As is so often the case with Irish scandals, it takes Hollywood to bring them into to the public consciousness.
It certainly was the case with The Magdalene Sisters in 2002, and the same may happen with the release of Philomena, the story of Philomena Lee’s search for the son she was forced to put up for adoption in 1952 when she was aged 19.
After falling pregnant, Philomena was sent to the nuns to have her child in secret.
Virtually disowned by her family in Newcastlewest in Limerick, Philomena was sent to Seán Ross Abbey in Tipperary where she raised her son Anthony for three years. She was forced to work in the convent’s laundry before he was adopted, for a price, to the US. She never saw him again despite efforts to trace him — and his desperate efforts to trace her. She never even got to say goodbye to him.
The tragedy of her story is that there are lots of Philomena Lees in Ireland.
Adoption tracing legislation has been promised as “a priority” by every government here since the late 1990s. Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald recently announced it is to be delayed again into 2014 citing obstacles to full tracing rights for adopted people presented by a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that said the mother’s right to privacy would have to be balanced against the adopted person’s right to know.
The proposed tracing and information legislation seems to be aimed at putting guidelines and the National Contact Preference Register (NCPR) on a statutory footing.
The NCPR has been heavily criticised by both adopted people and natural parents. Since its creation in 2005, it has received almost 9,000 requests up to 2010. It matched just 482 people — a rate of about 5%.
It is estimated that there are at least 100,000 adopted people and natural parents in Ireland.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, former journalist Martin Sixsmith recalled being told about Philomena’s story at a party in 2004.
“Well, it was one of those coincidences that change your life really. I was at a party and somebody came up to me and said ‘You are a journalist’ and I said ‘Well, I used to be’ and she said: ‘Well, I have a story that might be of interest to you’. It turned out to be a friend of Philomena’s daughter. Just a couple of days before, Philomena told her daughter, who now lives with her in England, about this long, lost son that she hadn’t spoken about for 50 years.
“It was quite remarkable, she had kept him an absolute secret from all of her family.”
She raised her son for three years in the convent. Then without being told, Anthony was adopted to the US. She was to never see him again.
Martin recalled that the couple who took her son had actually come for a girl having three sons already, but were so taken with Anthony, who immediately ran up and kissed them on the check and was best friends with a little girl they adopted, they decided to take him also.
A donation to the nuns of between €1,000 and €3,000 was expected for a child, and without warning Philomena had her son taken. She would never see him again.
“It was all done very hastily so Philomena wasn’t even being told that her little son was being taken away. There is very moving scene in the film where Philomena is tipped off at the last minute that her son is being taken out and she runs to the bars of the convent and looks through them and sees little Anthony being put into the back of a car and he waves to her, as he drives away, through the rear window of the car. That’s not made up. It’s a very poignant and very moving scene but it’s actually a factual recreation of what happened,” said Martin.
In America, Anthony now renamed Michael Hess, went on to carve out a hugely successful career as a lawyer, serving as White House chief legal counsel under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.
Michael was also homosexual, something he had to hide given his position, and also spent years searching for his identity in Ireland. He visited Seán Ross Abbey numerous times only to be told they was nothing they could do help him trace his birth mother. Despite Philomena also searching for him at the same time, the nuns told her they could not help in her search either.
According to Martin, at least one nun knew that both Philomena and Michael were looking for each other, but also said many agencies of the State put obstacles in the way.
“Certainly, Sr Hildegarde would have known because she knew what happened the child, she knew what happened to Philomena and she took the decision not to tell them that the other person was looking for them... I have to say, we met with a certain amount of obstruction. Of course, there have to be confidentiality laws, not every bit of information has to be given out straight away but I felt that in a case like this where it was a mother looking for her son, we should have gotten more help,” he said.
After contracting HIV, Michael returned one last time to Seán Ross Abbey.
Martin said he said to them: “I have been given this very bad diagnosis and I might die, I’m not sure. But, if I were to die, would you agree for me to be buried here in the grounds of Seán Ross Abbey? The answer again was, yes, but it would involve a donation. The donation was made, I think it was $20,000 and the nuns said: ‘Yes, well in that case, if you do die, then you can be buried here in the Church yard’.”
His desire to be buried there, with a detailed tombstone, was to help his mum find him. He said: ‘If my mother ever came looking for me, at least she’d be able to find out, she’d be able to know what I did with my life’, explained Martin.
Philomena Lee’s son died in 1995 and is buried in Seán Ross Abbey with the inscription: “A man of two nations and many talents”.
*Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, and staring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, opens in Irish cinemas on Nov 1.