A TOUCHING speech by Philomena Lee prompted an eight-minute standing ovation by guests who turned out to see the Limerick woman receive the inaugural Fitzgerald Bible Bruff Award.
The award will be given each year to a person who has made a distinguished contribution, through a particular act or through a particular service to the country of Ireland.
The purpose in establishing the award is to acknowledge the connection between Bruff and the Fitzgerald Bible.
The spotlight has been firmly on Ms Lee, who hails from Newcastle West but now lives in the US, after her efforts to track down her son Anthony 50 years after she was forced to give him up for adoption were turned into an Oscar-nominated film. She has even appeared on stage at the Golden Globes in Hollywood.
Ms Lee, 82, received the award in Bruff for her work in setting up the Philomena Lee Project, which helps adopted people find their birth parents.
“She got a real warm welcome in Bruff,” said Paul Dennehy, chairman of Bruff Heritage Group who organised the award presentation at the Thomas Kennedy Centre, Bruff.
During his speech, Mr Dennehy quoted Ethel Kennedy, the wife of the late Robert Kennedy, who is a huge supporter of Philomena and her campaign.
“Through her heroic efforts to unite mothers and children separated by cruel practices and archaic laws, Philomena is helping to make gentle the life of the world,” he said.
Cllr Eddie Ryan, the deputy mayor, made a presentation on behalf of Limerick Council to Philomena.
This is the first time that Philomena has been honoured by the council in her native county.
Cllr Ryan presented Philomena with a framed bronze sculpture of the Wild Geese.
“Philomena, today we have gathered to officially recognise your story, and your immense strength of character and resolve,” said Cllr Ryan, who is from Galbally.
“The people of Bruff and Limerick are delighted to present you with their very own home-produced Oscar - yet another to add to your collection. In doing so, we remember all of those whose lives were irrevocably and tragically affected by the practice of forced adoptions. On behalf of the people of Limerick, I want to congratulate you,” Cllr Ryan added.
Philomena was presented with a glass piece depicting the Fitzgerald Bible by Michael Cronin, secretary of Bruff Heritage Group.
After accepting the award, Philomena spoke about her story and about what it meant to her to be presented with the award - particularly as it was the first of its kind to be presented and was in her native county.
“She gave a beautiful speech – she spoke about her life and her campaign and what she wants to achieve. Everyone was touched by it.
“She stood for two and a half hours meeting people and chatting with them. People had travelled from Cork and from Dublin just to meet her,” said Mr Dennehy.
Philomena was accompanied in Bruff by her daughter Jane and two staff members. “Jane told us that before they came over from America they had a meeting in Washington with Congressman Joe Kennedy, who would be Robert Kennedy’s grandson, and he congratulated them on the award. We are delighted to have the support of the Kennedys as well,” said Mr Dennehy.
During Friday evening’s ceremony, Mark Nagle of Bruff Community Council launched the free audio guide which can be downloaded as an app. “We played a small bit of that to give people an idea of what is involved – it is the whole history of Bruff including the Kennedy connection,” said Mr Dennehy.
When Thomas Fitzgerald left Bruff in 1852, the only possession he took with him was the family bible.
In 1960 when his great grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was being sworn is as the 35th President of the United States, he used the Fitzgerald Family Bible to take the Oath of Office. Prior to his inauguration, the president dispatched two secret service men to the Fitzgerald family home in Boston to retrieve the bible and bring it back to Washington.
Today, the Fitzgerald Bible is now on permanent display in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
The Fitzgerald Bible Bruff Award seeks to honour the outstanding achievements of those who have shown the resolve and commitment to overcome tremendous adversity.
During her stay, Philomena visited the Old Bake House in Bruff where she enjoyed a meal. She also stayed overnight in The Old Bank B&B on Friday night as she wanted to relax and enjoy her time in the town.
The following day Philomena went on a private tour of Lough Gur which was arranged by Lough Gur Development Association and she also visited Old Irish Ways museum in Caherguillamore outside Bruff. “She was scheduled to stay half an hour but she ended up staying for two hours. It brought back some great memories for her,” said Mr Dennehy.