Philomena Lee’s story giving ‘hope’ to many

Gerard Fitzgibbon


Gerard Fitzgibbon

Philomena Lee with Judi Dench at the premiere of Philomena in London
THE FILM adaptation of the story of a Newcastle West woman who was forced to give up her son for adoption has given “hope and encouragement” to countless women who endured the same ordeal.

THE FILM adaptation of the story of a Newcastle West woman who was forced to give up her son for adoption has given “hope and encouragement” to countless women who endured the same ordeal.

Philomena, which stars Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, has received overwhelmingly positive reviews worldwide following its general release in cinemas across Ireland and the UK. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, tells the tragic yet often uplifting true story of Philomena Lee, a native of Newcastle West, who was forced to give her infant son up for adoption in 1952 when she was just 19. Her lifelong search to trace her son Anthony, who was effectively sold to an American couple by the convent where she lived after giving birth, was turned into a book by former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, and has now been adapted for cinema.

Newcastle West native Seamus Hennessy, who knows the Lee family and met with Sixsmith during his research for the book six years ago, said that the film is a harrowing yet moving portrayal that will give hope to many women who may went through something similar to Philomena. Mr Hennessy, who spoke about the film on Live 95FM’s Limerick Today programme last week, said that the film is already receiving a powerful response.

“Since the radio interview there’s been a lot of feedback, because as I said then there’s a Philomena Lee in every town in Ireland. The film can give hope and encouragement to people in their own searches and their own lives.

“I don’t know her, but I knew the family very well. Her brother Tossie Lee was very well-known and well respected, he ran the cinema in Newcastle West for a number of years. It’s a shame in one sense that a blockbuster film with links to the area won’t be shown here, as the glory days of cinema in Newcastle West came to an end a decade ago.”

In the past week Philomena has drawn rave reviews, and Judi Dench’s performance as the title character is now widely being tipped for awards. The Guardian gave the film five stars, describing it as a “thunderclap” of a movie. “Philomena is one of those unusual movies it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying. It doesn’t preach or patronise. It’s bright and neat on the ethics of storytelling … Yet it’s resolved with a compassion that trips you up scene after scene,” its review said.

The London Independent said that Philomena Lee was already one of Judi Dench’s “most memorable roles”, while the Daily Mail gave the film four out of five, adding that “Dench is simply marvellous in the title role of this moving film, wringing it dry of every ounce of poignancy, and of comedy too.”

Ms Lee walked the red carpet with the stars of the film at its London premiere last month, which was also attended by a number of people from West Limerick.

In the film Dench plays the part of the unmarried mother who was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary after becoming pregnant. After giving birth to her son and working in the convent’s laundry for a number of years, Ms Lee was forced to give her son up for adoption to an American couple who made a donation to the Abbey.

In America Anthony, who was renamed Michael Hess, went on to carve out a hugely successful career as a lawyer, serving as White House chief legal counsel under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.

Michael was also homosexual, something he had to hide given his position, and spent years searching for his identity in Ireland.

He visited Seán Ross Abbey numerous times only to be told they was nothing they could do help him trace his birth mother.

Despite Philomena also searching for him at the same time, the nuns told her they could not help in her search either.

After contracting HIV, Michael returned one last time to Seán Ross Abbey. He died in 1995 and is buried at the abbey.

The film also stars Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC News journalist who helped Lee in her search which he recounted in a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

After keeping quiet for nearly 50 years, Mrs Lee asked Sixsmith to uncover the fate of her son.

The film won the best screenplay award at this year’s Venice Film Festival and has been well received critically.