The story of Irishwoman Philomena Lee’s separation from her child is the subject of a major film based on the book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, says Arlene Harris
JOURNALIST and author, Martin Sixsmith is modest about the movie adaptation of his critically acclaimed book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, but he is unequivocal as to why it was such a compelling story.
Speaking prior to his forthcoming appearance at the Ennis Book Club Festival (March 7-9), the Oxford-educated Sixsmith says Philomena’s tale was of sadness coupled with the kindness of a woman who found it in her heart to forgive. “I first became aware at a New Year’s Eve party ten years ago of Philomena’s search for her son,” he says. “At the time, I had just had a big bust-up with Tony Blair and had been kicked out of my job, so I was at a loose end, when along came this incredible story. At first, I was dubious about taking it on, firstly, because it was a daunting task and, secondly, because my years in journalism were spent in politics and foreign affairs, so this was something entirely different.”
Though Sixsmith knew he might earn money from writing Philomena’s story, the father-of-four also liked her as a person.
“I hit it off with Philomena straight away,” he says. “The film adaptation portrays her as being very naive, but she wasn’t really that way — she was just very open and warm, despite having spent five decades pining for the child who had been taken away from her. I also found the whole story so incredible and was astounded to learn, later, down the line, that 60,000 other women were also in the same position — and, of course, I knew I would get a book at the end of it.”
Sixsmith started researching his book in 2004. On his first visit to Ireland, he was surprised to learn that most people knew someone who had a similar story.
“The sheer number of women who were looking for their babies since the 1950s was an extraordinary revelation,” he says. “Nine out of ten people I asked had some experience of this, or knew someone who was directly affected. I visited the convent in Roscrea where Philomena’s son, Anthony [later renamed Michael], was taken from her when he was three and while the nuns were very nice and seemingly helpful, I knew something wasn’t right.
“They kept trotting out platitudes and when I heard the phrase, ‘we can’t take away your pain, but we can walk hand-in-hand through it with you’, I knew this was a rehearsed line — no one comes out with sentences like that unless they have been coached beforehand.”
What Sixsmith uncovered after the initial visit to Tipperary is well-known from his book and also the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning film adaptation.
“Contrary to what the film conveyed, Philomena didn’t accompany me to America and I spent a good few weeks trying to find something to link us to her son’s whereabouts,” says the 59-year-old. “It was extremely difficult, at first, because all the records at the convent had been destroyed by fire, but I had seen a photo of Anthony, where he was holding a toy plane, and when I came across it again in the US, it was a real stroke of good fortune.
“Because he wasn’t a ‘nobody’ and had a high-profile career (as a lawyer and an official within the Reagan and Bush administrations), Anthony, who was now Michael Hess, was easier to trace. But, for me, the greatest coincidence was realising that while I was working as a Washington correspondent for the BBC, I attended the same Republican Party conference as Michael, in 1982 — it’s hard to believe that our paths nearly crossed way back then and I think these little coincidences all helped to nudge me closer to unearthing the truth.”
Learning that her son had died in 1995 was a blow for Philomena (he had been looking for her, too) and yet she still forgave the Church. But while many critics have slammed the book and the film for being anti-Catholic, Sixsmith says he simply told the truth. “I am not an angry person and, although my wife Mary has family from Ireland, I had no connection to either the country or the Church, so I didn’t have an axe to grind with anyone,” he says. “I discovered, during my research, that the nuns deliberately set fire to the children’s records. And, later, I discovered that Sister Hildegard made a confession to a social worker confirming this, and revealing that the money received for adoptions was the biggest income for the convent. I didn’t make this up — the facts are there and it strikes me as odd that, even today, the Church continues to deny this happened.
“Mind you, from a legal point of view, they probably can’t admit to knowing about what was happening to all those babies in 1950s Ireland.
“But, overall, I thought the reaction was very good, regardless of the anti-Catholic controversy.”
And the film industry seems to agree, as Philomena won a BAFTA for best-adapted screenplay last month and has also been nominated for four Oscars, with Dame Judi Dench playing the role of Philomena Lee, and Steve Coogan playing Sixsmith.
Sixsmith says that the film is a good representation, even if the characters aren’t exactly true to life.
“The adaptation of the book was very good, even though there were a few aspects which obviously had to be dramatised for the film,” he says. “I think the character of ‘Martin’ was only 50% like me. At times, he came across as a pompous, self-satisfied prat, which I don’t think I am. Also, because Steve is Catholic and of Irish descent, he was much more emotive and impassioned about everything I unearthed and this comes across on screen.
“Dame Judi did a wonderful job as Philomena, even though, in reality, she has a depth of wisdom and is more humane than she was portrayed — but, all-in-all, I think they both did a great job.”
Despite attending the glamorous BAFTA and Oscar awards, Sixsmith is really looking forward to visiting a more low-key event, in Clare, this month and to speaking to the people who really matter in the literary world — the readers.
“While it was exciting to be at the awards ceremonies, I found it all a bit of a circus, really,” he says. “There is an awful lot of hype in the movie world, even though one has not found the cure for cancer or world peace — but, having said that, it was great to be recognised and be part of it all.
“But I am really looking forward to coming to Ennis for the Book Club Festival. I love Ireland and have been over many times. Also, I think a festival dedicated to readers, rather than writers or critics, is a tremendous idea, as they are really the most important factor and don’t often get to air their views.
“So, when I was asked if I would come and speak at the event, I didn’t hesitate for a moment — after all the publicity about the book and the film, it will be good to go back to the country where it all began.”
Martin Sixsmith is just one of the speakers at the Ennis Book Club Festival, which runs from March 7 — 9; www.ennisbookclubfestival.com.
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