While I was in London I had a fascinating talk with Dame Judi Dench and an Irish lady named Philomena Lee whom the actress portrays in the movie Philomena.
Photographers gathered as the two elderly ladies sat together on a couch at the May Fair Hotel, sipping coffee, chatting, laughing and occasionally holding hands.
Anyone seeing them would assume they were old friends with so much
to talk about.
“It certainly feels as if we’re old friends,” says Dame Judi Dench,
clutching the older woman’s hand. “This is an extraordinary woman and
I’m privileged to know her.”
Philomena Lee smiles shyly as a photographer takes a picture of
them both. “I never expected or wanted all this but I’ve always said that everything happens for a reason,” she says in a strong Irish brogue.
At the age of 78 Philomena is gradually becoming accustomed to
being the centre of attention, a situation which will grow to new
heights when Philomena, the movie named after her, opens soon.
Judi Dench is being tipped for Oscar recognition for her role in the heartbreaking
but often humourous story of Philomena’s 50-year search for the son who was taken from her
by nuns at an Irish convent and sold for adoption to a wealthy American family.
“To have Judi Dench playing you—what more could a woman ask
for?” says Philomena. “She’s a treasure, an absolute treasure and a
perfect lady. We got to know one another before she started the film
because she said she’d never played anyone who is still alive and she
had to get to know me. We are kind of the same age group and she put
me totally at my ease. Such a lovely, gentle lady.”
Philomena, Dame Judi and Steve Coogan, who optioned the rights to
the story and co-stars as journalist Martin Sixsmith, who embarks with
Philomena on the search for her son, were talking over a breakfast
reunion at the hotel.
The two stars confess to having been emotionally moved by
Philomena’s long and determined search for the son who was snatched
from her when he was three years old.
Unbeknownst to Philomena, her son spent decades looking for her,
too, but because of the nuns’ refusal to divulge any information to
either of them, they never met.
But with the help of Sixsmith, Philomena eventually discovered the
surprising details of her son’s high-flying life as a White House
lawyer and aide to George Bush Snr.
She learned that he was gay and had died of AIDS and that his
partner, fulfilling his dying wish, took his ashes to Ireland and they
were buried in the grounds of the convent where Philomena gave birth
“The awful part I get so upset about is that he died thinking I had
abandoned him at birth, but there was nothing else I could do but let
him go,” said Philomena. “I had nobody to help me and I asked the nuns
several times to help find me a job in Ireland so I could take him
with me but they said he had to be adopted into a good home.
“I remember how much I cried when he was taken away from me and I
still think of him every day. But I’m not angry. I didn’t tell anyone
for so many years but I’m glad I did and eventually found out all
about him, even though it took most of my life to do so. Imagine
little old me having a son who was in the White House!”
Philomena’s dogged determination, inner fortitude and her capacity
for forgiveness have made a big impression on Dame Judi and Steve
“There are very, very few people of Philomena’s magnitude and
strength who are able to turn around at the end of the journey and
forgive the nuns for what they did,” says Dame Judi fondly. “She
didn’t want to be angry and I know I couldn’t live with that and be
able to do that.”
Coogan, who is half-Irish and describes himself as “a lapsed
Catholic” is full of admiration for Philomena’s ability to laugh and
see the funny side of things. “Lots of people are angry and saddened
when they hear what she went through but what intrigued me was how she
could laugh at having gone through such a dark, sad, tragic
experience,” he says. “I felt a connection and familiarity with her
because I know lots of elderly Irish ladies like Philomena and I grew
up around them.”
Philomena’s remarkable story began when she entered convent school
in Ireland at the age of six after her mother died. She left when she
was 18, knowing little or nothing of the world and met a boy who
bought her a toffee apple on a warm evening at the county fair. “I
didn’t know a thing about the facts of life and I didn’t know where
babies came from…” she said.
When her pregnancy became obvious, her family disowned her and had
her “put away” with the nuns at Roscrea convent in County Tipperary,
one of thousands of Irish women taken from their homes and sent to
convents in the 1950s and 60s because the Catholic church said single
mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their
After her baby, Anthony, was born, the Mother Superior threatened
Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her “guilty
secret”. Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century.
“It was such a sin,” she said. “It was an awful thing to have a baby
out of wedlock. It was so ingrained deep down in my heart that I
mustn’t tell anybody.”
She was put to work in the convent laundry and while caring for
Anthony she was made to sign a terrible document agreeing to give up
her son and relinquishing all claims to him. “I begged them to please
let me keep him but they told me I had to sign the papers,” she says.
Anthony was taken from her at Christmas 1955 when he was three
years old. She wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to him but she saw him
being bundled into the back of a big black car and driven away.
“I cried and cried,” she says. “I was heartbroken. I missed him so
much. I’d raised him for three and a half years. I was bitter and I
lost my religion because of my heartbreak. I didn’t know how they
could have done it.”
She was sent to work in one of the convent’s homes for delinquent
boys in Liverpool, got married in 1959 and had two more children. For
30 years she worked as a nurse, mainly with psychiatric patients.
“Over the years I stopped going to confession and communion but I
always prayed for everybody, even the nuns,” she says. “Within my
heart I never really lost my faith. I began to mellow because the
patients had so many problems worse than I had so I went back to my
religion and there I have stayed.”
Saying nothing to anybody she returned to the convent several times
in desperate attempts to trace her son but the nuns refused to help
her, merely showing her the document she had signed giving up all
rights to him.
Then, just before Christmas 2004, tipsy on sherry, she blurted out
to her daughter the secret she had kept for 50 years. The daughter
told a friend who contacted Martin Sixsmith, who had worked for the
BBC as a foreign correspondent and had recently lost his job as a
government communications officer.
Intrigued by the story, Sixsmith set out to help Philomena in her
search, following a trail which led to America and to the inner
sanctum of the White House. The hunt took him through U.S.newspaper
obituary columns, state and church archives, adoption agencies,
American university records and Republican party sources before it led
to the end of the trail and the story’s poignant, unexpected
Sixsmith wrote a book about Philomena and her search; Coogan
happened to see a newspaper article about it and optioned the rights
to the book without reading it. He went to Judi Dench’s home, told her
the story and she instantly agreed to portray Philomena.
“I was slightly daunted about sharing the screen with her because
she’s so incredibly charismatic and iconic but she made me feel very
comfortable,” says Coogan. “We laughed and joked and talked in between
takes and I felt I was spending the day with a little old Irish lady.
It was only at the end of the day when she was transformed back into
Judi Dench that I suddenly became intimidated again.”
Philomena, who now lives in St. Albans, originally wanted the book
and film to use a different name to keep her identity hidden but now
she is happy that everything is out in the open and she has no more
secrets to keep.
“I talk to Anthony every day and I have done all my life,” she
said. “I prayed and prayed that one day I would find him and I know
that somewhere up there he has found me. His partner gave me his
Celtic ring which I wear all the time and every time I look at it I
can say a little prayer for him.
“I’m a great believer that every single thing happens for a reason.
We can’t see it but our life has been marked out for us from the day
we are born until the day we die.
“There was a reason for everything that has happened.”