Philomena

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In the opening scene of the movie ‘Philomena’, a doctor prescribes running as the antidote to the main character, Martin’s, depression. It’s not of course a movie about running and a few years ago I probably wouldn’t have noticed Martin’s poor, lumbering gate in the first running snippet, nor his improved running technique as the movie progresses and Martin’s life takes on new meaning through his search for a woman’s long lost son. But as they say, you can take a runner to the cinema but they’re still a runner. OK, I just made that up.

51yGmIlcxJL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_Philomena is a human interest story which, according to cynical, depressed, novice runner, Martin (played fabulously by Steve Coogan), is “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, ignorant, weak-minded people.” Of course this is tosh, though there is certainly vulnerability aplenty in the story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) who was forced in the 1950s by “evil nuns” to surrender her son for adoption when he was three years old because she was unmarried and Irish. His name changed, her son was shipped off to a family in the US, and she was never to meet him again despite efforts made by both Philomena and her son, who became Micahel Hess, to find each other. Even as late as the 1990s the “evil nuns” thwarted attempts at a reunion.

The heartbreaking efforts Michael made to find his birth mother are glossed over in the movie to make the story more palatable, and to avoid public incidences of uncontrollable sobbing. In the movie, the banter between Martin and Philomena is often very funny so that there are laughs and tears in equal measure. It was a smart move on the producers part to go for this middle ground rather than hammering the audience over the head with the true facts behind the story, specifically the consequences his estrangement from his mother and Ireland ultimately had for Micahel Hess. This version of the story is available in Martin Sixsmith’s 2011 book ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ which has now been reissued as ‘Philomena’ to tie in with the movie.

The convent attached to what was once the Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home in Co. Tipperary, Ireland, where Philomena Lee lived with her son before he was adopted.
The convent attached to what was once the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Co. Tipperary, Ireland, where Philomena Lee lived with her son before he was adopted.

I read the book a couple of years ago as research for my novel (working title, Born Irish) which has at its core a story similar to Philomena’s – a single mother forced to give her child up for adoption in 1960s Ireland and the repercussions that event has on the rest of her life. In 2012, I visited the site of the mother and baby home at Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea and felt very maudlin at the thought of all the poor girls – and most of them were mere girls – incarcerated in the place because of Catholic society’s tough stance on pregnancy out of wedlock. It’s estimated that over 2000 babies were exported from Ireland to the US between 1949 and 1973* with many others being sent to 16 other countries. There were of course also domestic adoptions. It was hard not to think that if I’d been born a few decades earlier, I might have passed through its doors. Sex education was non-existent at the time so many girls got pregnant as a result of ignorance combined with a few lustful moments, or worse, rape. Treated as sinners, unworthy of motherhood, the majority were left with no choice but to surrender their children, with many looking after their babies until toddlerhood before being coerced into signing them away, promising never to seek contact with them again.

Statue at Sean Ross Abbey.
Statue at Sean Ross Abbey.

As an Irish woman and a mother, I am happy that the movie ‘Philomena’ is reaching an international audience, and helping to highlight the recent past that must not be forgotten. As a runner, I’m happy to have a movie advertise the psychological benefits of taking up running though of course there is no guarantee that doing so will, as happened to the Martin character in the movie, enable one to write a best-selling book that will one day be turned into a Hollywood movie. But hey, one can dream 🙂

* Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business by Mike Milotte.

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