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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


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


LakeDistrictBabe Fri 08-Nov-13 13:20:14

This seems a book and a good movie, although given the subject I guess there will a few issues concerning the church (in USA it got a R rating, probably due to that....).

What I don't get is why the journalist put his twitter account at the end of it and you can't follow him because his tweets are protected... :/

MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Fri 08-Nov-13 13:33:35

Ah, that's our mistake LakeDistrictBabe: we're the ones who add the Twitter details. Apols - we've removed it now.

Jakebullet Fri 08-Nov-13 15:59:46

How sad, I am Catholic but these Nuns acted in a way which is wholly alien to what I think is "right". Horrific and unjust, haven't seen the film yet or read the book. Suspect I will read the book rather than see the rile (never get time for cinema).
Poor Philomena....such a terrible time in history and so shameful that a mother should be parted from her child in this way.

Lurleene Fri 08-Nov-13 16:15:38

I saw a preview of this film a few weeks ago and it was so moving, such a sad story but told so beautifully. All the more heartbreaking because it is true.

morethanpotatoprints Fri 08-Nov-13 16:22:19

A real emotive subject and unfortunately one that haunts many women today. I know this story particularly concerns the church but during these times, society has a lot of blame to take too.
Having seen documentaries on the Magdalene Laundries it is hard to understand how people so God fearing could treat other humans so badly.
The Priests were known to rape the mothers and the nuns wouldn't allow any pain relief and they'd say awful things to them during labour.
It saddens me that the individuals won't be held to account for this, truly barbaric.
I will read the book but too close for comfort for me, so won't go to the cinema.

YDdraigGoch Fri 08-Nov-13 16:25:21

Excellent film - very moving. I will never understand the ways of the Catholic Church. I'd like to read the book next.

JazzAnnNonMouse Fri 08-Nov-13 16:28:51

Looks like a really good film and interesting book.
Such an awful thing to happen, makes me so sad.

tiktok Fri 08-Nov-13 16:40:39

I saw the film yesterday and I will read the book.

It is a very engaging and human story - superbly directed and acted.

I still don't understand how the Church can justify the behaviour of the nuns - ashamed of their past or not, they behaved wickedly, really wickedly. I liked a line in the film: Martin says to Philomena "you want to go to confession????? It's the Catholic church who should be confessing to you!"

VoiceofRaisin Fri 08-Nov-13 17:43:09

I saw the film a few days ago.

I agree that the nuns behaved appallingly eg seeing the pain of labour as "atonement" and therefore not to be relieved, and, of course, not helping put Philomena and her son back together BUT, and this is a big but, they were offering the girls who went there a better option than they could get anywhere else - food, shelter, a chance to bf their babies, and spend a few years with them and child care whilst they worked. Also, awful as it was for the young mums, the children probably had better lives than those young mothers (given the prevailing welfare and social conditions) could have provided for them. I am NOT defending the Church as they could have done it so much more kindly and it was largely their judgment on the immorality of sex that produced the prevailing social climate, but perhaps they were actually helping. Yes, I am prepared to be flamed as I know this is a controversial viewpoint - like I am against very low wages in sweatshops in principle but can't help thinking that it's better than the alternative (a job paying less or starving on the streets...people only take the job if it's their best option in the circumstances). Philomena signed the adoption papers because she knew that SOCIETY (not the nuns in particular) gave her no other viable option. She said as much in an interview I heard. Without the nuns she would not have even had her 3 years with her baby. I think that is why she was less outraged than Sixsmith.

SirChenjin Fri 08-Nov-13 17:47:21

Oh my lord VoiceofRaisin - really?? You really, truly believe that?? You think that Jesus Christ would have approved of their behaviour? What you've just written is so appalling I don't know where to start. Hopefully someone who is less upset by your words will be along in a minute to explain why you've got it very, very wrong. sad

VoiceofRaisin Fri 08-Nov-13 18:01:34

No, with a modern mindset NOBODY could approve of what the nuns did but, at the time, it was less bad that what anybody else offered those poor girls - their own parents disowned them, there was no welfare state, nobody would even give a "fallen" woman a place to stay. Like I said, the nuns offered the least bad option (otherwise the girls would not have taken it). I am in no way defending them but it's easy to judge the past through modern eyes.

morethanpotatoprints Fri 08-Nov-13 18:06:14


Can you imagine what it must be like to bond with your child and have them taken away from you, just like that, no option.
To be treated so appallingly by those who say they are going to help you, and that's just the start.
This is real, you know. She wasn't the only one there are thousands.
I really don't know what else to say to you apart from please gain some perspective sad angry

morethanpotatoprints Fri 08-Nov-13 18:09:12


The saddest thing is that there was a welfare state, well, the poor law anyway. Not all the mothers families disowned them until the church stepped in to make society believe them with the rubbish they spouted.
No, there was no excuse and yes there were alternatives, sadly these poor mothers were never told of them.

BrianBScott Fri 08-Nov-13 18:25:41

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

SirChenjin Fri 08-Nov-13 18:33:46

No Voice - that's just not true.

morethanpotatoprints Fri 08-Nov-13 18:45:23


Magdalene laundries? have you posted on wrong thread or is there a connection?

AmberLeaf Fri 08-Nov-13 19:05:22

No, with a modern mindset NOBODY could approve of what the nuns did but, at the time, it was less bad that what anybody else offered those poor girls - their own parents disowned them, there was no welfare state, nobody would even give a "fallen" woman a place to stay

Not true.

I have/had older family members who like Philomena had babies out of wedlock, they weren't disowned and didn't have to give up their babies.

There were alternatives.

My family were not catholic though which I expect had a huge bearing on their outcomes.

I'm familiar with stories like Philomenas and hope to see the film if I get the opportunity.

TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Fri 08-Nov-13 20:00:33

"Philomena twisted the truth" according to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary


TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Fri 08-Nov-13 20:03:30

I don't know what Brian said but various reviews of the film have referenced the Magdalene laundries & said Philomena worked in one

SirChenjin Fri 08-Nov-13 20:04:44

Brian was promoting his website which would allow you to work from home and earn $7K a month grin

Allice Fri 08-Nov-13 20:16:12

I saw the film last week and pretty much sobbed the whole way through, such a tragic story. My heart really goes out to Philomena and her lovely son.

TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Fri 08-Nov-13 20:16:28

oh really?

would that have been washing his socks? grin

Housesellerihope Fri 08-Nov-13 21:41:16

A really heart-rending film and what those nuns did with the backing of the Catholic Church was truly evil. They took advantage of these poor young women's plight, forcing them to work as slave labour and selling their babies. Not sure at all how you can say they took them in, VoiceofRaisin, when the women would have had to pay £100 to be let out again or work 7 days a week for years.

The only thing I didn't like about the film was that, unless I missed it, there was never an explanation of what happens to Mary's mother and why Mary wasn't interested in knowing anything about her. I know it wasn't their story but it felt like a loose end to me. I'd like to know whether this information is given in the book?

SirChenjin Fri 08-Nov-13 21:44:05

I'm going to see the film tomorrow night but am quite worried - how upsetting is it? What the nuns did really, really horrifies me sad.

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