Philomena Lee's tragic tale was made into a film starring Judi Dench - but her battle continues

Philomena Lee, the subject of an Oscar-nominated film, launches project to help find children who were forcibly adopted

Philomena Lee, a slight, soft-spoken Irishwoman in her 80s who walks with the aid of a stick, returned to Dublin today to spearhead the latest in a long series of campaigns against clerical wrongs.

In the 1950s nuns took her son Anthony away from her because he was born out of wedlock, giving him to well-off Americans in exchange for dollars. When she went back to the convent looking for him in later life, the nuns told her they had no idea where he was.

Yet they did know, for as a young man he too returned several times to the convent in Tipperary in efforts to track down his mother. But they told him they did not know where she was. She only discovered his whereabouts after his death, when she discovered his grave in the convent grounds.

The tragic tale was the subject of a book by the former journalist Martin Sixsmith which was made into a film, Philomena, starring Judi Dench. The movie won critical acclaim and is nominated for four Oscars at next month’s Academy Awards. “Judi Dench portrayed me so well,” Mrs Lee said. “We met before the filming, and we got on so well. She’s such a wonderful lady.”

The film has put a human face on a practice which was widespread in the puritanical Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s. Campaigners estimate that perhaps 60,000 children endured forced adoptions – “taken children,” as they are now being called. One estimate is that the numbers would dwarf those at the Magdalene laundries, where unwed mothers toiled in harsh conditions.

“I was reluctant to speak of it for 50 years,” Mrs Lee said. “There was so much guilt and shame about unmarried mothers, I kept it a secret.” The women and girls were put to work in the convent and were allowed to see their children for one hour a day.

They had few rights. The nuns required them to make a sworn declaration which read: “I relinquish full claim forever to my child and surrender him. I undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time.”

Mrs Lee’s last sight of Anthony was as he was driven away from the convent, aged three, in an American car. “I was very sad, very hurt,” she recalled. “I cried and cried.” It took decades before she disclosed Anthony’s existence to her daughter Jane, who set out to find him but could not penetrate a veil of government and church secrecy. “I was shocked when I came across all these brick walls,” she said.

Mrs Lee and others have now launched the Philomena Project, which will campaign for a change in Irish law to grant access to records of more than 60,000 adoptions held by the authorities and churches. Campaigners say the UK has a relatively open regime in terms of passing on information about adopted children and their birth mothers, but that Ireland is much more closed.

One activist said: “I suspect the government will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the UN.” She added that many children were distraught to finally locate their mothers, only to find they had died. Mrs Lee said that eventually locating her son’s grave “has given me such relief, such joy”, adding that she now visited it often. But she said nuns had lied to her son.

“The awful fact was that he died thinking I’d abandoned him. I was looking for him, longing, longing, longing to find him,” she said. “I’m so sad that he died. I thought, if only I’d met him once more, put my arms around him, gave him a hug.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Broker / Purchaser

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'