MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Fri 08-Nov-13 11:50:27

Philomena and Me: Martin Sixsmith, on a mother's search for the child she was forced to give up

Stephen Frears' 'Philomena', which stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is already being tipped for next year's Oscars. It's a dramatisation of a book by former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, and recounts the true story of his friendship with Philomena Lee, an Irish woman forced by the Church to give up her illegitimate child for adoption when he was three years old.

Years later, she and Martin set out to find her lost boy. In this guest blog, he explains how Philomena's plight - and her extraordinary resilience - drew him into her story.

Read the post, and do tell us what you think on the thread below.

Martin Sixsmith

Author, 'Philomena'

Posted on: Fri 08-Nov-13 11:50:27

(81 comments )

Lead photo

Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee, who was forced to give up her child for adoption

The story told by my book ‘Philomena’, and the immensely moving film that has been made of it, is one of mothers and children - of the intense maternal bond that develops between them in the first years of life. In that sense the story is a universal one. But the tragic event at the heart of ‘Philomena’ concerns the emotional turmoil that is unleashed when that sacred bond is broken by the callous actions of others.

Philomena Lee was just eighteen when she met a handsome young man at the county fair in Limerick, Ireland one evening in 1952. She had spent the whole of her young life in a Catholic boarding school and she had no idea about the facts of life. After an evening of romance Philomena had fallen pregnant, a shameful thing in 1950s Ireland. Philomena was sent to the nuns at a convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary to give birth as a ‘fallen woman’. She was forced to spend over three years there, slaving in the laundries while also caring for her son, Anthony.

But worse was to follow. When Anthony was three and a half Philomena was told he was being taken from her, given for adoption in America, in return for a hefty ‘donation’ to the church from his new parents. Philomena was devastated. Sent away to England, she trained as a nurse and raised a family. But she kept the ‘guilty secret’ of her illegitimate child for fifty years, not telling her other children or her friends because the church had told her she would be damned if she did so. Full of regret, Philomena spent five decades secretly searching for her lost son, while he – unbeknown to Philomena – was also searching for her.

It was at this stage that I entered the story. On the day of what she knew to be Anthony’s fiftieth birthday, Philomena had finally told her daughter Jane that she had a long lost half-brother. Jane knew I’d been a journalist and asked me for help in finding him.

Her son had gone back several times to the convent where he was born, and asked the nuns if they would put him in touch with her, so the nuns knew that both of them wanted to find each other. But - perhaps ashamed at the church's role in selling babies - they refused to help.


My own background was in foreign reporting and politics – I’d been the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow and Washington and had worked in Whitehall under Tony Blair – so at first I was dubious about taking on what journalists mockingly refer to as a ‘human interest story’.

It took just one meeting with Philomena to rid me of that cynical attitude. From the very first moment I was struck by the immense humanity of the woman. She was friendly, bright and hugely likeable – qualities that had been in short supply in Westminster and Whitehall. We hit it off straight away. And over the next four years as I worked with her to try to unravel what had become of her lost child I came to appreciate Philomena’s emotional wisdom, the way she took what the world had thrown at her and refused to let it make her bitter or ruin her life.

The detective story I embarked on took me to Ireland and to America. And what I discovered about the forces that had separated a mother from her child made me very angry. I managed to find out that Anthony had become a successful lawyer and had risen to the heights of the American political world. Renamed Michael Hess he had served as the White House’s Chief Legal Counsel under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, but he had never stopped thinking about and yearning for his mother.

Like her, he had gone back several times to the convent where he was born and asked the nuns if they would put him in touch with her. Some of his visits coincided almost exactly with Philomena’s own trips to the convent, so the nuns knew that both of them wanted to find each other. But, perhaps ashamed at the church’s role in selling babies, they refused to help.

If you read the book ‘Philomena’, you will discover the true story of the lost son who made a material success of his new life, but was haunted by his love for his absent mother and by painful regrets that blighted his existence.

If you watch the film of ‘Philomena’ you will see a faithful recreation of the bond that developed between her and me as we embarked on our shared detective odyssey. The film is a moving mix of laugh out loud humour and tender, poignant sadness. But it has a powerful emotional message. It reminds us that life can dish up some pretty bad things. None of us can choose what lands on our head; but we can choose how we react to life’s tragedies. And the relationship between Philomena and Martin depicted in the film is a pointed demonstration of two people reacting very differently.

Philomena is shown to be full of forgiveness and understanding. Her emotional wisdom, unshakeable faith and breadth of spirit restores your faith in humanity. She accepts life’s unfairnesses and gets on with the business of living. Martin on the other hand is angry about the injustices of the past and speaks out forcefully. He cannot share Philomena’s serenity and it leaves him restless. Philomena says, ‘It must be tiring being so angry all the time’.

There are of course differences between the Martin Sixsmith played onscreen by Steve Coogan and myself. I am not such an angry person, and I am an agnostic rather than a convinced atheist. But I share the film’s intolerance of injustice in all walks of life, and I share its admiration for a woman like Philomena who has the strength to rise above them.

The book ‘Philomena’, by Martin Sixsmith is published by Pan Macmillan at £7.99. ‘Philomena’ the film is in cinemas now.

By Martin Sixsmith

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RossMountney Fri 15-Nov-13 13:43:54

I think it was a totally fabulous film, so sensitive and a brilliant script beautifully performed.

Characterful Sat 16-Nov-13 11:40:54

The distortion of information once Anthony was grown seems unforgivable. Sadly, what the nuns did would have been what they had been led to believe was right. That is, it wouldn't have been an individual off-the-cuff decision, but accepted practice. They probably thought they were protecting an innocent young man from an 'evil' mother, her 'sins' never ever forgiven.

ProfPlumSpeaking Sun 17-Nov-13 09:07:37

edam I am sorry that your mother's mother did not have the chance to spend 3 years with her baby (your mother) after she was born. The chance to spend 3 years with your child is some kind of miracle compared with having a baby taken at birth, probably without even the opportunity for a cuddle or even sight of the babe. Your mother's mother was just as surely "forced" into "selling" her baby as the girls at the convent: they had to give away their babies for a better life, or any life - there was no viable alternative for those poor girls before the welfare state and more enlightened attitudes.

Of course the nuns could have done better but actually they did more than anyone else to help those girls, sadly imperfect as it was. Other people did NOTHING.

moldingsunbeams Fri 24-Jan-14 14:57:48

Just watched the film and searched for a thread so sorry for bumping an old thread.

I disagree it was a sanctuary of any kind or that most of the nuns were doing anything out of kindness and many were cruel, they were paid for each baby and mother, they also got funds from the free labour of the mothers for years and in the name of "fees to cover the mother and babies costs of care" when the baby was adopted sold.

I know someone with learning difficulties who got pregnant, the family did not abandon her until they were persuaded by the church that it was the right thing to do to send her to one of these homes. She had her child removed and was very cruelly treated, her son was put up for adoption and was in the process of adoption when he caught a serious illness which caused disability and the family refused to take him, both suffered awful lifes including violence from the Nuns.

There was such a place near me that took the children who had not been adopted, some of the nuns were very cruel and there are many a tale of children being beat, treated cruelly and of them punishing children who bed wet and encouraging other children to mock them, one adult I know said the only time they were treated nicely was when they went on the annual trip away as they could be "seen". Some sanctuary sad

The person I know with learning difficulties would have stayed with her family and her child been brought up by relatives if the church had not stepped in.

I also have personal stories from my grandparents of the local priest coming to their house at meal times knowing he would be offered dinner and knowing that food would come off the plate of the mother or the children in the house when they were starving and had nothing hardly to eat as it was (he was rather overweight) and of encouraging the men to buy him drinks when he knew that that money would come from the household money.

I must admit I was at Church with dd for a school event after watching the film and the priest was talking about accepting all, loving all, treating others as you want to be treated and I felt quite cross.

I do not blame all nuns or all of the church for this but to call it a sanctuary is an insult to the people I know.

moldingsunbeams Fri 24-Jan-14 15:17:27

I would also say that I could forgive them for making decisions such as above in a time which was very different but could not forgive any covering up or attempts to cover up or keep parties from being reunited in THIS era.

tn22 Mon 05-May-14 10:59:45

"an Irish woman forced by the Church to give up her illegitimate child for adoption" --- -whoa!!

She was forced by a couple of WOMEN, not the Church. The Church NEVER had that teaching.

"the church had told her she would be damned --". WHOA!!
She was told by a couple of WOMEN, the Church NEVER had that teaching.

Our family was taught by different orders of nuns and they were almost all wonderful, extraordinarily wonderful, people. This is a story because these few people were an anomaly - exception to the rule.

tn22 Mon 05-May-14 13:50:40

Amid all the talk about these abusive nuns, there isn't one mention --by Sixsmith or you all--of the absent FATHER of this child. It's a hit-and-run and the damage ---a child's life---is too great to take it lightly and not pull out all the stops to see the baby is well taken care of.

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