Foreword (By Dame Judi Dench)
Philomena is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman. Philomena Lee was a naive teenager, whose only sin was to fall pregnant out of wedlock. ‘Put away’ in a convent by an Irish society dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. For three years she cared for young Anthony, working all the while in the abbey’s laundries. Then, like thousands of other ‘fallen women’, Philomena was forced to give up her child as a condition of being released from the near-slavery she found herself in.
This was the fate of many young mothers with illegitimate children in 1950s Ireland. Only very recently has the Irish government apologized for the living hell that was inflicted upon them. But Philomena’s tale is special. This book, and the film that is based upon it, tells the story of her decades-long search for the son she lost. It depicts her uncertainty, hope and moments of despair. And at the end, it reveals a remarkable human being with astonishing fortitude and a truly humbling willingness to forgive. To me, it is astounding that Philomena still has her strong religious belief even after everything that was done to her. She questions things and is very open in speaking about her experiences, but her faith is unshakeable – as strong as it always was.
When I was asked to play the part of Philomena in Stephen Frears’s wonderful film, I thought back to my own Irish heritage. My mother was Irish, born in Dublin, and all her family were Irish. My father was born in Dorset, but went to Ireland with his parents when he was three. He grew up in Dublin and studied at Trinity College, as did all my cousins.
Although my mother was brought up a Methodist, she went to a Catholic school and I know she had fond memories of some of the nuns. Recognizing her faith, they excused her from Catholic prayers, and very sweetly gave her the job of dusting statues instead. My mother used to say she had the pleasant duty of ‘keeping the Virgin Mary clean’.
So I was pleased that Martin Sixsmith’s book and Frears’s film adaptation do not oversimplify the issues or paint the Catholic Church in an unremittingly black light. The role of the Church is, quite properly, examined, but care has been taken not to caricature what happened. These were different times. The system was a terrible one. But many of the nuns themselves were kind and not all the girls in their care were treated cruelly.
As was the case with most Irish people in the fifties and sixties, my family was unaware that this sort of thing was going on in Ireland. But Philomena was far from an isolated case. Innumerable mothers and children were torn apart, and many of them are still searching for each other, even now. It is terrible and very, very shocking. So I hope Philomena’s heroic search and her courage in allowing her story to be told will bring comfort to all who have suffered a similar fate.
In making the film, I was conscious of the very real responsibility of playing a living person, and that weighed heavily on me. I felt very strongly that I was inhabiting the character of Philomena. It was a great challenge, but it was fantastic having Philomena herself to talk to; to be there as a reference when I needed her. It allowed me to understand the essence of the part in a way that was impossible when I played Elizabeth I, or Iris Murdoch, both of whom were long gone. It was also very rewarding for me to watch some of the scenes we had shot with Philomena sitting there beside me, her hand on my shoulder. I was extremely aware of her reaction to seeing the film and I watched her very closely when we got to the appearance of the boy actor who plays her lost son.
What I wanted more than anything was for the film to do her justice, and to do justice to Martin Sixsmith’s book. I have worked with Stephen Frears as a director many times and I knew we were in safe hands. He has taken great care to remain true to Philomena’s story, as well as to Martin’s book. I am so terribly glad to have done it. And I hope Philomena will be just as pleased with what we have made of her life story.
Dame Judi Dench, 2013
The New Year of 2004 had come in. It was getting late and I was thinking of leaving – the party was flat and I was tired – but someone tapped my shoulder. The stranger was about forty-five and a little tipsy. She told me she was married to the brother of a mutual friend, but she wasn’t planning to remain so much longer. I smiled politely. She put her hand on my arm and said she had something that might interest me.
‘You’re a journalist, aren’t you?’ ‘I used to be.’
‘You can find things out, can’t you?’ ‘It depends what they are.’
‘You have to meet my friend. She has a puzzle she needs you to solve.’
I was intrigued enough to meet the friend in the cafe of the British Library – a financial administrator in her late thirties, smartly dressed with sharp blue eyes and jet-black hair. A family mystery was troubling her. Her mother, Philomena, had drunk too much sherry that Christmas and had broken down in tears. She’d had a secret to tell her family, a secret she’d kept for fifty years . . .
Do we all yearn to be detectives? The conversation in the British Library was the start of a search that lasted five years and led me from London to Ireland and on to the United States. Old photographs, letters and diaries now litter my desk – the hurried, anxious scrawl of an eager housewife, tearful signatures on sad documents and the image of a lost little boy in a blue jumper clutching a toy plane made of tin . . .
Everything that follows is true, or reconstructed to the best of my ability. There were clues to be found and no shortage of evidence. Some of the actors in the story kept diaries or left detailed correspondence; several are still alive and agreed to speak with me; others had confided their version of events to friends. Gaps have been filled, characters extrapolated and incidents surmised. But that’s what detective work is all about, isn’t it?
Saturday 5 July 1952
Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland
Sister Annunciata cursed the electric. Whenever there was thunder and lightning it flickered so desperate it was worse than the old paraffin lamps. And tonight they needed all the light they could get.
She was trying to run but her feet were catching in her habit and her hands were shaking. Hot water slopped from the enamel bowl onto the stone flags of the darkened corridor. It was all right for the others: all they had to do was pray to the Virgin, but Sister Annunciata was expected to do something practical: the girl was dying and no one had a clue how to save her.
In the makeshift surgery above the chapel, she knelt by the patient and whispered encouragement. The girl responded with a half-smile and something mumbled, incomprehensible. A lightning flash lit up the room. Annunciata pulled up the covers to shield the girl from the blood on the sheets.
Annunciata was barely older than her patient. Both of them were from the country; both from the depths of Limerick. But she was the birth sister and people were expecting her to do something.
In the chapel below, she could hear Mother Barbara gathering the girls, ordering them to pray for the Magdalene upstairs – a sinner like them, who was dying. The disembodied voices sounded distant and harsh. Annunciata squeezed the girl’s hand and told her to take no notice. She lifted the patient’s white linen gown and wiped her legs with the warm water. The baby was visible now, but it was the child’s back she could see, not the head. She had heard about breech births; another hour and she knew mother and baby would both be dead. The fever was setting in.
The patient was flushed, her speech reduced to quick, stumbling phrases: ‘Don’t let them put him in the ground . . . It’s dark down there . . . It’s cold down there.’ Her blue eyes were wide with panic, her jet-black hair stark against the white pillow.
Sister Annunciata bent down and wiped the girl’s brow.
The girl had no idea what was happening to her. She’d had no visitors since she arrived, and that was nearly two months ago. Her father and brother had put her in the nuns’ care, and now the nuns were going to let her die.
Annunciata thanked God that it wasn’t herself lying there, but she was a practical girl, from a farming family. She gripped the baby’s flesh. It was warm and alive. Mother Barbara said sinners deserved no painkillers, and the girl was screaming, screaming for her baby: ‘Don’t let them bury him . . . They’re burying him in the convent . . .’
With her strong fingers – and then with the hard steel forceps – Annunciata pushed and twisted the tiny body. It moved, reluctantly, loath to abandon the sensuous warmth. A gush of pale red liquid spilled onto the white sheet. Annunciata had found the baby’s head. Now she was pulling it steadily forward, dragging a new life into God’s world.
Sister Annunciata was twenty-three. She had been Annunciata for five years. Before that she had been Mary Kelly, one of the Limerick Kellys, one of seven.
The night the priest came he had sat for a drink and commiserated with old Mr Kelly on the ill luck that had denied him sons. After the third whiskey, he had leaned forward and said quietly, ‘Now, Tom. I know you love the girls. And what better could you be doing for them than look after their futures. Surely, Tom, you can spare one of them for God?’
Five years later, here she was – Sister Annunciata, spared for God.
For the next few days whenever Annunciata was with the little one she nursed him as if he were her own. It was she who had delivered him, saved him, launched him into the light. He had been christened Anthony at her suggestion and she felt they had a special bond. When he cried, she comforted him; when he was hungry, she longed to feed him.
The boy’s mother was called Marcella by the nuns – in here no one was allowed to use their real name. Abandoned by her family, she clung to Annunciata. In turn, Annunciata gave Marcella comfort, reassuring her that she did not condemn her like the other nuns did. Defying the decree of silence, they would find quiet corners in which to exchange the secrets of their past lives. Cupping her hands round Marcella’s ear, Annunciata whispered, ‘Tell me about the man. Tell me what it was like . . .’
Marcella giggled, but Annunciata leaned in closer, desperate to understand.
‘Go on . . . What was he like? Was he handsome?’
Marcella smiled. The few hours she’d spent with John McInerney now seemed like a flash of light in a benighted life. Since her arrival at the abbey she had treasured them, dreamt of them, endlessly reliving the memory of his embrace.
‘He was the handsomest man I ever saw. He was tall and dark . . . and his eyes were so gentle and kind. He told me he worked for the Limerick post office.’
With a little encouragement from Annunciata, Marcella told her all about the night her baby was made – when she had still been free and happy, when she had still been Philomena Lee.
The evening had been warm; the lights of the Limerick Carnival, the music from the ceilidh and the smells of candy floss and toffee apples had given it the thrilling feel of adventure. Philomena had locked eyes with the tall young man from the post office who laughed with her and gave her a shot at his beer glass. They had looked at each other with a mixture of wariness and excitement. And then . . . and then . . .
7 July 1952;
The summer storms that had hindered Sister Annunciata on the night she delivered little Anthony hadn’t been confined to Roscrea. The Irish Republic was modernizing its power systems and in the Dublin suburb of Glasnevin fallen cables meant Joe Coram awoke on Monday morning to a darkened house. A half-hour later, his wife Maire laughed to find him in the gloom, eating a breakfast of untoasted bread and cold tea. Joe laughed too. He was young and strong, still in love with his job, with his wife, his house, with the world in general. He gave Maire a hug, thinking how pretty she looked.
‘I’ll be late home tonight, Maire – assuming the trams’re running. I’ve this blasted working group on Church–state relations’ – he ignored her rolled eyes – ‘and it’s no secret things are a bit sticky right now.’ Luckily, the trams were OK and Joe Coram got to the office no bother. Within ten minutes, he was beginning to wish he hadn’t. His secretary was off sick and a note on his desk informed him that the minister wished to see him at once.
Frank Aiken, the Free State’s minister for external affairs, was in a foul mood and the whole of Iveagh House was holding its breath. Aiken was a stubborn man who bore a grudge conscientiously – he still had not forgiven former comrades who supported the Treaty back in 1921.
Joe knew what the fuss was about – he ran the department’s policy on passport and visa issues, so he’d been involved in the Russell– Kavanagh affair ever since the story first surfaced six months earlier. In the antechamber of the minister’s office, a young private secretary gave Joe the briefest of briefings: ‘It’s the bloody Jane Russell thing coming back to bite us. Now the foreign papers have got a hold of it. I’d show you the telegram, but Frank has it in with him. You’d better be on your toes.’
Frank Aiken was on his fifth cigarette of the morning when Joe tapped and entered. The desk in front of him was the usual jumble of departmental documents, newspapers and discarded Manila envelopes, and Aiken looked almost comically livid – Joe briefly imagined fumes rising from his bald pate. Barely lifting his eyes from the copy of the Irish Times he was scanning, the minister held out the official telegram.
‘What’s this supposed to mean, Coram? Where have they got all this from? What are we going to do about it, man?’
Joe read it. It was the overnight bulletin from the boys in the Bonn embassy and its first agenda point was a translation of an article in a West German newspaper, a downmarket scandal sheet called Acht Uhr Blatt. There was little doubt why the embassy had decided Frank Aiken needed to see it: the headline was 1,000 CHILDREN DISAPPEAR FROM IRELAND .
The paper had unearthed the full story of the Jane Russell affair. It described how the childless Hollywood actress had flown to Ireland to try to adopt a young Irish boy; it gave all the details of her agreement with Michael and Florrie Kavanagh from Galway to take baby Tommy off their hands; suggested that large amounts of money were involved in the deal; and – worst of all – included a frighteningly accurate description of how the Irish legation in London had issued the child a passport to fly to New York with no questions asked. This, said the article, was proof of the Irish government’s policy of condoning the export and sale of Irish children: ‘Ireland has today become a sort of hunting ground for foreign millionaires who believe they can acquire children to suit their whims in just the same way as they would get valuable pedigree animals. In the last few months hundreds of children have left Ireland, without any official organization being in a position to make any enquiries as to their future habitat.’
Aiken wiped his brow.
‘Right’, he said. ‘What I need from you, Coram, is a thorough brief – no details withheld, however embarrassing. I want every bit of information, every bit of bad practice and every bit of evidence about the archbishop and the Church’s malarkey. Is that clear? And I want it by Friday. Off you go!’
The evening’s meeting on Church–state relations was fraught. Joe was stuck taking minutes until well after eight o’clock. Most of the cabinet members were there – even Eamon de Valera, the Taoiseach, turned up for a good part of it – and the discussion had become increasingly heated. By the time Joe got back to Glasnevin Maire had made the dinner, seen it go cold and scraped the congealed mess into the bin.
‘There’s your dinner, Joe Coram.’ She laughed. ‘Blame it on de Valera or whoever you want to, but there’s no remedy for it – you’ll have to be happy with the old bread and dripping tonight!’
Joe laughed too and put his arm round Maire’s waist. ‘I’d live on bread alone and think I was a king so long as I had you, dear,’ he said. ‘And I’m sorry for your trouble with dinner. Once Frank and Dev got going about the Church and the nuns and the passports, there was no stopping them. I’ve twenty-five pages of notes that I’ve to decipher for Wednesday, and then Frank wants a briefing paper on the whole shenanigan, going right back to the Mother and Child fiasco, by the end of the week. I tell you, there’ll be a few more late nights before the month is out, Maire dear, and a few more dinners in the bin, no doubt.’
Maire made as if to clout him round the back of the head, but paused mid-swipe and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
‘Did you see the Evening Mail tonight?’ she asked, remembering the mental note she’d made to show him the article about Jane Russell and the allegations from the German press. ‘You see people like her in the cinema and you think they must have life easy, don’t you? Then you find out she’s got her own sorrows just like the rest of us.’ Joe picked up the paper lying on the kitchen table.
‘I saw it right enough. Frank made us send out for a copy from the stall in Merrion Street. And Jane Russell’s not the only one: we’ve been handing out passports for these babies like there’s no tomorrow. Off to America they go and no one knows what becomes of them.’ Maire looked at her husband and saw he was thinking the same thing she was: they’d been married for three years now and the family were starting to ask questions.
‘Never mind Jane Russell,’ she said, kissing the back of his neck. ‘It’s us who need a baby, Joe Coram. So finish that feast you’re eating and come and give me a hand to do something about it!’
11 July 1952
Affairs of state did not trouble the inhabitants of the convent of Sean Ross Abbey a mile outside the Tipperary town of Roscrea. And neither nuns nor sinners got to see the posters for His Kind of Girl starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum on the walls of the Roscrea cinema. Neither nuns nor sinners read the newspapers, and Mother Barbara kept the solitary wireless set safely under lock and key. The long days in the laundries, the long nights in the dormitory were filled with thoughts of God, or thoughts of the life that had gone before.
The mother superior was not a woman to be kept waiting. It was 9 a.m. and she had already been to Mass, eaten her frugal breakfast and spent a trying half-hour untangling some unnecessary and potentially embarrassing entries in the abbey’s double-entry accounts book. She was looking at the wall clock of her office and tutting when the door knocked and Sister Annunciata rushed in, out of breath and apologizing for turning up late – she so dreaded these weekly meetings that she seemed always to be late for them.
‘I’m so sorry, Reverend Mother; it’s been a terrible tizzy this morning. We’ve had three girls in labour overnight – one of them took over seven hours – and there’ve been five new admissions and—’
Mother Barbara motioned her to be quiet.
‘Come in and sit down, Sister. Then you can tell me about it in good time and good order. Do the births first. What is the total for the week?’
‘Well, including the three from last night,’ Annunciata said, ‘I make it seven in total. That’s including a breech birth I did last Saturday and—’
‘Thank you, Sister. I don’t need the details. Any stillbirths to report?’
Mother Barbara was making notes as she spoke, and she looked up to check Annunciata was following her questions properly.
‘No, Reverend Mother, thanks be to God. But that breech birth, the girl’s in a lot of pain, what with all the tearing, and I’m wondering if I could have the key to the cabinet and give her some painkillers, or get the doctor to stitch her up . . .’ She trailed off uncertainly.
Mother Barbara looked at her and smiled.
‘Annunciata, I’m sure you’re not listening to me, are you? How many times have I told you that pain is the punishment for sin? These girls are sinners: they must pay for what they’ve done. Now, I don’t have all morning. How many admissions in total, and how many departures?’
Annunciata gave her the figures and Mother Barbara entered them in the ledger. After a moment’s calculation she raised her head and said, ‘One hundred and fifty-two, unless I’m very much mistaken. We have 152 souls lost to God. And very lucky they are to have us to care for them, I would say.’
Annunciata made as if to reply, but Mother Barbara was no longer listening.
‘Very well, child. Send me the new arrivals this morning. And I’ll see the new mothers this afternoon. Can any of them pay, would you say?’
Sister Annunciata looked doubtful. A hundred pounds was a fierce amount of money.
Mother Barbara saw twelve girls that day. As each girl told her story, she sat patiently with hands clasped before her. She did not think of herself as a cruel woman – the Church enjoined her to charity and the work she did fulfilled that obligation – but she was immensely sure of the boundaries between good and evil, and to her mind the greatest evil without doubt was love of the flesh.
The girls who came to see her stuttered and blushed with the shame of their sins – and Mother Barbara encouraged them to recount those sins in as much detail as they could remember. One after another she heard their stories – the thirty-year-old Dublin shop assistant who fell for the charms of the Englishman who had promised her wealth and marriage but gone back to his wife in Liverpool; the red-headed Cork girl engaged to a car mechanic who disowned her when she fell pregnant; and the mentally retarded teenager from Kerry who cried the whole time and had no idea what had happened to her or why she was here. She listened to the farmer’s daughter whose father had always slept in the same bed with her, and to the schoolgirl who had been raped by three cousins at a wedding. And she asked the same, mechanical question she had posed to generations of young women who came to her for help: ‘Tell me, girl, was the five minutes of pleasure worth all this?’
Philomena – Marcella, as she was now – was called to Mother Barbara late in the afternoon. It was six days since she had given birth and the breech delivery had left her torn and sore, but her lying-in was over and the rules said she should be back on her feet. She was made to wait in the corridor outside the superioress’s office with the other new mothers. The convent banned the girls from talking, but they chivvied each other along with little smiles and grimaces of understanding.
Philomena answered the mother superior’s questions in a voice strangled by fear. Asked for her name, she replied, ‘Marcella,’ but Mother Barbara looked at her with an expression of derision.
‘Not your house name, girl; your real name!’ ‘Philomena, Reverend Mother. Philomena Lee.’ ‘Place and date of birth?’
‘Newcastle West, Reverend Mother, County Limerick. On the twenty-fourth of March 1933.’
‘So you were eighteen when you sinned. You were old enough to know better.’
Philomena hardly knew she had sinned at all, but she nodded her head.
‘My mammy’s dead, Reverend Mother. From the TB. When I was six. And Daddy’s a butcher.’
‘So what happened to you children? Did your father keep you?
‘No, Reverend Mother. Mammy left six of us and he couldn’t keep us all. So he put me and Kaye and Mary into the convent school, and he kept Ralph and Jack and little Pat at home with him.’
‘And what school did you go to, girl?’
‘The Sisters of Mercy, Reverend Mother. Mount St Vincent in Limerick City. We were boarders and we only ever got home for two weeks in the summer. We were there twelve years and we never went home for Christmas or Easter, and Daddy and Jack only came a couple of times. It was lonely, Reverend Mother—’
Mother Barbara waved irritably at the black-haired girl in front of her.
‘That’s enough of that. What happened after you left the sisters?’
‘Sure I went to live with my auntie.’
Philomena’s voice was barely audible, her sad eyes lowered to the floor.
‘And what is her name?’
‘Kitty Madden, Reverend Mother, Mammy’s sister in Limerick City.’
‘How long were you living with your Aunt Madden?’
Philomena frowned and looked up at the ceiling as she tried to muster the facts of her short life.
‘Well, I was living with her for about – I left the school in May last year . . . And my auntie’s children were all gone away and she wanted me there to help her. And I met him – John – at the carnival in October, so . . .’
But Mother Barbara wasn’t interested in this yet. ‘Your aunt, girl. What work does she do? Is she rich?’
‘Well, I think she is not, Reverend Mother. She works for the nuns at St Mary’s. She got me a job there – dusting around, cleaning, that kind of thing . . .’
Mother Barbara, having decided there was little use pursuing financial enquiries, returned to her favourite subject.
‘And yet, with all her connections to the Church, your aunt failed to prevent you falling into sin. How can that be? Are you such a wilful sinner that you set out to deceive those who care for your spiritual welfare?’
Philomena blanched and swallowed.
‘Oh no, Reverend Mother! I never did set out to sin—’
‘So why did you deceive your aunt, then?’
‘I did not, indeed. My auntie saw me going off to the carnival – she was with a friend of hers, and she said, “Off you go” – and off I went and . . . and then . . . the thing happened.’
Mother Barbara snorted.
‘What do you mean, “the thing”, girl? You had no shame when you sinned, so you must have no shame in telling me of it now!’
Philomena thought back to the night at the fair and tried to find a way to make Mother Barbara understand, but her voice caught in her throat.
‘He . . . he was handsome, Reverend Mother, and he was nice to me . . .’
‘You mean you led him into sin. And did you let him put his hands on you?’
Philomena hesitated again and replied quietly, ‘Yes, Reverend Mother, I did.’
Mother Barbara’s face darkened, her voice softened. ‘And did you enjoy that? Did you enjoy your sin?’
Philomena’s eyes were brimming with tears and her words sounded to her as if they came from a great, lonely distance.
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’
‘And did you take your knickers off, girl? Tell me that.’ Philomena began to weep.
‘Oh, Reverend Mother. Nobody told me about all this. Nobody ever told us about babies. The sisters never told us anything . . .’
Mother Barbara was in a sudden fury.
‘Don’t dare to blame the sisters!’ she shouted. ‘You are the cause of this shame. Your own indecency and your own carnal incontinence!’
Philomena let out a sob. ‘But it’s not fair!’ she wailed. ‘Why is my mammy dead and gone? Why does no one care for us? No one puts an arm round us. No one gives us a hug . . .’
Mother Barbara glared at her in disgust.
‘Silence, girl! What happened when you returned from the carnival?’
Philomena drew the back of her hand across her eyes and sniffed sharply. She could remember that night easily enough . . .
She had come home well after midnight but found her aunt awake and waiting for her, full of suspicion and reproach. At first she’d laughed and told her aunt not to fuss. Told her nothing had happened: she’d just had a night out with the other girls. But her aunt smelt the beer on her breath and saw the flush in her cheeks. Her questions were insistent, stiffened by retribution if she didn’t tell the truth.
In the end, she told.
Yes, she’d met a boy – he was lovely, tall, handsome – but her aunt didn’t want to hear. ‘And what did you do together? What did you get up to?’
‘Nothing, Auntie. He held my hand. He’s the finest man in all the world. He’ll be waiting for me on Friday on the corner of—’
Her aunt gave her a slap.
‘He can wait all he likes, but you’re not going out to meet some boy, not while you’re living under my roof!’
The girl had felt the pain on her cheek and the tears in her eyes. ‘What do you mean, Auntie? I’ve promised him I’ll be there. I love him . . .’
But Auntie was through with love. It had been many years since love had lighted her life and if she had anything to do with it, it was not going to light her niece’s.
Philomena was sent to her room and told to stay there until her stupid thoughts had left her, until the stupid boy from the post office had come and waited . . . waited and left.
It was anguish to be locked in her room when she knew the boy was waiting for her.
After ten days, she gave in.
She told her aunt she would never stay out late again; never talk to people outside the girls from her school; above all, never seek to find the boy.
For the next few weeks she had brooded over plots for running away and finding him, but her aunt was watchful. She knew the passions that stirred in a young girl’s breast and she made sure her niece stayed at home.
Then the baby had started to show, and Philomena’s surprise and remorse had done nothing to appease her aunt’s fury. The Church had told her kissing a man was sinful, but no one told her that was the way babies were made.
‘And what did your aunt do?’ Mother Barbara broke in.
Philomena shook herself from the memories of those terrible weeks.
‘Well, Reverend Mother, she rang my brother Jack and my dad. And I think she wanted to marry my dad too, because he was on his own and she was on her own. But Da wasn’t having any of it. Then she got me up to the doctor’s in Limerick and he said I had to go to Roscrea. So I came here two months ago. I left school last year, so I was only a year out of freedom.’
Mother Barbara waved her hand.
‘What did your father say? I see he hasn’t come to visit you here.’ The question was deliberately hurtful; Philomena bit her lip. ‘My da was sad for me, Reverend Mother, I’m sure he was. But he couldn’t tell anyone about me, not even the family. Kaye and Mary think I’ve gone away to England. And now I miss my mammy and I miss being at home . . .’
The utter loneliness of all the hundreds of girls in that place, and others like it across Ireland, was etched on Philomena’s face. Sent away for a sin they barely knew they had committed, they were in many cases mere children subjected to cruel, adult punishment.
Mother Barbara noted the girl’s story in her ledger and brought the interview to a close.
‘Now, Marcella, you must go back to the dormitory. This is not a holiday home and we expect you to work hard. You must stay here and pay for your sins. The only way out is the hundred pounds. Do you think your family will pay the hundred pounds?’
Philomena looked blankly at the mother superior.
‘I do not know, Reverend Mother. But if my da has not paid any money, then I think it means he does not have it.’
In the weeks that followed Anthony’s birth, Philomena began to see the true face of life in Sean Ross Abbey and it was not a happy one.
Like the majority of Ireland’s homes for unmarried mothers, it was attached to a much older convent. When it was taken over by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1931, Sean Ross occupied an imposing Georgian mansion with extensive lawns and a walled garden. The remains of a medieval monastery still stood in the grounds and a small, neat graveyard contained the last resting place of a handful of nuns; the mothers and babies who died here were buried in unmarked graves in an adjacent field tended by no one.
Next to the convent – but to all intents a separate universe – was another, darker building, all harsh lines and plain grey concrete. The Church’s vision of where sinful women should dwell did not extend to considerations of comfort or beauty. At its heart were the dormitories, one for expectant mothers, one for the newly delivered, and further rooms for those whose children were being raised in the adjoining nurseries.
Like her fellows, Philomena was destined to progress through these dormitories, one among scores of girls billeted for three years on ironframed single beds ranged under long cream-painted walls, starched white spreads on their mattresses and statues of Our Lady above their heads. A square window at each end of the room was placed high in the wall; even when the sun shone bright, the place remained in shadow.
The girls gave up their own clothes on the day they arrived at Sean Ross Abbey. For the rest of their time there they wore coarse denim uniforms, loose and smock-like to disguise the swollen stomachs that were the shameful manifestation of their sin. They were given heavy wooden clogs that cut their feet. Their hair was cropped to avoid nits and their heads covered with crocheted skullcaps. Philomena had worn her black hair in a dramatic side parting with the ends curled under her delicate shapely chin, but now it was cut short and spiky like everyone else’s.
The girls were forbidden to talk among themselves and told not to reveal their real identities or even where they came from. Their lives here were cloaked in secrecy, loneliness and shame. They had, as everyone said, been ‘put away’ to spare their families and society. Few if any received visits from relatives; the fathers of their babies never came.
The dormitories sprang into life each morning at six when lay staff flicked on the lights and shouted the girls out of bed. Those who did not respond found the blankets ripped off them and strong hands shaking their shoulders. They were taken to the nursery to tend their babies and then to eight o’clock Mass, a hundred silent waifs, pregnant or newly delivered, shuffling down darkened corridors to the convent chapel. Each morning one or more would faint during Communion, something regarded as deliberate insubordination deserving punishment.
After Mass the girls were set to work. They were assigned to one of three jobs: preparing meals in the convent kitchen, looking after the babies and young children in the nurseries or working in the abbey’s laundries. The kitchens were the most sought after – the work was hard and the hours long, but the girls could supplement their meagre rations by filching scraps. The girls who worked in the nurseries were supervised by nursing sisters in their long white robes and by lay staff the sisters employed. They worked day and night, washing and changing the babies and making sure they were fed by their mothers. To save on baby food the nuns insisted mothers should breastfeed for at least a year, and usually longer.
The laundries were the least popular assignment – and the one Philomena was chosen for. Every day after Mass she would walk with the other laundry girls to the hot, dark rooms where vats of water boiled on coke fires and weary, sweating women brought piles of sheets, nuns’ habits and inmates’ uniforms to be thrown into the bubbling water. For hours at a time they stirred the steaming vats with wooden poles and worked the wet linen with hands that became raw and covered in sores.
The sisters took in laundry from the town of Roscrea and surrounding villages, hospitals and state boarding schools. Few of those who sent their washing to Sean Ross could have imagined the hellish conditions in which it was done. The nuns told the girls their scrubbing, wringing and ironing symbolized the cleansing of the moral stain on their souls, but they were also profitable for the convent: the Church may have been saving souls, but it was not averse to making money.
The morning shift in the laundry lasted until a short lunch break, when the mothers were allowed to see their children. Another shift followed and evenings were spent in cleaning and chores around the building. The hour after dinner was set aside for knitting and sewing. The girls had to make the clothes their children wore, and many became accomplished seamstresses. There were no radios or books, but the girls were allowed to sit in the nursery with their babies or in the day room with those who were already toddlers. It was this hour – the time they looked forward to most – which brought the girls close to their children and established the bond that would haunt mother and child for the rest of their lives. To allow such love to blossom seemed crueller even than taking the babies away at birth.
While Philomena Lee was toiling in the laundries of Sean Ross Abbey, the Irish government was waking up to a problem it had long tried to ignore.
In that interminably hot summer of 1952, Anthony Lee was just one baby among hosts of others in the Republic’s mother-and-baby homes, which for the most part were bursting at the seams. When Joe Coram researched the figures to give to his minister, he calculated that more than 4,000 illegitimate children from all corners of the country were in the care of the Church and there was little prospect of the number going down.
Frank Aiken was not relishing the battle that lay ahead. The morning after the Jane Russell story, he had acted – belatedly – to protect his department’s interests. He told the Dáil that newspaper reports ‘were not correct in stating that the passport was granted to enable the child to be adopted in the United States’ – he knew this to be misleading, but there was nothing else for it. Miss Russell, he said, had told the consulate she was merely taking little Tommy with her for a three-month holiday. But at the same time he dictated an urgent telegram to all Irish legations and embassies, instructing them to refer to the department all future passport applications for children under the age of eighteen. ‘The whole business regarding the recent granting of a passport to an infant brought to the United States by an American film actress,’ the telegram concluded, ‘received a great amount of undesirable publicity. The reason for this instruction is that we wish to ensure an Irish passport will not again be issued in such circumstances.’
The following morning Joe Coram settled down to write the policy briefing Aiken had demanded from him. He was conscious of the issues at stake and the sensitivities of those involved: the government had allowed the Catholic Church free rein in handling the nation’s illegitimate children, partly because it was ill equipped to deal with the problem itself and partly because Eamon de Valera depended heavily on the support of the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. But Joe still had some of his youthful idealism and his briefing was a chance to get the minister to do something about a national scandal.
‘There is a market for children in the USA,’ Joe wrote:
And among certain Americans Ireland enjoys quite a reputation as a place where one can get children for adoption without much difficulty.
We have seen over the past few years the emergence of a veritable trade in babies heading west over the Atlantic. There is nothing to stop anyone coming into this country and taking away children for adoption.
The situation in large part stems from the stance of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy. As you know, the Government has been trying to enact an Adoption Bill to introduce state control over adoption policy. But its efforts have foundered on the opposition of the Hierarchy, who regard the Church’s mother-and-baby homes as a convenient way to make the problem – and the woman – disappear.
The Church’s financial stake is substantial. The nuns receive payment from the adopting parents, particularly those from the USA, and few checks are made on the suitability of the homes they are sent to. The Jane Russell case is the tip of a rather large iceberg.
One check that is always made by the Church authorities is on the religious standing of the adopting family. These are the relevant passages from Archbishop McQuaid’s directive:
‘The following are the conditions required by His Grace the Archbishop before he allows the adoption of a Catholic child by an American or other foreign family:
- The prospective adopting parents must have a written recommendation from the Director of Catholic Charities in the diocese in which they live . . . and from the Priest of their parish.
- The prospective adopting parents must submit medical certificates stating . . . that they are not deliberately shirking natural parenthood.
- The prospective adopting parents must swear an affidavit to rear the adopted child as a Catholic, and to educate the adopted child during the whole of its schooling in Catholic schools.’
You will note there is no check on the adopters’ suitability to have the child; the only criterion is religious fidelity. And yet the DoEA has accepted the McQuaid rules as ‘very satisfactory’ and we issue passports to each and every child the Archbishop tells us to. The DoEA has no control; we lack the most basic information, and the Government has been unwilling to confront the Hierarchy on the matter.
We are now seeing a rampant trade in the buying and selling of Irish babies and although we have kept it relatively secret so far, it would be hard to defend were the full extent of it to be made public.
Young Anthony Lee suffered no lasting damage from the mauling he had taken at the hands of Sister Annunciata. The swollen purple bruises on his head were the only souvenirs of his savage birth. The doctor who called three days later laughed and called him ‘a sugarbun loaf baby’. Anthony was left with a strikingly high forehead – a legacy of the forceps, but a portent too of the ferocious intelligence that would mark him out in life and ultimately help decide his destiny.
His first acquaintance with life was not unhappy. As his mother sweated under the burdens of guilt and steaming laundry, Anthony was surrounded by a universe unexpectedly tender in its treatment of him.
Even in the convent of Sean Ross Abbey, where the sisters communed with a demanding deity and fallen women laboured to expiate their sins, where frustration, regret and cruelty abounded in equal measures, Anthony luxuriated in tenderness and feminine affection. The sunshine of the nursery and the convent garden lit his world; the long high ceilings of the children’s dormitory provided its reassuring boundaries. Two rows of cribs – tall and narrow for the newborns, wider and sturdier for the older ones – ran the length of his universe. Nuns in white habits walked among them, brushing the side of his cot with the soft rustle of cloth impregnated with incense.
One wall of the children’s nursery was floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the convent grounds, so light poured in from early morning. In the exceptionally bright days of July and August 1952 the French windows were opened and the baby cribs wheeled onto the concrete flags of the terrace, sunlight and fresh air the best protection against TB and rickets. Later, when winter came, the windows would be sealed with adhesive tape and the odour of mild disinfectant would permeate the room. The smells of long-boiled vegetables drifted in from the communal cookhouse that prepared food for nuns and sinners alike.
The girls were never permitted to leave the abbey and were allowed into the convent grounds only when pressed into gardening duties. Pregnant or otherwise, they scrubbed the floors of the abbey, washed windows and dusted and polished daily. Those who worked on stringing rosaries were given a minimum of sixty decades to complete every day. The taut wire of the beads wore a groove in their fingers that would stay with them for life.
After the initial lying-in period, babies were taken away to the children’s nursery. But from shared flesh and nine months’ intimacy there stems a mother–child intuition, and whenever Anthony cried in the night nursery, Philomena, on the other side of the convent, woke.
Sister Annunciata was Philomena’s comfort. They sang together in the choir. They poured the emotions they were forbidden to express into the sacred music. The joy of singing brought the two women close. In snatched quiet moments together, Philomena whispered her hopes for a future with John McInerney, the man she yearned to tell about the wonder of their child. She told Sister Annunciata how much she loved her son and Annunciata hugged her like a sister. In the evening, when the girls were allowed to be with their babies, Annunciata sat with her and played with Anthony. She loved the way she could make him laugh – a gurgling chortle that seemed out of all proportion to his tiny frame – by nuzzling her nose into the pink softness of his tummy. Philomena would lift him up in the air and kiss him on the cheek until he squealed with delight. When he fell asleep, they would take turns putting him into the cot and tucking the blanket round his shoulders. Then they sat and whispered about the day’s events and the other girls in the convent. One evening Philomena told Annunciata she had something to ask her, something that had been worrying her for a while.
‘You know, Sister, the girl from Sligo – the fat one with the red hair – do you know what she told me? Well, she said we all must stay here in the abbey and none of us ever gets to keep our babies. Now that’s nonsense isn’t it, Sister? How can anyone ever take a baby from its mammy? And Anthony so beautiful and all, isn’t he?’
Annunciata looked down and was silent: she had no idea how Philomena could be so naive.
Philomena tried to lighten the moment. ‘He is beautiful, isn’t he, Sister? And you love him too, sure you do.’
But Annunciata was not responding and Philomena felt a panic in the pit of her stomach.
‘Sister, please tell me it’s not true . . .’
Excerpted from Philomena by Martin Sixsmith. Foreword copyright © 2013 by Dame Judi Dench. Copyright © 2009 by Martin Sixsmith.
First published 2009 as The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Macmillan. First published in paperback 2010 by Pan Books. This edition first published in paperback 2013 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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