Sunday, February 16, 2014


Dh & I went to see the movie "Philomena" this afternoon, starring the always-wonderful Judi Dench & Steve Coogan. If you haven't already heard about the movie, it's based on the amazing true story of an Irish woman searching for the son she bore as an teenager in 1952, who was taken from her by the nuns at the home for unwed mothers where she lived and worked, and adopted by an American family.

Philomena's story was not uncommon at the time, as Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who helped Philomena find out what happened to her son and wrote a book about it, wrote in an article last fall for the Daily Guardian:
I soon discovered that Philomena and Anthony were not alone in their ordeal. The Catholic Church-run adoption trade started in the years after the Second World War, when American servicemen at the end of their European tour of duty began to take adopted Irish babies home with them. 
There was no paperwork and no exact record of how many children were involved, but a report in the Irish Times declared that ‘500 babies were flown from Shannon for adoption’ in 1950, adding that ‘that number is believed to have been exceeded in the first nine months of 1951 alone’. In October of that year, 18 groups of children left Shannon in a single week. The numbers were undoubtedly huge and the sketchy official statistics, which guess at 2,000 children exported to America in the years after 1953, grossly underestimate the true total. 
I discovered there were numerous convents involved, not just Roscrea..... all continued to send regular parties of so-called orphans to the US for almost two decades. And no wonder – the trade was a lucrative one. The going rate for American couples wishing to adopt was between £500 and £1,500, a great deal of money in the 1950s.
"Philomena" is an argument for greater openness in adoption practices and records, if there ever was one.  And it's not a story entirely unique to Ireland:  in recent years, women in both Canada and Australia have been speaking out about the babies they bore in church-run (both Catholic and Protestant) homes for unwed mothers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s -- babies they say they were coerced into surrendering for adoption. 

One thing that struck me, watching the movie and reading Sixsmith's article, was: no wonder so many people outside the ALI community think that it's so simple to adopt a baby -- because at one time, it was.  Pay the "donation," pick out your "orphan," take him or her home and live happily ever after. Case closed. OK, I'm being simplistic here, but it's certainly become a much more complex and regulated process today.  

The moment that I think hit closest to home for me personally was when Philomena shows Martin the only photo she has of Anthony, secretly taken and given to her by a kind young nun. Philomena says something like, "What if she hadn't? It's all I have of him."

I thought of all the bereaved mothers, years ago, whose babies were stillborn or died at or shortly after birth, their bodies whisked away without any photos or cuddles or goodbyes, to be buried together in mass unmarked graves. I thought about my own precious collection of six crappy Polaroids taken by the hospital nurses, and a set of smudgy hand and footprints, the only physical evidence that my little girl existed. It wasn't all THAT long ago, but long enough. Digital photography, smartphones with cameras, specialized bereavement photography services like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, all had yet to be invented (or at least popularized). How quickly technology and best practices can change!

"Philomena" may be difficult viewing for some, depending on your personal beliefs and experiences (take Kleenex!), but I am very glad we saw it. It's testimony to a mother's enduring love for her child, the corrosive effects of secrecy and shame, and the ultimate power of truth, knowledge, love and forgiveness to heal the most painful wounds.


  1. I haven't seen the movie, but knowing a bit about its story, I think you have written a beautiful commentary of it. Especially (but not only) your last sentence.

  2. I would like to see the movie sometime. There is a St. Louis connection, so there has been a lot of local press, including in the Catholic paper. About 7 years ago I read a book, "The Girls Who Went Away," which was about American birth mothers who were coerced and tricked into giving up their babies (I use the outdated terminology here, on purpose). It was one of the most disheartening books I have ever read.