The Politics of Philomena

The most startling thing to emerge from the premiere last night of Philomena was the lack of any questioning around accountability for the theft of a child, in this instance Anthony Lee from his mother Philomena, who was incarcerated in Sean Ross Abbey for 4 yrs in the 1950s.  The whole issue of criminality was avoided throughout the entire film and there was an uncomfortability in the Q & A emanating mostly from Steve Coogan, who was making every effort to be inoffensive in his efforts to appease Catholic sensibilities.  It would seem to me that Mr Coogan, producer, co-writer and star of the movie, didn’t really understand the politics of the issue of the banished babies and the criminal trafficking of children for profit out of Ireland and other countries that was perpetrated by the Catholic Church and religious congregations.

What happened here was that like many other children, Anthony Lee was taken from his mother without informed consent and for over fifty odd years the Irish Catholic Church, Religious congregation and indeed the State itself, concealed the whereabouts of mother and son from each other.  Yet, what we watched at the IFI premiere last night completely avoided the global issue of the “banished babies” of Ireland.  Nobody so far has been held to account for this practice; there have been no Garda investigations or Interpol investigations; nobody from the national Airlines (Aer Lingus) or Pan Am airlines that actually trafficked the children out of Ireland have been confronted. Indeed, this whole issue has been slightly saccarined and turned into a warm human interest story rather than a story of organised, joint-venture criminality.

The whole reality of this film is sentimentalised through a naive catholic spiritualism.  A lot of it is cliched and it never really deals with the horrendous tragedy and evil of what was perpetrated on thousands of mothers and their abducted children to this day.

The story of Philomena is based on true events.  True events that happened to generations of people and, while this abduction of children was going on in so-called Mother and Baby homes, there was also the rape torture and inhumane treatment of tens of thousands in what are now known as Ireland’s residential institutions.  The Mother and Baby homes like Sean Ross Abbey, Bessborough, Castle Pollard etc. formed part of a network of compounds where individual citizens were incarcerated and exploited till they died, made good their escape or somehow found themselves miraculously released.

The trauma of what took place in these institutions still permeates this society through the suffering of the individuals who were incarcerated there.  That suffering continues as many mothers seeking to find their children and many children seeking to find their parents are still not being given access to their personal records, to their authenticity, to their origins. There is an indifference, a disregard and a continuous punishment in the way Religious Congregations and indeed the State continue to behave around this issue, which borders on contempt.  There was an opportunity in Philomena to address these issues but the writers of the script chose not to do so.

This undermines the credibility of the movie and does a great disservice to this single story and to the big story because after all this tale is one of thousands of similar tales that are now emerging as part of Ireland’s social and criminal history.

Despite the warmth of the film and the good reception that it received at all the film festivals so far (Toronto, London, Venice) somewhere, the real issues that are at the centre of this story, the hard cruel facts, that unheard story, that brutality, uncomfortable as it is, has to be heard, has to be owned has to be accounted for.  It is not just the story of Philomena and Anthony Lee, it is the story of a society and as such the secret history of Ireland and the Irish State and religious institutions cannot be so simply packaged in a feel-good, heartfelt portrayal of real events that have not been dealt with so far.

We had to drag the apology from the Taoiseach in relation to the Magdalene Laundries and large parts of the truth have still been avoided in the massive whitewash of the Ryan and McAleese Report. The complete indifference and lack of consequences for all those that were involved in the criminality and abuses that were described in the Ferns, Murphy, Cloyne reports etc. There is a great danger here of assuming that we have dealt with these issues and that there is some measure of closure on them, but still the Church and State continue to deny wrong going and the myth that everybody was just trying their best in very difficult times continues to be perpetrated.

Judy Dench gives a fantastic performance as does Steve Coogan, the whole cast excelled themselves and it is a good movie, but that’s all it is –  a good movie, an entertainment, a night out in the cinema.  It doesn’t ask anything of us, it merely brings us along in a sad-warm way.  It’s a road movie that is very satisfying.  The danger here is, is that it smothers the ongoing issue of what’s happening in Irish society and elsewhere and can give further credence to the school of thought that wishes to put this whole issue behind us and let us get on with it.

Adoption Rights Alliance and other such organizations and individuals are desperately seeking information and the rights today for open access to all of their paperwork, their birth certificates, medical records etc.  They are seeking their truth that has been held from them all their lives as it was for Philomena Lee and her son Anthony Lee.

The film will certainly throw light on all of the issues that I’ve mentioned above and it will find its place in the cultural representation of Ireland’s social history, albeit from a British perspective and sensibility. This is a British movie, but what’s not uniquely British about it and what came across last night in the Q & A and in the movie itself, was its unwillingness to ‘go there’.  While I welcome the film, I note its lack of responsibility to the overall story, its insistence on the sensibility of the human story at the cost of the politics and the truth of the issue.   When, in actual fact what you have here is organized criminality on such a scale that it should really warrant a massive European, if not global investigation or tribunal, not dissimilar to that which is conducted by the United Nations into crimes against humanity because that is what this is.

With due respects to all of those who were involved and with deep respect to Anthony Lee who died searching for his mother – who died being told a lie by the very people who thieved him from his mother and continued that thievery by robbing him of his mother’s whereabouts – this story is not just theirs; it is all our stories. And unless you deal with this story in the way you would deal with any fascist of dictatorial regime, like the institutional Catholic Church, like the institutionalized Irish State,   all you are doing here is facilitating and enabling the closing down of the story, the othering of the story and the perpetration of further suffering.

There were comparisons made last night with the Magdalene Laundries so on so forth, but you can’t compare ongoing trauma and truth with films that are by-and-large commercial enterprises to the story of institutional tragedy.  The story of Philomena Lee is essentially a political one involving a sovereign state and its inactions to protect its citizens and a global church that professes Christianity love, truth and respect, but is engaged, in this instance, in joint venture acts of appalling inhumanity and cruelty.  It is up to us, the cinemagoers to inform ourselves to the highest degree on all of the issues that are missing from this film.  That said I would urge you to see the film because some truth in all its horrors still manages to reach out and touch us. Perhaps because of what we already know in relation to the culture that still exists in our country.

It will take some time for society to extract the truth on this whole issue.  Memorials at the Garden of Remembrance, Magdalene Sisters films, and films like Philomena can never be a substitute for the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in fact sometimes such films can damage truth and authenticity as they can perpetrate the lie that it was ‘all done in good faith’. This film will now be promoted by Harvey Weinstein and may possibly even win an Oscar, however there is always the possibility that it could damage the ongoing advocacy for truth and accountability.

With all that in mind – please go.  And when you come out of the cinema, get involved, demand answers.  Seek accountability.  Don’t let the Church or the State off the hook. What happened here was on an enormous scale and that enormity has not been reduced, but has been added to by the continuous refusal of the congregations of nuns at the centre of the Mother and Baby homes who were willfully engaged with the theft, trafficking and sale of children to be held accountable, to hand over the many documents and files that they have in their possession.  These documents need to be given to their rightful owners without any hindrance whatsoever. Everybody has the right to their own information. The lie that is about that these documents were lost through fire damage or floods etc. needs to stop.  People have memory. The congregations duplicated many of its documents. Every child had a passport forged.  People know.  Including Aer lingus, Pan Am and emigration.

In essence the film is about secrecy which forms an unbroken web. That secrecy is never challenged.  And even the cinema goer is asked to accept that secrecy.  It is this very secrecy that gives rise to gross abuse in society, from the institutions of the state, the institutions of the church and the very institution of the family and here right before us in the IFI that secrecy is well maintained by the cultural industry and the film community.  This is far too serious an issue to be turned into mere entertainment.  Philomena the film is not Rabbit Proof Fence, or Los Ninos Robados.  It is a vehicle for the desires of Steve Coogan and the advancement of his career at the expense of a real truth, a real politic.  Mr Coogan needs to be aware of this, that in doing what he did he places himself firmly on the side of those oppressive regimes that wish to keep us all silent, all stunted and childlike and all contained.

This story and the thousands of stories like it will one day escape from this place and find a place where their truth will be heard, understood and accepted.  To avoid is to deny.  To deny is further injustice.  The struggle and the search for truth continues. Mr Coogan had an opportunity to inform the public.  He chose instead to protect the wrong doers – the Irish State and the Catholic church.  He needs now to correct this if he is to have any credibility.   He needs to inform himself of the reality by speaking with those many people who are desperately seeking their children, desperately seeking their mothers.  Its important to note that Philomena Lee didn’t write the book. Didn’t make the movie.  And the problem now is that the story is in the hands of unscrupulous, unprincipled Tinseltown merchants.  And we all have an obligation here to ensure the right thing is done and that the truth is told. Only then can a society grow. Only then can true faith be meaningful.

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40 thoughts on “The Politics of Philomena

  1. Well said! Your comment about the air lines really caught my eye. In 1962, when I was 15 months old, I was put on an Aer Lingus flight with another little boy, both of us from St. Patrick’s Home in Dublin. We were flown without nurses or anyone from St. Patricks. The flight attendants presumably watched over us and then we were handed to our new parents at the airport in New York City. I’ve often wondered how the airlines shipped so many children off to new homes and never seriously questioned why so many little ones were being exported to the US?

  2. Glad the film has brought the issue to the public attention. I am 53 years of age, when I was 50, my mother who at the time was 90 years of age and starting to suffer from dementia told my brother and I that we had an elder brother named John Joseph that was born in Castlepollard mother and baby home in 1948. Then at the age of four sent to the US. We have followed the trail to St Patricks Guild, and we have had some information and photographs of our brother, but that was over a year ago, now, and our only hope of any contact or information is through the Guild who have told us they are unable to locate him. They have had contact with other members of his adoptive family, who sent forward the photos of him as a child and of his time as a soldier in Nam during the sixties. But all we can do is wait. We are not entitled to know his current name so we can not proceed further. We are not looking to blame at anyone, we do not seek any type of compensation. We just want to know what became of our brother. Wrong was done in the past, why go into the future doing the same wrong.

    • Hi MG – am happy to help you trace your brother’s roots. Give me a shout at maristeed@gmail.com or if you’re on Facebook, you can join us at Banished Babies.

      Mannix, as always, what can I say but brilliantly put! Love to you and Maedhbh…and thanks for the beautiful work of art!

  3. Pingback: Artist Research | Nancy Rochford-Flynn

  4. I think your critique re: the politics of the film, is very good and thought provoking.
    I have yet to see the film, but I had an idea that the film would be romanticised and enhanced by a warm glow.
    My Mother suffered from severe mental illness, all her life, unable to express the emotional pain and suffering of giving up her baby, until she told me her secret 66yrs later. The women were so traumatised, there was a high incidence of depression and associated illnesses amongst them.
    I doubt this would be explored in the film.
    Do you think it should be written in the history books and taught in schools?

    • Ellie, I still think ‘that film’ has yet to be made — the one that shows what women like your mum and mine suffered as a result of their loss, and none of the Hollywood-style gloss. I don’t think it will be a feature film, nor star a Dame Judy. Better suited to a hard-hitting documentary. And I swear if I win the lottery, I will make that film my mission! As to your other question, yes I absolutely believe it should be taught in schools. The Magdalen Oral History Project through UCD developed a curriculum for 16+ students on the Laundries, and I hope this one day also includes history on the mother-baby homes/forced adoptions. You might be interested in the short film developed as part of the UCD project curriculum at https://www.truetube.co.uk/film/magdalenes. It’s really compelling.

    • if a good writer can be found then let us make a “continuing Story ” film the misery thr injustice and th masogany in the idea a married woman can bring up a child but his out of wedlock true mother can’t. If you want a romantic religiouse bit of sentiment -try God gave the unmarried woman the baby. To separate is to go against God.
      Dorothy Chambers

  5. I am one of those children be it a 51year old child.I agree with everything you say. I too am surprised at the collaboration of the airlines.The film also seems to assume that every child taken went to well off families and had a fairy tale life. I have struggled since I was 21 to find information, especially when I was trying to get a passport. I had contact with sister Hildegarde who told me that Sean Ross Abbey had nothing to do with my handover, even though I had papers signed by her.At times I have thought I was one of few, and the quest for truth and identity, has at times taken me over.

    Now I feel that the state and the church should be brought to task. If I had the finances I would bring them to court for answers.

  6. Thank you for this Mannix. You have articulated what I felt after seeing the film but couldn’t quite get into thoughts and words. In England the cruelty towards unwed mothers was more subtle and often masked with a veneer of do-gooding civilised behaviour and respectability, but they still took our babies away. The secrecy and failure to share information; the government whitewash; the media turning us into fascinating human interest stories – all these are the same both sides of the Irish Sea.
    I am a birth mother and member of the Movement For An Adoption Apology in the UK.

  7. Thank you for this critique. I along with thousands of other Australian mothers, was put into a Church run, so called Home for Unmarried Mothers, and was forced to relinquish my baby son in 1967. We mothers fought for years for acknowledgement and finally got an Apology from our P.M. on 21/3/13. Even though I haven’t seen Philomena, I agree that it can all be swept under the carpet with films like this that don’t expose the criminal behaviour of the thousands of people who were involved in these hideous crimes. I always wondered why when I walked away from seeing The Magdalene Sisters why it didn’t seem brutal enough to me and after reading this critique I know why. These films in the storytelling can completely whitewash or sanitise the criminality involved. When we had a Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoptions it was found that it wasn’t “the social mores of the day”, it was found that the practices of the day were deliberate abuse of both mother and child, and that those who were involved broke the law, and yet we still have people seeking to pretend it didn’t happen. Editors in major newspapers were still printing letters from adoptive parents saying we ” couldn’t or wouldn’t” look after our babies. People are still seeking to silence us. We are going to have exhibitions on Forced Adoption, and our stories will be taught in the school curriculum, but we still have to be vigilant and make sure we aren’t silenced. http://www.origins.com

  8. A very moving article Mannix – so glad you are speaking for so many of us who suffered because of decisions made by the church. These things also happened in England where young women who were pregnant and unmarried were pressured into giving up their children for adoption. I was one of these young women and at 17 was carted off to a mother and baby home, not allowed out and made to scrub floors and pray for forgiveness. One girl at the home had been raped by her father and still had to go through giving birth and having her baby taken away. I was in the mother and baby home for 5 months, desperate to give my daughter love for as long as I could and at 3 months old she was taken away to be adopted and I was ‘persuaded’ to sign her over. I never got over losing her and no-one would tell me where she had gone. Four years ago, when she was 44, I managed to trace her. I wanted so much to have a close relationship with her but have
    had to accept that she does not need or want this. I have always
    felt guilty that her go but, hearing other people’s stories that are so
    similar to my own and reading articles such as yours, has brought
    back painful memories that I’ve blocked since 1966 – I was
    institutionalised and worn down until I agreed to do something that,
    in my right state of mind, I would never have done.
    I was told not to talk about it to anyone and made to feel that I
    was a bad person.
    We must fight to show what terrible things were
    done to unmarried mothers and how much suffering was caused
    particularly by churches and church groups.

  9. Check out what ALAS AUSTRALIA INC, has achieved, alasq;d@alasqld,com ADOPTION LOSS ADULT SUPPORT AUSTRALIA INC, Have held the different churches, salvation army ,hospitals, & the state governments have issued APOLOGIES, also the AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS APOLOGISED FOR THE FORMER ADOPTION POLICICIES & PRACTICES,

  10. Certainly it was not the same in America but we women of a certain age certainly felt society’s censure as we had our babies in the bad old days. And still today we are not recognized as anything but a tad crazy, someone who didn’t “get over it,” when “it” was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to us. It is extremely hard to make anyone understand what the emotions of shame, guilt and and sorrow do to a person, and why “moving on” with our lives is always tinged with a slight…”well, not really” no matter how it seems to the outside world.

  11. I haven’t seen it yet but am eager to. This blog is enlightening and important, but at the end of the day I just hope it brings greater awareness and offers a platform for more discussion and advocacy.

  12. In the book it clearly indicates that during that time the Irish Government colluded with the Church in the profit making trafficking of children and babies. Highly recommend the book: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

    • For an even better and more insightful look into the trafficking of children from Ireland, read Mike Milotte’s excellent ‘Banished Babies’ (updated in 2012).

      And for anyone seeking assistance tracing a ‘Banished’ family member or for more info on the fight for our rights, visit us at http://www.adoptionrightsalliance.com or join us on Facebook at Adoption Rights Alliance and Banished Babies.

  13. Reblogged this on Oatis Communications and commented:
    Might be of interest to those of you who’ve seen — or will see — the film. Dublin city councilman blogs about the film, the kidnapping and the effects of human trafficking on Ireland.

  14. Pingback: Backing Up Mannix Flynn on the Meaning of the Movie “Philomena” | Forbidden Family

  15. I was born at Sean Ross in ’53; Philomena might have known of my mother and her circumstances. I am reading the original book after seeing the movie, and discovered that Anthony and I were both at the University of Notre Dame in the early 70’s! I do appreciate Mannix’ point of view, and want to follow this site more faithfully in 2014. I welcome any inquiries or comments. And I would sincerely love to communicate with Philomena about Sean Ross, and to give her a large thanks for her courage. Mari Steed – please send a note with your e-mail address!

    • Hi Patrick, I am a journalist based in Dublin with Reuters. I am doing a story about the difficulties facing people trying to trace their birth parents. Would you be willing to speak to me? Carmel Crimmins (carmel.crimmins@thomsonreuters.com)

  16. Pingback: Philomena a new movie | Association of Relinquishing Mothers (Victoria), Inc.

  17. Pingback: The Real Philomena: NPR Radio Interview and Commentary | FORBIDDEN FAMILY

  18. I have seen Philomena, and have survived the abuse of a “Magdalene Asylum” here in Australia. No words or movie can truly express the horror of these places. The de-humanizing of ones soul and then to have your newborn dragged from your body to be give away to strangers 3 doors down from the place of your incarceration goes beyond words that could every be spoke to describe my experience. Having finally discovered the crime committed against me, because they (church and state) hid the evidence, for decades, gave them the authority to dismiss my landmark court case taken against them in 2004, what dies this say? It says to me that they can drag you from your bed in the middle of the night, incarcerate you and force you to work for nothing in a Catholic laundry, steal your newbornm and then when you call them to account through the legal system the courts who are managed by the perpetrators throw you out of court.

    The courts have protected these thieves for centuries, and have treated women and children with hatred
    As for the national apology here in Australia, very little has come from it, and when does an apology circumvent the law on heinous crimes like kidnapping, assault, slavery, false imprisonment etc ?

    Lily Arthur Coordinator Origin’s Supporting People Separated by Adoption

    • Lily, I walked out of Philomena thinking how glad I was to have met you and heard your story before seeing the film – even this very sanitized version is unbelievably distressing, even worse if you’re unprepared for the premeditated cruelty by church and state toward women like Philomena and you.
      Philomena at least had serious help from daughter Jane and Martin Sixsmith. You had no help from anyone and you STILL got them to court! If only Sixsmith had run into you, Lily!! There might well have been an international court of inquiry into all those ‘Magdalen’ survivors, and justice for their wronged children.

  19. Pingback: The Way We Were – Single Mums | the mirror@wordpress.com

    • Well as sad as this all is, at least these children grew up in family homes, which had to be better than a foundling hospital, and even these were a humane improvement on the option that many women with illegitimate children chose, such as throwing them in the river. This fate awaited many unwanted babies both !England and Germany all down the ages. One of my best friends, who is now dead sadly, at the very young age of 54, even managed to get in contact with her birth-mother, after several years of attempts to gain access to her mother’s identity and counselling that she had to go through. Even then, her birth-mother rejected her, and that was only 10 years ago! So not all the mothers in trouble were unhappy about finding new homes for their children, even though they were not asked. Ireland in those decades was still the impoverished rural traditional country, with no sympathy for girls who “went wrong” whether through their own choice or otherwise. It didn’t have or wouldn’t provide the resources to set up unmarried mothers in council flats and support them and their growing families for decades as they did in England. I don’t think that that option was a good choice either because it rewarded error at the tax-payers’ expense! So if you are unhappy with the society that allowed such manipulation by the Catholic Church and the State, you had better go on a tax and tithe strike and hit them in their pockets, if you can!

      • Safe, reliable, cheap, available contraception has saved thousands of women from the suffering caused by the birth of babies that society doesn’t want. The lesser evil by a long way.

      • Dear Prayerwarrior…,

        I agree with you entirely. But the pill got going in the early 60s, as far as i’m aware, and this era spans from the 40s to the 70s. Also Roman Catholic countries were slow to make the pill readily available, believing that it would lead to a deterioration in morals and sexual behaviour, which was right. Fear of unwanted pregnancy, more than maintaining their good name, scared many women into celibacy before marriage. It was still a major consideration in my youth in the 70s, after 10 years of the availability of the pill. I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days. All I was pointing out was that there were worse alternatives to adoption into hopefully loving family homes. It was of course far more traumatic for the mothers who lost their children, than the kids who were ignorant of the facts until they reached adulthood. Of course, for any institution of the Roman Catholic Church to allow babies in their care to starve to death for want of funds is totally disgraceful just as it is equally disgraceful for the Irish government of the day to have turned a blind eye to these deaths and even now, for the current government to be considering WHETHER to have an enquiry into this scandalous neglect which is tantamount to murder! It seems that children born on the wrong side of the blanket, as the euphemism used to say, are still discriminated against even today in Ireland because their deaths are considered to be less important than others. Has anyone done a mortality ratio for the 800 bodies to see if, the mortality rates were much higher than the national average for the time? I know 800 is a large No, but given the time-span and the intensity level of births, does this represent a high infant mortality rate compared to other maternity hospitals? It would be good to get some figures. Suzy

  20. I definitely agree there needs to be a thorough enquiry on this. As it is now clear the RC church was engaged in a baby-selling racket my question would be, were the children who died handicapped in some way and so had no market value. Returning them to the mothers would have been an admission of what the RC church was up to. Ireland was, and still is, reactionary in its attitude to contraception. If only abstinence/celibacy was a guarantee of avoiding pregnancy, but women, especially young, or low intelligence or trusting can find themselves seduced, tricked or raped, and their absence of consent does not guarantee infertility.
    You make a good point that adoption was not necessarily the worst circumstance for the illegitimate child. But Social Workers have shown a bias, which perhaps was shared by the nuns, of only putting forward for adoption healthy children, from completely healthy (in mind and body) mothers, where the father also was “normal” and not a psychopathic criminal rapist. Which to me points back again to the identity of the children who died.
    I am not as well informed on this subject as I should be. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996. Does that mean that as late as 1996 a lower class woman’s pregnancy outside marriage could result in indefinite imprisonment without trial? And if it was such a good idea, why weren’t the fathers also imprisoned in the Laundries, after all, the woman couldn’t make the baby on her own.

  21. Pingback: The Last Piece of Dirty Carpet: Adoption in Ireland | culchieblog

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