Refused your birth
certificate by the Adoption Authority? Click
here to learn how to locate it for yourself.
Film tells true story of a forced adoption
By Conall Ó Fátharta, Irish Examiner, October 19, 2013
There are lots of Philomena Lees in Ireland, writes Conall Ó Fátharta
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
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
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,”
After contracting HIV, Michael returned one last time to Seán Ross
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.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
|“In all of us there
is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are
and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there
is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting
Alex Haley, Author of Roots