It isn’t every day that you see battle-hardened health professionals overcome with emotion, yet there were tears aplenty yesterday at University College Cork when Philomena Lee told the story of her 50-year search for her son.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Philomena said afterwards. “I was looking up at the audience and everywhere I looked was a sea of faces with tears streaming down their faces.”
Philomena was giving the keynote address to a conference on adoption held at the university’s Brookfield centre. Now living near London with her daughter, Jane Libberton, Philomena told how she never gave up the search for Anthony, who was taken from her at the age of three from the mother-and-baby home in Roscrea where he was born.
Ignorant of sex and becoming pregnant at 18, Philomena was one of thousands of young women sent to live in homes for unmarried mothers.
Philomena finally learned of her son’s whereabouts but she never got to meet him again as he had died in 1995. That was a huge blow, especially as she learned that he had spent years looking for her, too.
Give her a habit and veil, and Philomena could be Mother Teresa, such is the extraordinary effect she has on everyone she meets. She has an easy grace that is engaging and magnetic. Though softly spoken, her voice carries weight beyond the words and it is her big heart and courage that shines through.
One woman in the audience wondered why she was not still angry. Addressing Philomena, she said: “I lost my first born to adoption in 1979. I still have a yearning for my child that I could not bring up. You say your anger has dissipated over the years, but mine still comes and goes.”
Visibly upset, the woman spoke of her ‘unimaginable grief’ and described — to sustained applause — as ‘a pack of lies’ a latter-day adoption leaflet that says most birth parents move on with their lives quite happily.
“That is a complete lie,” she said. “There has been no real change from the 50s or the 70s.”
Philomena’s daughter, Jane, explains that her mother’s serenity is neither feigned nor forced. “That is the way she is,” she said. “My Mum is no longer angry. I am angry on her behalf but she isn’t. She is quite an amazing woman.”
Despite her heartbreaking experiences, Philomena maintains a cheerful outlook and lives life to the full, dressing elegantly and sporting a designer walking stick. She also loves the craic and, whispering in my ear, reveals: “I have a sense of humour, you know.”
As if to prove the point, she turned on a bit of devilish charm when approached by an earnest and handsome young man after her speech.
Her eyes lit up: “Oh! Isn’t he gorgeous!” Then she got down to the business of listening attentively to his story.
“She was quite feisty when she was younger,” says Jane. “She is still very well and healthy, even though she is nearly 82. She loves to talk and is very easy in any company.
“When we were in Hollywood, she got five-star treatment everywhere, which was well deserved, but she was never overwhelmed by it all. She is easy to talk to and finds it just as easy to talk to anyone, no matter who it is.
“That’s the great thing about her. What you see is what you get with my mum.”
It is only when Philomena recalls the last moment she saw Anthony (renamed Michael by his adoptive parents) that melancholy descends.
She and her son were in the convent for three years until the day he was taken from her. The nuns never even allowed her say goodbye.
Racing to an upstairs window, she saw Anthony’s face looking out the back of a departing car. “I can still see his little face through the window,” she says, with a far away look.
“I will keep that image in my head until the day I die.”
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