Monday, November 11, 2013
As I sat down with the extraordinary St Albans woman Judi Dench is currently imitating in cinemas the world over, I was bursting with thousands of questions.
I was aware of her story and had heard of her incredibly resilient spirit but in hindsight, I don’t think I realised just how remarkable this sprightly, well-dressed and funny 80-year-old Irish woman was.
I was lucky enough to be given an hour of Philomena Lee’s time, to hear a tale that has touched millions, a tale that mixes heartache and hope, and a tale that is currently beating off the competition at the box office.
Her story, she tells me, began when she left convent school in Limerick and went to live with her aunt who took her to a carnival shortly after she moved there: “It was absolutely wonderful and I met this young man. He came over and we started talking, and we did the deed.”
After discovering their tryst her aunt forbade her from seeing him, but several months down the line she became pregnant, “I didn’t know what pregnant was – this was back in the 50s - sex was never discussed, especially with nuns. You didn’t know what sex was!”
As a result she was sent to hide away in a convent in Roscrea, Tipperary, and it was there she stayed for three and half years, working and caring for her beautiful baby boy, whom she named Anthony.
It was there that the happiness of having a first child of her own was tinged with sadness as she was forced to sign away the little boy she so adored only a handful of years after having him.
And it was also there she had shame drilled into her for having a child out of wedlock: “You couldn’t believe the shame that was hammered into you. It was awful, every time you knelt down they said you’ve got to pray for your sins - I mean half of us didn’t even know it was a sin!”
Philomena was forced to put her son up for adoption to be sold to a “good Catholic family” in America and the memory of him leaving remains as painful as it did the very day he was parted from her embrace: “All I could see - I can still see it today - was his little face looking out the back of the window. I never had five minutes to give him a hug. It was so painful.
“I was very bitter for a long time, I lost my faith. I didn’t go to confession, I didn’t go to communion, but within here I kept praying that one day I’d be able to find him. Just one day I could find him.”
She moved to Liverpool to embark on what she calls the “beginning of her life” and studied nursing before taking up a post in psychiatry at the former Hill End Hospital in St Albans, where some records revealed people were subjected to the same thing as her and had to give up their children to be sold.
She said: “That’s what made me come out of myself, my bitterness, my upset. I could see people with so many worse cases than myself.”
Philomena met her husband, a male nurse, while working there and the couple married and had two children, Kevin and Jane.
She went on:“I couldn’t have been luckier in my whole life, I have two of the most wonderful children. There would never have been a book, there would never had been anything, without Jane.”
Philomena buried the secret for years and years until the time was right and she admitted to her daughter that she had another brother.
Cue a lucky encounter with a journalist, Martin Sixsmith, and the now-famous journey began to discover the child she was forced to give away which was turned into a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
They did eventually find Anthony, who had become Michael Hess, a senior Republican official in the White House, but he had died from HIV while desperately trying to find his mother at the same time as she was hunting for him. “This is what cuts me up when I think about it, and then to think that he went back looking for me, he was going back to the home looking for me, even when he was dying.”
Now a film, her story is spreading far and wide and has apparently helped thousands of people work up the courage to find their long lost relatives. More importantly, it has given the family a sense of peace. As Jane said to her mum: “Even though Anthony being dead was the worst possible outcome, I think it could have been worse.
“At least you know what happened to him and where he was and that tried to find you as well. And that he thought of you, that is very comforting as well.”
With a cherished book full of photographs of her son lying open in front of her, and his silver Celtic ring wrapped around her index finger, Philomena happily sighed in agreement: “He never forgot me.”