would make a good double feature with Waking Ned Devine. It looks, that is, like another low-key, gently subversive, older-skewing, Irish ensemble comedy, overshadowed by death and perhaps a hint of buried sexual scandal, about finding a happy ending when you don’t quite win the lottery, or, in this case, get a miracle.

That impression isn’t wholly wrong, but The Miracle Club is quite a bit less whimsical than Waking Ned Devine, and more racked with grief, guilt, and anger. Set in 1967, the film stars Linney as an expatriate who was “banished” as a pregnant teenager and moved to the United States, returning for her mother’s funeral, and winding up an unwelcome addition to a number of local women on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. A key scene of catharsis involves the women sharing past attempts to miscarry unwanted pregnancies, most of which failed due to ignorance, and an account of a presumably illegal abortion. The trauma resulting from how unwed pregnancies were dealt with in midcentury Irish Catholic culture is a major theme. In other words, The Miracle Club could also work in a double feature with a movie like Philomena.

I recently chatted via Skype with filmmaker Thaddeus O’Sullivan, a soft-spoken older man whose work includes Stella Days, a 2011 film starring Martin Sheen as an Irish priest, and a couple of episodes of Call the Midwife. Our discussion has been lightly edited for clarity and length. The Miracle Club is in theaters July 14.

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SDG: You would have been about 19 years old at the time that this movie is set, is that right?

O’Sullivan: Yes. That’s the time that I left Ireland.

SDG: Is the Irish Catholic small-town world that we see in the film very similar to the world of your own youth?

O’Sullivan: Absolutely, yes. That was why I set it in that era, because I felt I could talk about it with reasonable knowledge and responsibility. And also, I was aware, you know, that some of the actors are not Irish. I needed to be sure that they could they could feel comfortable with somebody who knew the world.

SDG: Laura Linney mentioned in an interview that, not being Catholic, she knew nothing about Lourdes before making this film. Your own experience, though, was very different…

O’Sullivan: Yes, you know, Catholics grow up knowing about the great pilgrimage sites and the Marian shrines, and we went on pilgrimages as a family within Ireland when I was a child. And Lourdes, of course, everywhere is talked about a lot, and miracles and the intercession of Our Lady. Many people I knew had been, when I was a child. My parents did go — they made a special pilgrimage after my father recovered from a bout of extremely ill health and my mother had prayed for his recovery. And when he did recover, she had promised that she would go and thank our Lady for her intercession. So they went, and it was a very happy occasion for them. My mother spoke about it as the celebration of the power of prayer. And she never talked about it as a miracle or anything. But she believed in the intercession of Our Lady. So it was big in our minds, and it was popular in the culture. But a lot of people who are not Catholics have never heard of it.

SDG: That’s so interesting! So many people go to Lourdes, as we see in The Miracle Club, hoping and praying for a miracle — but your parents went to Lourdes after receiving the recovery that your mother had been praying for! So that was a very different kind of pilgrimage for her than for many people, and in particular than some of the ones that we see in this film.

O’Sullivan: Yes, and I always remember that. In my house, that was what Lourdes meant. And it is interesting: to go to say “Thank you” and to experience Lourdes, in a sense, not needing, which most people do. Most people go in hope of some form of change in themselves, physical or mental. And I think a lot of people do go through a mental change. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. I think a lot of nonbelievers go and find that they have experienced something, which surprises them and makes them feel more hopeful about life and themselves. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have been, and I think they get over the negativity quite quickly — the [Catholic] Disneyland thing, and the cynicism — because of the sheer experience of being among people who have such a spiritual dimension to their lives. I think it does affect people. [Co-writer] Tim Prager and I used to talk about this a lot. Our shorthand was “the Lourdes Effect” — that feeling that the sheer experience of being there gives you, and the idea that that can lead to something good and positive. Tim has been there five or six times, so he felt very strongly about it.

SDG: There have been a lot of films about Lourdes over the years: obviously The Song of Bernadette, which is referenced in your film; Jean Delannoy’s biopic about St. Bernadette; Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes; a 2019 documentary by two French filmmakers whose names I’m not going to butcher right now! Was there something that you wanted to do in this film that you hadn’t seen before in portrayals of Lourdes or people who go there?

O’Sullivan: Well, I watched The Song of Bernadette and I watched Lourdes a number of times. I would have seen Lourdes in any case, it’s the kind of film that I would have seen…

SDG: Hausner’s film?

O’Sullivan: Yeah. I watched The Song of Bernadette again. I noticed you mentioned all the Fatima films on your website — I can’t remember seeing those in recent years, but certainly as kids we would have seen one of them at least. It must have been the early ’50s one. I didn’t see [The Miracle Club] as about Lourdes in that sense. The “Lourdes Effect” is all manifest through the characters. In that sense, it’s not a religious experience. The characters have responsibility for themselves and for their past actions. In making the film, there was a very strong sense amongst all of us that the bath scene at the end was going to tell us something about what we were trying to do — to have a kind of cleansing effect and give people some sense of hope for the future so that they could act upon it. They could go home and act with some certainty. I mean, when they go back to the families, it’s sentimental, of course, and it may not last, but I think it’s a start — to have the hope.

SDG: It occurred to me that the setting of your film isn’t so different from the world of Saoirse Ronan’s character in John Crowley’s Brooklyn — you’ve seen that?

O’Sullivan: I have, yeah.

SDG: Both films are about an Irish woman who leaves home at a young age, moves to the United States, and returns for a funeral with a different perspective. Can you talk about how Laura Linney’s character Chrissy has changed, and what her changed perspective reveals about the world of her youth?

O’Sullivan: Well, she was “banished” — that’s the word we use in the film — because she was pregnant, and no one wanted to deal with it. The culture of the time made it impossible for her to have that child. So she would have been in a mother-and-baby home. She chose to go to America, cutting off ties with the past. And it suited those left behind, that that was what she did. They saw it as a sin that she could take with her, I guess. We don’t give much detail about her background. I wanted her to keep her own past — the new world that she had created for herself. She feels that she has survived and that she’s lived a happy life, and she doesn’t want to share it with them. She doesn’t feel that they deserve to know and she doesn’t owe it to them. But I wanted a sense that she had come to the funeral intending to go back — but she decided, I suppose subconsciously, to face the past, which is what the others decide to do, or instinctively do, when they get to Lourdes. In no sense does she want to tell her story, but she did want them to look at what they had done.

SDG: So in both Brooklyn and your film, there’s a charming side to the world that we see, but also a judgmental and intolerant side. And it occurs to me that this is also about the same timeframe as Peter Milan’s The Magdalene Sisters, and similar to the world in which the protagonist of Stephen Frears’ Philomena gave birth and was forced to give up her child for adoption. So this theme of judgmentalism and intolerance has left, you could say, a record of trauma in the cinema that we see about this time and place. Do you have any thoughts about the strengths or weaknesses of Irish Catholic culture at the time when these films are set?

O’Sullivan: Well, the situation in regard to the mother-and-baby homes in Ireland has been emerging for many years, but it came to a head recently with the discovery of the graves of 800 babies who went through the mother-and-baby home at Tuam. So all those bodies are being exhumed and examined forensically, and that will take years. I think that legacy is going to be very big for the Irish looking back at those years. The mother-and-baby home at Tuam was one of the early ones, in the early 20s, and it didn’t close down until maybe 1969. So it kind of covers our time period, but of course Tuam was not the only one; there were many others. I think the enormity of the judgments that people made in that period — to banish a young woman to go and have a baby out of sight — has terrible consequences. That’s the kind of thing that we’re going to be seeing talked about a lot now in Ireland.

SDG: Any final thoughts about the strengths of this world? What did you want to portray about the world of this film in a positive way?

O’Sullivan: You know, I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I did see Lourdes in a very positive light. I thought that the idea of pilgrimage is very important and ritual in people’s lives to take them away from the restrictions and restraints of their daily lives, and to be in a moment where they can engage with themselves. That was the driving force really for the film, at the end of which, in our story, there is reconciliation and therefore hope.

Interviews, Our Lady of Lourdes, Religious Themes