016 Philomena Nov Dec 2013

In 1952, a three-year-old boy was taken

from his teenage mother by nuns and ‘sold’
for adoption. The story of her search for
him is told in a moving new film
INTERVIEW: PHILOMENA LEE
Interview by LUCY COLLINS
Photography LOUISE HAYWOOD-SCHIEFER
  C
hristmas bundles from
Ireland,’ reads the newspaper
caption accompanying the
family photograph. A beaming
couple and their clean-
scrubbed sons gaze at the small children
they have adopted, ‘Mary, two, and
Michael, three’.
The scene at Chicago airport marks
their homecoming, but the children’s
apprehensive stares belie the happy
occasion. The picture captures the start
of their new life, far from their grieving
mothers left behind in County Tipperary.
The cutting is preserved in a photo
album belonging to Michael’s mother,
Philomena Lee. Her quest to find her
son, with the help of journalist Martin
Sixsmith, has been turned into a film
starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.
In person, Philomena is far from the
naive, homely Irishwoman portrayed by
Judi Dench; she is warm, intelligent and
brimming with humour. However, she
accepts that artistic licence has been used in
the storytelling and likes the film. Besides,
Dame Judi is tipped for an Oscar. ‘I know!
My goodness!’ says Philomena. ‘Little old
me getting Judi Dench to play me. I couldn’t
have wished for anyone better.’
We meet in a St Albans pub,
accompanied by her daughter Jane
Libberton, and she tells me the sorrowful
tale of a life shaped by secrets and shame.
Philomena, now , became pregnant
out of wedlock when she was . ‘I was
Michael's
arrival in
Chicago was
reported in
the media
Secrets, SHAME
and a love denied
WI Life November & December 2013 17
a dumb-cluck, I didn’t
know what pregnancy
was and my father
disowned me.’
She was packed off to
Roscrea convent to give
birth and her five siblings
were told she had run
away. The shame instilled
in her was so great that Philomena believed
Anthony’s difficult breech birth in July 1952
(he was renamed Michael by his adoptive
parents) was punishment for her sins.
Her penance for being taken in by the
nuns was three years’ work in the convent
laundry and signing away all rights to her
son, who she saw for an hour a day. Like
the other girls, Philomena was stripped of
her identity and assigned a new name: she
became Marcella.
She says: ‘We were made to feel so
guilty: you’re continually praying because
you committed a great sin by having
this baby.’
Anthony was adopted by the Hesses,
wealthy American Catholics who had three
sons and longed for a daughter. Mrs Hess
flew in from St Louis and chose Mary but
was so taken with Anthony that she took
him home, too, after paying an ‘adoption
fee’ of $1,000-$3,000 to the convent.
Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother,
Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search, likens
the payment to ‘an illicit baby trade’.
Philomena says: ‘For a fortnight after
he went I was blubbering. I used to be told
to shut up and don’t be so stupid and stop
your nonsense.
‘The nuns weren’t physically cruel but
they were mentally cruel.’
The last Philomena saw of her son was
him waving to her from the back seat of the
car as it pulled away.
‘I loved him from the
minute I saw him,’ she
says. ‘I used to sing the
little Irish ditties to him
and throw him up in
the air and catch him. I
thought that eventually
I’d be able to go out and
get a job and take him
with me but that wasn’t allowed.’
Did she never think about running
away? ‘Oh I did, many of us did, but where
could I go? My father wouldn’t have me. I
had nowhere to go, no money, nothing.’
Philomena was eventually allowed to
leave the convent and moved to England,
where she worked as a psychiatric nurse
and married. She had a daughter, Jane, and
a son, Kevin.
It is thanks to a kindly young nun,
Sister Annunciata, that Philomena has
photographs of Anthony. ‘Every time she’d
get a chance she’d sneak a photograph
and I kept that little album without telling
anyone for 50 years.’
When she broke
her silence in 2002
and told Jane about
Anthony’s existence, Jane
immediately realised who
the boy in the photos
was. She says: ‘They’d
been in our family album
for years and, as a child,
when I asked, mum said it
was her cousin’s son.’
Fear kept Philomena
from telling the truth.
‘The shame was instilled
in you so much,’ she
says, twisting the
Gaelic-inscribed ring of
Anthony’s she wears, ‘the
thing that worried me
was that my family would disown me and I
loved them to bits. But Jane was so lovely.
She threw her arms around me when I told
her and said “mum, he’s my brother”.’
Jane enlisted the help of Martin
Sixsmith to help find Anthony. He learned
that Anthony was a handsome high flyer
who had worked as chief legal counsel to
former US president George Bush Snr. He
had longed to find his birth mother and
had made two pilgrimages to Roscrea,
but the nuns had refused to release any
information.
As these scenes unfold in the film,
anticipation of a happy ending builds, but
it is not to be. Michael died of Aids aged
43 without meeting Philomena or knowing
that she was searching for him. ‘Anthony
died thinking I’d abandoned him at two
weeks old. That’s what he was told; that’s
what creased me,’ says Philomena.
Unbeknown to her, he had been buried
in the Roscrea graveyard after bequeathing
the convent a generous legacy. It had been
his dying wish.
Despite the role of the church in the
original adoption and its determination
to obstruct the search – the nuns knew
Michael and Philomena were seeking
one other but refused tell either of them,
much less help – Philomena harbours no
resentment. ‘I didn’t want the film to be
hammering the church,’ she says, ‘and it
doesn’t. It was a long time ago: you forgive,
not forget. I love life, I couldn’t go through
my life being miserable and they were
the times. It was the 1950s; you can’t put
today’s values on it.’
While the film tells the tale of a mother’s
love for her lost son, another story has
emerged: that of a daughter’s love for her
mother.
Jane says: ‘Whereas in England at 18 you
can find out information about your birth
parents, in Ireland they tell you nothing.
We hope the story helps people. I’m not
sure it’s going to change the law but it will
certainly make them think about it.’
Philomena (12A) is on general release
The nuns weren’t
physically cruel
but they were
mentally cruel
Anthony on the steps
of the convent (left)
and in adult life as a
successful lawyer
Philomena
with daughter,
Jane who
encouraged
her mother
to search for
Anthony
NOV/DEC CELEB INTERVIEW Philomena.indd 2 01/11/2013 12:48
WI Life November & December 2013 17
a dumb-cluck, I didn’t
know what pregnancy
was and my father
disowned me.’
She was packed off to
Roscrea convent to give
birth and her five siblings
were told she had run
away. The shame instilled
in her was so great that Philomena believed
Anthony’s difficult breech birth in July 1952
(he was renamed Michael by his adoptive
parents) was punishment for her sins.
Her penance for being taken in by the
nuns was three years’ work in the convent
laundry and signing away all rights to her
son, who she saw for an hour a day. Like
the other girls, Philomena was stripped of
her identity and assigned a new name: she
became Marcella.
She says: ‘We were made to feel so
guilty: you’re continually praying because
you committed a great sin by having
this baby.’
Anthony was adopted by the Hesses,
wealthy American Catholics who had three
sons and longed for a daughter. Mrs Hess
flew in from St Louis and chose Mary but
was so taken with Anthony that she took
him home, too, after paying an ‘adoption
fee’ of $1,000-$3,000 to the convent.
Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother,
Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search, likens
the payment to ‘an illicit baby trade’.
Philomena says: ‘For a fortnight after
he went I was blubbering. I used to be told
to shut up and don’t be so stupid and stop
your nonsense.
‘The nuns weren’t physically cruel but
they were mentally cruel.’
The last Philomena saw of her son was
him waving to her from the back seat of the
car as it pulled away.
‘I loved him from the
minute I saw him,’ she
says. ‘I used to sing the
little Irish ditties to him
and throw him up in
the air and catch him. I
thought that eventually
I’d be able to go out and
get a job and take him
with me but that wasn’t allowed.’
Did she never think about running
away? ‘Oh I did, many of us did, but where
could I go? My father wouldn’t have me. I
had nowhere to go, no money, nothing.’
Philomena was eventually allowed to
leave the convent and moved to England,
where she worked as a psychiatric nurse
and married. She had a daughter, Jane, and
a son, Kevin.
It is thanks to a kindly young nun,
Sister Annunciata, that Philomena has
photographs of Anthony. ‘Every time she’d
get a chance she’d sneak a photograph
and I kept that little album without telling
anyone for 50 years.’
When she broke
her silence in 2002
and told Jane about
Anthony’s existence, Jane
immediately realised who
the boy in the photos
was. She says: ‘They’d
been in our family album
for years and, as a child,
when I asked, mum said it
was her cousin’s son.’
Fear kept Philomena
from telling the truth.
‘The shame was instilled
in you so much,’ she
says, twisting the
Gaelic-inscribed ring of
Anthony’s she wears, ‘the
thing that worried me
was that my family would disown me and I
loved them to bits. But Jane was so lovely.
She threw her arms around me when I told
her and said “mum, he’s my brother”.’
Jane enlisted the help of Martin
Sixsmith to help find Anthony. He learned
that Anthony was a handsome high flyer
who had worked as chief legal counsel to
former US president George Bush Snr. He
had longed to find his birth mother and
had made two pilgrimages to Roscrea,
but the nuns had refused to release any
information.
As these scenes unfold in the film,
anticipation of a happy ending builds, but
it is not to be. Michael died of Aids aged
43 without meeting Philomena or knowing
that she was searching for him. ‘Anthony
died thinking I’d abandoned him at two
weeks old. That’s what he was told; that’s
what creased me,’ says Philomena.
Unbeknown to her, he had been buried
in the Roscrea graveyard after bequeathing
the convent a generous legacy. It had been
his dying wish.
Despite the role of the church in the
original adoption and its determination
to obstruct the search – the nuns knew
Michael and Philomena were seeking
one other but refused tell either of them,
much less help – Philomena harbours no
resentment. ‘I didn’t want the film to be
hammering the church,’ she says, ‘and it
doesn’t. It was a long time ago: you forgive,
not forget. I love life, I couldn’t go through
my life being miserable and they were
the times. It was the 1950s; you can’t put
today’s values on it.’
While the film tells the tale of a mother’s
love for her lost son, another story has
emerged: that of a daughter’s love for her
mother.
Jane says: ‘Whereas in England at 18 you
can find out information about your birth
parents, in Ireland they tell you nothing.
We hope the story helps people. I’m not
sure it’s going to change the law but it will
certainly make them think about it.’
Philomena (12A) is on general release
The nuns weren’t
physically cruel
but they were
mentally cruel
Anthony on the steps
of the convent (left)
and in adult life as a
successful lawyer
Philomena
with daughter,
Jane who
encouraged
her mother
to search for
Anthony
NOV/DEC CELEB INTERVIEW Philomena.indd 2 01/11/2013 12:48

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