She stood inside a locked window, forced to watch helplessly as her three year old son was led to a waiting car to be driven away by an American couple who had just handed over a fistful of dollars to be given Philomena’s little boy as their own.
I sat in a darkened Dublin cinema and watched the film version of this true story of 1950s Ireland. I could hardly bear to hear the agonised screams of the 21 year old mother, who for three years had bonded with her child and he with her. Now they were being dragged apart with no regard whatever for the deep emotional distress of a mother being separated forever from her unsuspecting little son.
As the car drove away from the convent where she had been held in servitude since the birth of her son, Philomena felt her heart and soul cry out as the little boy pressed his face against the car window, wondering why his mother was not coming with him on this new adventure.
Belatedly I watched the film which everyone has been talking about. Glad now that I hadn’t missed it before it leaves the cinema screens for good. Walking back to the car afterwards I experienced a sense of anger, anger at those self-appointed guardians of morality who had put so many through such pointless torture. Disappointed to realise that all this had happened in my own country in the my own lifetime and that the young helpless Philomena was but one among thousands of women treated in the same cruel way by a dictatorial church with the connivance of the state.
Only at the end when the credits began to role did I learn the film was based on a book by Martin Sixsmith, a BBC journalist who first began to investigate Philomena’s tragic story back in 2004.
When Philomena became pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, she was sent by her family to a local convent dedicated to taking in such women and girls. There she would give birth to her baby and be forced to sign a document surrendering all rights to the child, agreeing for him to be given for adoption to some couple who would satisfy the criteria of the Catholic hierarchy. Such convents were scattered through the length and breadth of Ireland, in effect reformatories for ‘fallen women.’ Women and girls who found themselves sent to such places by family or clergy were referred to as Magdalens, a reference to Mary Magdalen of the gospels who is supposed to have been a prostitute.
Magdalen homes continued in existence in Ireland up to recent times. The inmates of such places were exploited in multiple ways. The convents exploited their labour, forcing them to work in Dickensian type laundries which brought income to the convent while the women who worked there were given no pay. The nuns were also in receipt of a capitation grant from the government for every woman held. But the major source of income for the nuns must have come from what amounted to the sale of the babies.
Adopting couples were asked to give a ‘donation,’ an amount which often ran to between one and three thousand dollars. The vast majority of these children went to the US, to wealthy or middle class couples whose only qualification seems to have been that they were practising Catholics and had the cash for the transaction. Otherwise there was little or no inquiry into their suitability to take on the care of a young child.
Apart from being a well-known journalist, Martin Sixsmith has also published a number of books both scholarly works and novels. In 2004 he was approached by Philomena’s daughter who had just learned from her mother of the existence of a long lost brother. When he met Philomena, now in her seventies, she told him she’d been threatened with eternal damnation if she ever revealed the existence of her son to anyone. And so she had kept her guilty secret for more than fifty years.
But he agreed to help her and together they went to the United States where assiduous digging and investigative work turned up an amazing story of a son who had gone on to have an influential role close to government in Washington but who tragically had died of aids before he and his mother had a chance to come together again after half a century of separation.
Perhaps the most heart-rending and certainly the most shocking aspect of this whole saga was the discovery that the son had been making efforts to track his mother but had been told over and over by the nuns that they could not (read would not) help him.
The terrible truth is that mother and son had been searching for each other for many years but had always come up against a blank wall when they went to the convent looking for information which would lead them to each other.
Watching her story unfold on the cinema screen I was appalled to see how Philomena’s quest was to end in the heartbreaking news that her son was dead. But he had left behind an intriguing clue to help his mother should she ever come looking for him. On his own tombstone he’d inscribed these words for his mother to read,
Michael Hess, a man of two nations and many talents.
Born July 5, 1952, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea.
Died August 15, 1995, Washington DC.
Martin Sixsmith has written the story of Philomena’s lifelong search for her long lost son.
The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith is published by Macmillan.