| | |

Mix of fact and fiction in ‘Philomena’ takes from its impact

Philomena is the movie to see – if you have the stomach for it. Though not everyone will want to submit themselves to such an emotional roller-coaster.
From the dark days of the Magdalene laundries, this is a story that encapsulates a thousand other stories of an oppressive age when pregnant, unmarried and unwanted young Irish women were ware-housed into institutions supervised by nuns, who lacked the resources, the training and, sometimes, the human touch to cope with the complex demands and dilemmas involved.
Finding a path through a maze of sub-cultures – religious intolerance, guilt, anger, judgement, adoption, control, regret – was beyond most of the participants in what was a common drama played out all over Ireland in the early and middle decades of the last century.
A teenager in 1952, Philomena Lee became pregnant, was disowned by her family and sent to a mother and baby home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, where she gave birth to her son, Anthony, whom she cared for while working at the laundry attached to the convent. When he was three, Philomena was forced to give Anthony up for adoption by an American couple. Fifty years later, and married with a family in England, she confided to her daughter that she had never forgotten her young son and thought of him constantly.
Martin Sixsmith, a journalist interested in writing up a novel human interest story, helped Philomena to search for Anthony. They drew a blank in the Roscrea convent but eventually discovered that Anthony, now re-named Michael Hess, had become a successful lawyer in America and had held the important position of chief counsel in both the Reagan and the Bush administrations. They also discovered that he was gay and had died of Aids nine years earlier.
It was a heart-wrenching moment, beautifully played by the accomplished actress, Judi Dench, and the nerve-chilling unfairness of it all was underpinned by the apparent refusal of the Roscrea nuns to pass on information about Philomena’s search for her son, Anthony, and his search for his birth-mother. Both, it seems, had continually kept in touch with Roscrea but the link (for whatever reason) was not made. If true, it was no tribute the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
I say, if true, because while no one could possibly condone the Magdalene lives of young women like Philomena, and the gut-wrenching experience of being forcibly separated from their children, it isn’t clear in this movie what’s fact and what’s fiction.
At the outset the film makes it clear that the account of Philomena’s experience is fictionalised. While the reality Philomena had to contend with can’t be denied or justified or contextually explained away, and while the central judgement the movie makes can’t be questioned, the movie takes some poetic licence in presenting Philomena’s story as dramatically as possible.
For example, the central character in the Magdalene home in Roscrea was Sr Hildegarde McNulty, who was the Big Baddie in the story, in that she is portrayed as vindictive and inhuman. Worse still, in a shocking scene at the end of the film, as an old nun she responds to an accusation by Sixsmith of thwarting attempts to reunite mother and child with these words: ‘Let me tell you something. I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh is what brings us closer to God. These girls have no one to blame except themselves.’
The problem is that this scene is fiction rather than fact because Sr Hildegarde had died several years before so there was no confrontation between her and Sixsmith and she had never spoken those words. The scene never took place and the words attributed to the Roscrea nun were written by the screenwriter but never spoken by the nun.
While movies are made to make money – and this one is, by all accounts, a box-office success ­– and story-tellers tend to dramatise their stories to telling effect, the coalescing of fact and fiction into a kind of ‘faction’ inevitably takes from the impact. Though in this case there is no refuting the injustice involved and the emotional toll on the main participants, not least on Philomena whose strong faith helped to carry her through incredible turmoil and who seemed in the end the most rounded personality of all, understanding as she did the proper interplay between justice and mercy.
It might be argued, in the great scheme of things, that rubbishing Sr Hildegarde’s reputation was justified in the dramatic build-up – and RTE’s Liveline elicited different assessments of her tenure in Roscrea – but, even in death, others including family members and religious colleagues can pay a high price for ‘dramatic’ presentations, even if the intention is good. The movie didn’t need the fiction to present the fact as unacceptable and inhumane.
The makers of the film, Pathe, agreed that Philomena ‘is not a documentary. The factual scenarios have been changed but we believe the substance of the story to be materially true’. It is a fair assessment as no one, after watching this movie, could possibly question the fact that the thousands of Philomenas represented by this movie were subjected to a level of distress and trauma that was unconscionable. It was one of the darkest and most shameful chapters in the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland. All of us, citizens of this state and members of the Catholic Church, owe them an apology.
Interestingly, the only one who spoke in the movie about the importance of forgiveness was Philomena but then those who suffer most are always closest to the truth.
The hope would be that, as a society and as a Church, in learning from Philomena’s story, we might be less inclined to sit in judgement on others and less inclined to believe that whatever formulas we use to sort out those who don’t measure up to our standards are the only solutions there are.
Every generation will place the judgements of the previous one under a microscope. It’s both inevitable and necessary.

Similar Posts


  1. I thought the film could have made more of the girl`s relationship with her father, who was the one who had her committed to the care of the nuns in the first place, who at least offered her and her child a shelter off the street. I think the intolerance at work there was not at all the fault of the church, but something many priests actually fought against, in compassion with young women who had been made pregnant and then abandoned. But it didn`t suit the film-maker`s purposes however, to go into that, as it would have broadened the scope of his film awkwardly, and would have had the unfortunate effect of showing the social and political contexts at work at the time. Far easier and more profitable to just bash the nuns.

  2. I agree with Brendan – the film is impressive but since it chose to give Sister Hildegarde her real name it would have been even better if it had stuck strictly to the facts.
    Interestingly, though, in its account of the conversations between Sixsmith and his editor it revealed why it didn’t: Sixsmith was virtually under orders to come up with a story of ‘evil nuns’ – incarnate ‘baddies’ to contrast with the innocence of Philomena and her son. The scene of Sixsmith confronting Hildegard was the somewhat naive equivalent of St George confronting the dragon on behalf of the female victim – so it invited us to see the media in a would-be heroic role too. Yet it also suggested that Philomena drew her greater wisdom from her Christian faith – so we can’t dismiss it as just another anti-Catholic and pro-media movie.
    I find it strange that this order of nuns has not yet (as far as I am aware) attempted to explain why it was unable to put mother and son in contact with one another while the latter was still alive, when it must have known that each was in search of the other. Were records kept, and if so, what happened to them? This remains obscure. A letter to the Irish Times on Dec 2nd also alleged that Sister Hildegarde had been far from well-intentioned on this question of giving correct information to those seeking it on behalf of a relative of someone sharing Philomena’s experience.

  3. Shaun the Sheep says:

    The film has been slammed by Deacon Donnelly. Coogan turned on its head the truth that the sister did so much good to reunite the kids with their mothers. Read about it here:

  4. If Brendan Hoban should decide to give up the “day job”, then he has a great future as a film critic. His review of “Philomena” was by far the most discerning and balanced critique I have read to date of what could have been a very fine film – a film that could have served as a serious record of the times when a pregnant single girl almost universally received no sympathy or support from either family, neighbours or society in general.
    For me, having heard the mammoth coverage on Liveline prior to seeing it, the impact of the story was diminished by the unnecessary introduction of fictitious episodes which significantly twisted the truth – episodes which were totally unnecessary as the story was sufficiently strong in itself without them.
    In particular, I found the demonisation of the now deceased nun, Sister Hildegarde, to be most disturbing. We heard so many stories on Liveline of this sister’s humanity and kindness that these have to be balanced against the many others which accused her of deception and evil. If I remember correctly, like Manus O’Riardon in his letter to the Irish Times, a significant number of these latter opinions were based on her supposedly giving false leads to those who returned to Sean Ross Abbey seeking information about the addresses of their birth mothers. However, research has shown that it was a very common practice among single pregnant girls at the time to give false addresses to the mother and baby homes to protect the anonymity which these unfortunate girls were forced to seek. In being critical of Sister Hildegarde and concluding that she had an evil streak, has Manus O’Riardon any evidence that the information given to him by Hildegarde was other than that which she herself had received from his wife Annette’s mother?
    That said, the failure of the sisters to reunite Philomena and her son Michael when both were known to them to be seeking each other, and (if that part of the film was true)to inform Philomena that her son was dead and buried in the Abbey grounds, defies all logic and Christian charity.
    A very well made film which, if Judi Dench gets an Oscar nomination, will inevitably get wider international distribution and awareness. In anticipation of that, I think it would be helpful if the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary carry out an enquiry into the issues raised and give the public an honest account of what really happened for the record. Otherwise, this film will be that record for posterity.
    Des Gilroy

  5. Clare Hannigan says:

    I think that the film Philomena gives a very good insight into the experience of being a single mother and also the experience of adoption in Ireland in the last century. In 1927 my grandmother visited an adoption agency while in London and lost her heart to a little boy by the name of Peter Johnson. He had been abandoned in October 1925, when he was approximately four weeks old, and had spent the following months in the foundling ward of a workhouse. He was later transferred to a hostel where he was cared for until his adoption. My grandparents decided to adopt Peter and my grandmother approached an Irish Priest to arrange for his Baptism. The priest strongly advised her against the adoption saying that she might be very disappointed when Peter grew up, that ‘hereditary’ was a very powerful force. The priest advised my grandmother that if she must adopt she should adopt a child in Ireland. My grandparents decided to ignore the Priest’s advice and brought Peter back to Ireland. My dad grew to be a wonderful son, husband and father. He was however never legally adopted. Although adoption was legal in England in 1927 an adoption law was not introduced in Ireland until the 1950’s – in part I think because of the Church’s attitude to adoption and to illegitimate children. In light of the various scandals which have come to public awareness in recent times the Church, as well as considering a theology of women, should consider a theology of the child

  6. Mary O Vallely says:

    I haven’t seen the film but I read the book and what stays with me is the terrible sense of rejection young Anthony/Michael suffered all his life. He felt rejected by his mother and then by society because he was gay. It shows up too the hypocrisy of the GOP in America, the careerism which destroys our inner compassion and of course we as a society don’t come out of it too well either. It was a strange title for the book as Philomena herself hardly featured in it. There is still so much hypocrisy and blindness in our not facing up to the reality of homosexuality which is such a normal part of our reality. So many, particularly our young men, feel that same rejection. As our late, beloved Ger Gleeson was wont to cry out, “Jesus wept.”

  7. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Yes, we can rightly be appalled at how these matters were handled in the past.
    It was by no means an Irish or Catholic phenomenon. It was part of the philosophy of social engineering in the 19th and 20th centuries which also gave rise to penal practices, eugenics, industrial schools, etc. This was motivated by what people thought was the best for society. The treatment of indigenous peoples, and the taking of their children to raise them in a “civilised” manner, as happened in North America and Australia was part of that. The 2002 film “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” is an example which illustrates the mindset. The sterilisation and euthanasia of the “feeble-minded” in Europe and North America in the 20th century by people we would have called civilised also come to mind.
    For examples of the treatment of single mothers and their children elsewhere, some websites may be of interest:
    http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com/ :
    “The women who participated in this study represent just a few of the half million women who have lost children to adoption in England.”
    http://news.yahoo.com/forced-adoptions-for-unwed-mothers-around-the-globe.html: “Veil of secrecy lifts slowly on decades of forced adoptions for unwed mothers around the globe.”
    The fact that it happened elsewhere does make it right. It can help us to remember that the Church, and Ireland, do not exist in isolation. We live our lives and our faith in the context of the prevailing times and cultures. If we can keep this in mind, we will be in a better position to challenge those times and cultures, while at the same time recognising that we can also learn from them about our own blindness and failings.
    For a study of “UNMARRIED MOTHERS: THE LEGISLATIVE CONTEXT IN IRELAND, 1921 – 79” By Ann – Marie Graham, see http://eprints.nuim.ie/4000/1/M._Litt._Thesis.pdf

  8. Clare Hannigan says:

    Thank you Padraigh for the information.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    In short, there is no effort at fairness or subtlety in modern assessments, which take “the nuns” as a facile scapegoat for our society’s regret at having run Victorian institutions instead of being more enlightened and compassionate.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    I saw the movie here in Milan yesterday — Judi Dench was stunning. The film is slanted by political correctness and Holllywood conventions in many places, and contains false information such as the claim that the sisters were paid for the adopted children and that they burnt the records.

  11. I saw the movie. I had “the stomach” for it. What I can’t stomach are the evasions and denials the Catholic Church is still churning out. This article is nothing but an apologia for the terrible wrong inflicted on this young woman and so many others, as well as their unfortunate children. Why can’t the Catholic Church just admit that it has erred, and erred terribly? The outrage is all about the small amount of ‘false information’ — a good example of this false outrage can be seen in Joe O’Leary’s comment. He has expressed no feelings for the wrong inflicted on a young woman, only at the supposed ‘scapegoating’ of these sisters who ruined not just one life, but many.
    Another comment notes that the film “bashes the nuns”? Come on, their despicable behavior stands on its own.

  12. Clare Hannigan says:

    Perhaps we ought to remember that the film deals with a period before Vatican II. It was a time when babies who were still born or who died without Baptism were denied a Christian buriel by the Catholic Church. If mothers had been encouraged to participate in theological debate this practice might have been set aside sooner.

  13. Michael Swanson says:

    If there is a central theme to this fictionalized account, it is the debate between secular ethics and theology. The movie illustrates one aspect of a much larger, horrible sacrifice of the worldly instinct for empathy, campassion and truth at the alter of theological-political doctrine both in Ireland and America.

  14. I have just read Ronan McGreevy’s piece in Saturday’s Irish Times describing the sad, sad story of Philomena Lee’s life. There is also a photo in the Independent of her kneeling at her son Anthony/ Michael Hess’s gravestone. I now must go and see the film.

  15. Joe O'Leary says:

    We all now deplore the way unmarried mother were treated in Ireland up to recently. I suggest that those who now froth about this would have been frothing against the girls at the time! Ranting against the nuns is very unfair, because they were forced by our grandparents to take responsibility for surplus daughters as well as for girls tarred as “fallen women”, and on the whole they seem to have handled this daunting task very honorably. People should study the McAleese report and its documentation for a balanced perspective — or do they not have the “stomach” for plain truth?

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    As recently as the 1970s, or perhaps more recently still, girls who got pregnant were sent off to convents to have their child and give it for adoption — though some pious parents urged daughters to have an abortion. One doctor who adopted his daughter’s child as a new member of the family lost a lot of patients. Respectability and shame loomed large. The cruelty suffered by Philomena Lee may be endemic in such a system. The failure of the nuns to reconnect her with her son is the most shocking point in the film, but we do not know exactly how or why that happened; her order says that Sr Hildegarde, demonized in the film, was instrumental in reuniting parents with the children they gave up for adoption.

  17. Is anyone here in a position to enlighten us about the degree to which families -parents and grandparents, the whole family circle in other words- were in the lead in having such daughters and their children committed to those institutions, and to what extent the process was driven by the clergy at that time? Similarly, can any one remind us of the kind of options such daughters had, outside the world of the church?

  18. Joe O'Leary says:

    Senator McAleese reports that some girls were placed in convents simply because there was no room for them at home when their brothers married. We should not forget what a poor country Ireland was, and the huge attraction of emigration for those capable of it. (When I saw newspaper reports on “the Vanishing Irish” in childhood years I imagined some sort of spooky sci-fi scenario.)

  19. One can waffle endlessly about the dramatic license taken in the film, but that license was generally taken with the lighter moments in it, and with Philomena traveling to Washington with Sixsmith (she did not). However, the saddest, most heart-rending moments are entirely true. And not only true for Philomena (and Anthony), but for more than 2,000 of us and our families.
    It is also convenient apologia to attempt to ‘put it in the context of the times’ or to point out that all of Irish society subscribed to this same, cruel treatment of its women. However, it needs to be stated that the Roman Catholic Church, in league with a heavily Church-influenced government, dictated what societal mores of the day were. Prior to the ascendancy of the Roman Church in Ireland, Brehon law held that any child born outside of marriage was to be accorded the same rights (including clan leadership) as those born inside marriage; moreover, the father of the child was obligated under law to provide for both mother and child for their entire lives. So it’s a bit chicken and egg to try and distribute blame to society and away from the Church.
    Mr. O’Leary holds up Senator McAleese’s report as though it’s some beacon of truth. Yet those of us who have read all 1,400 pages and dissected it thoroughly (including renowned law firms in Ireland and elsewhere) know better. McAleese’s only remit was to determine if there was State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries. There was (although Justice for Magdalenes had already found and published ample evidence of it prior to the report), and Dr. McAleese is to be commended for fairly vindicating that earlier research. However, he then went a step too far and attempted to ‘analyse’ the Laundries in rather amateurish fashion. The maths and data contained in that report are incredibly bad, documentation is missing in large gaps (two large Laundries, Galway and Dun Laoghaire, claim records were ‘destroyed’), and other egregious errors abound.
    Likewise, it is well known among locals, surviving religious and many adopted people from Sean Ross Abbey, that Sister Hildegarde did indeed set fire to a number of records in 1973. Those actions remain inexplicable today.
    The fact is, these inhumane policies of the past still affect many of who are very much living today. It affects our children and grandchildren as well. We continue to be denied the right to the documents of our birth – a right every other non-adopted citizen enjoys, and adopted citizens in the UK and five US states have enjoyed for many years. Up until this past year, when the last private religiously-run adoption society in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Guild, agreed to turn over its records to the Health Service Executive, we all faced the same difficult road Philomena and Anthony faced in trying to find one another. It took me ten years to find a mother who very much wanted contact (and even attempted to reach out to the Sacred Heart order in Cork herself, just as Philomena did). That road was paved with lies, obfuscations, harassing letters and even a threatened lawsuit. I am only grateful I ploughed on regardless, and was able to enjoy twelve wonderful years with my mother before she passed over this last Christmas.
    The film is wonderfully crafted, well worth viewing and has at its center a terrible, ugly truth that needs to be told. That women like Philomena and my mother, and countless others, have retained a very special faith, forgiveness and dignity is a lesson the nuns could take to heart. I hope they do and don’t continue their current stonewalling and dissembling. We’re still awaiting meaningful apologies from the four orders who ran Irish Magdalene Laundries, despite that many of their counterparts in the US have done so, as well as the Prime Minister of Ireland.
    I would humbly suggest to those like Joe O’Leary who feel it necessary to colour this history in a way that suits them or makes them feel better, that what you are doing in effect is hijacking *our* lived narrative, our truth. You don’t have that right – it’s not your story nor something you yourself experienced. Instead, try to learn from it, acknowledge what was wrong, and move forward insuring it doesn’t happen again. We are already embroiled in an intercountry adoption mania – children are now being taken from mothers in other countries as we speak by the thousands, often under the banner of ‘Christian superiority’ and ‘white saviour syndrome’, with no sure way to verify that the relinquishment is informed, consensual and legal. Do we really want to repeat this history all over again, a generation down the road?

  20. Mari, thank you for sharing that truly powerful piece with us. I agree completely with what you say. I continue to be baffled why some, who are otherwise enlightened people, continue to try and defend the indefensible — “the terrible, ugly truth” as you describe it. I first read your piece at lunchtime today and then on my way home from work, I listened to Magdalene survivors, after their meeting today, being interviewed on RTE Radio News Drive just before 6.00pm. What I did not realise until this evening was that some of the young women who were imprisoned — and it was imprisonment — were in fact children, eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds. This all happened in the Ireland that many of us felt so proud of — “the most Catholic country in the world”, were words of Pope John Paul II.
    I am so pleased that you and your mother had a happier outcome than Philomena and Anthony.
    Thank you, Mari.
    Paddy Ferry.

  21. Joe O'Leary says:

    I am not hijacking your narrative — I see that the whole adoption system caused heartbreak for many. All I want is that people base their critique on the actual facts, insofar as they are known. The presumption that no one could do this except in order to whitewash the past is not a good premiss for healing analysis of that past or for learning how better to handle adoption situations today.
    Would it not be correct to say that the now recognized evils of adoption as practised are a matter of state laws and have nothing to do with Catholicism? It seems to be only very recently that the right of adopted children to know their birth parents is being recognized in some countries. Were the harassing letters and threatened lawsuit you refer to coming from the sisters or from the state agencies? The entire tendency of current outrage is to scapegoat the sisters, and Peter Mullan’s B-movie as well as Stephen Frears’ masterpiece play into this script. The latter begins with a woman forced to bear a child without an anesthetic while a nun gloats sadistically, saying she is being punished for her sins. Factual? The girls in the convent (not a Magdalene Laundry) are said to have worked all day every day (in fact the schedule of the Magdalene Laundries was 40 hours a week, and it seems unlikely that the adoption convent had a more grueling one.) Did Sr Hildegarde burn some records? We don’t know, or whether if she did they were of substantial importance; the movie suggests a massive holocaust of records. In any case Philomena Lee’s story does not concern lost records, as far as I know; if the nuns said the records were lost, as the movie claims, the nuns were rather lying, since they already knew about Philomena’s son, having shown him around the convent when he was alive, not informing him or her existence or her of his. We do not know exactly why this happened. The order claims that Sr Hildegarde was instrumental in reuniting parents and children in other cases.
    The McAleese Report has not much relevance to the adoption system, since it concerns only the Magdalene Laundries, which did not handle adoptions at all as far as I know. I did read an analysis of the McAleese report by an Irish solicitor, which was little better than sarcasm. The chief documentation on the laundries came from the sisters, not from the State. Surely it was in the public interest for McAleese to go beyond his remit and give a picture of what life in the laundries was actually like, on the basis of relatively informal interviews (as opposed to some huge, expensive, long-drawn-out state tribunal that would probably have been no more enlightening). If the errors of the McAleese report were so obvious and egregious they could be pointed out clearly and concisely, but instead we seem to be getting nitpicking and rather prejudiced suppositions about his intentions. The Irish solicitor who published his analysis on the net actually proceeds on the assumption that McAleese is a whitewash like the Widgery Tribunal on Bloody Sunday, despite the fact that McAleese brought to light tons of embarrassing information on state involvement.
    “We are still awaiting meaningful apologies” — Why do you think the Irish sisters’ apologies are not meaningful while those of the US sisters are?

  22. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy Ferry, you do not distinguish between convents where girls went to have their children and to give the children up for adoption, and the Magdalene Laundries. On the latter, the first sentence of the McAleese Report warns us that THERE IS NO SINGLE OR SIMPLE STORY OF THE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100202781/catholic-bashers-have-embellished-the-truth-about-abuse-in-catholic-institutions-its-time-to-put-the-record-straight/
    I also wonder about your claim that 13 year olds were incarcerated in the Laundries — perhaps you mean reformatories or industrial schools?

  23. Joe O'Leary says:

    The claim is that the Roman Catholic Church is to blame for everything because prior to its ascendancy in Ireland we had the more enlightened and civilized system of Brehon Law. Surely a missing factor in this equation is the role of British law and British social values — the stigma on illegitimacy may have more to do with Victorian Britain as with Rome. Workhouses, juvenile detention, homes for “fallen women” are all characteristic of the Victorians, at least as we see them through the prism of Dickens. And in any case was Brehon Law so wonderful? See for example http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com/2003/07/13/105810717055723891/
    St Patrick’s Guild seems to be a ghastly organization, though quite happily used by the Irish Government. They are accused of “illegal adoptions” in this article: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/adoption-agency-to-withdraw-tracing-service-236172.html though this presumably does not apply to the bulk of the adoptions they managed. In pre-abortion, non-contraceptive, single-mother-phobic Ireland adoption seems to have been a vast industry.

  24. Joe, I am well aware of the difference between the situation that Mari and her Mum and Philomena and Anthony found themselves in and the Magdalene Laundries. However, both things happened on the same day. I read Mari’s piece at lunchtime and then, as I drove home through the Edinburgh traffic, I listened to the report on RTE Radio on which the Magdalene Survivors were interviewed. I am sure some of those interviewed mentioned the ages of some of the children who were detained. Perhaps, others at home in Ireland who heard t he piece could confirm this. A professor from Boston College was interviewed at the end on the Survivors continued efforts to get pension rights and medical cards.
    Joe, I have said in the past that you have been one of the most enlightened and intelligent contributors on this site and we have all benefited from your knowledge. However, on the question of the abuse of power, and of the vulnerable, by those acting on behalf of the Church is concerned, you have a serious blind spot.

  25. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, my view on the Magdalene Laundries concords entirely with the McAleese Report; perhaps you could accuse the people who compiled it of the same “blind spot”?
    I was briefly a chaplain at the Good Shepherd Convent, Drumcondra, in 1980, and met the Magdalenes two or three times — healthy and happy women as far as I could see. And they had lived to a great age.
    I have known thousands of religious sisters, some very well, and I can say that they are the best people I have known. They are portrayed as monsters in the media, but I can see no fair basis for this scapegoating.
    Whatever was wrong with the adoption system or with the Laundries, and of course much was wrong, it was Irish society as a whole that was responsible. We are attacking our own parents and grandparents when we criticize this past. “With the wisdom of historical insight we can all see things we would wish had been done differently, or not done at all.”
    Also we should bear in mind that the many children adopted from Ireland would mostly have been aborted in other countries or in Ireland today. In the late 1960s I knew one girl sent to a convent by pious parents to have her child and give it up for adoption, and another who was pressurized by her equally pious parents to have an abortion — perhaps the tide was turning then?

  26. Joe O'Leary says:

    This is the story of Gabrielle O’Gorman, who claims forcible imprisonment, for no reason, at age 17, for two and a half years, and is shown forced to kneel when addressed by a nun and to kiss the nun’s boots. She says 9 year old girls were put in laundries because the nuns thought they might be too attractive. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/world/europe/a-forced-adoption-a-lifetime-quest-and-a-longing-that-never-waned.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0
    This does not match ch. 19 of the McAleese Report. One is left wondering what the role of the families and of the State was, especially if 9 year olds were really forced to live in the laundries.

  27. Joe O'Leary says:

    The presence of young girls in the laundries is addressed in McAleese ch. 9. 8.1% of known entries to the Laundries were referrals by the criminal justice system, and the youngest referral was 11 years old (she spent one night in the laundry). Some were on remand, some homeless, but their placement was for a short period.
    Some young women were sent to the Laundries on probation, in lieu of imprisonment. I wonder if the sisters who took over these homes from their lay founders in the 19th century, at the request or behest of the bishops, realized that they would serve as auxiliaries to the country’s poorly developed prison system. (It is interesting to note that in the US today many young children are kept in prisons only because there is nowhere else to put them; they are subjected to long spells of solitary confinement.)
    McGarr Solicitors, in their review of McAleese, find the details of Irish justice as revealed in this chapter revolting, but gives the Report no credit for unearthing them. The objective tone of the report is dismissed as “bureaucratic” yet it generates far more insight than McGarr’s heated rhetoric.

  28. Sebastian says:

    Do not try to fake and apology by telling us all the “errors and fictional parts” of it. Better to just admit your wrong doings and apologize. For every fictional part of the movie you point out, I can point our thousands of errors with the church as an institution. Stop trying to look like the victim, it’s even childish of your part to have even posted this document. A movie as successful as this will enrage many movie lovers with the monasteries. I, speaking for my self can tell you I am furious at the events that took place in the move, I wish I could go in the past and curse at all the nuns that had a part of this.

  29. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sebastian, the movie is not so successful — no award at the Oscars. You are enraged by the events that happened in the movie — but check them against real life — and ask where the primary blame for the hurtful adoption system lay — this nun-bashing is a new form of abuse.

  30. There appears to be many opinions on the issue. Authors above suggesting “Blame society at the time”, but what concerns me is society can be hugely influenced by the church teachings…at the time. Also, after reading these articles,no one seems to question the money that adoptions made. It has been discussed that there are thousands of adoptions at a cost of around one thousand pounds a time.so does this mean the church has it? Maybe rather than a verbal apology to the real victims, maybe it is a case of put the money where your mouth is and cover the cost to reunite families. Or would this be to much of an admission of guilt?

  31. Yes I read the article that joe refers regarding the denial of receiving money. However, the term used “actually…” you use as a matter of fact and I do not see how such a fact can be derived without a thorough investigation. Now Unless an enquiry is set up to investigate the issue, then it would leave one to make an opinion and judgement based on other events such as the unmarked graves and the number of unexplained child deaths and general abuse at such establishments as identified in the film (articles e.g http://www.theraggedwagon.WordPress.com).It appears these are also denied by the nuns. It does not give confidence that the ones running the establishments where totally innocent. Surely the church should instigate a full investigation to what really happened to avoid any doubt and criticism. Then sometimes it is said that the truth is better not be known. Therefore, this leaves the option of opinions with the assistance of some known facts,that events like abuse etc did happen in these establishments and any denials would be easily scoffed at. It’s not a case “nun bashing abuse” as mentioned in previous discussions above, It’s a case of getting the truth.

  32. I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland by stable and loving parents. Before watching the Philomena film I would have been well aware of the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the harsh treatment they were subjected to in laundries. I also would have been well aware of the accounts that babies were adopted into American families, often in exchange for money. Whist these actions are hard to fathom for any Christian, I think they were of their time and that the church thought they were doing the right thing.
    The bit that almost broke my heart, and what I did not realise had happened, was that the mother was allowed to bond and love the child while the child was awaiting adoption and that the child would actually depend on its birth mother for affection. In addition when Anthony went back to Sean Ross Abbey as a dying man looking for details of his mother he was told that she had abandoned him and that they had no record of her. This was all despite the fact that Philomena had also contacted them looking for contact with him. These are facts and were not dramatised or fictionalised. I did not remember the bit in the movie where Sr. Hildegarde had said what she could not have said for dramatic effect because the actual facts were the disturbing bit. The absolute truth is the real crime against humanity.
    We cannot change the past, only learn from it.
    Do you know as a result of all the publicity of the Philomena Lee case if the convents are now bound to hand over any information that they have to Mothers or children trying to contact each other? Does anybody know if , Through her pain, Philomena has prevented this wrong happening again?

  33. Joe O'Leary says:

    The raggedwagon piece to which Brendan links seems to be wildly over the top. The sisters in Drumcondra seem very clearly getting a bum rap from sensation hunters. I think it would be irresponsible to led unquestioning credence to these highly colored claims.
    David correctly identifies the painful core of the movie — the order claims that Sr Hildegarde was instrumental in reuniting parents and children; why it did not happen in this case remains unclear. The legal situation about rights of parents to know their adopted children and vice versa may have created confusion?

  34. Thanks Joe.
    I have heard of situations where legally the birth parents cannot contact a child that they have “put up” for adoption but that the child once over the age of 18 can ask for the adoption agency to arrange a meeting. This is where the process fell down in this case.
    Does anybody know If Sean Ross Abbey were contacted today by a child who was adopted from there, would they be legally obligated to give over all the information they have? Or have Sean Ross Abbey handed over all the records they have to a government?
    I personally don’t believe in recriminations but maybe that is easy for me to say given my privileged upbringing. I am much more interested in making sure that the policies have been put in place to make sure this never ever happens again.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.