The film is lovely, warmed by on-screen chemistry between Judi Dench, who plays Lee, and Steve Coogan, who plays journalist Martin Sixsmith. Bits of humor between them smooth the sharp edges of Lee’s search for the child she’d given up for adoption many years earlier.
The real story is a bit more raw: “The Catholic church sold my child” reads the headline of a 2009 news article by Sixsmith, published when his book on Lee was released in England. The article recounts how a 1950s Irish family sent Lee, then 18, pregnant, and unmarried, to a Mother and Baby Home at a Tipperary nunnery. There she gave birth. There too she was compelled to put in three years’ labor, and, eventually, to give up the son she’d helped care for till he was a toddler. Sixsmith writes:
‘Early on in the search I realised that the Irish Catholic hierarchy had been engaged in what amounted to an illicit baby trade. From the end of the second world war until the 1970s, it considered the thousands of souls born in its care to be the church’s own property. With or without the agreement of their mothers, it sold them to the highest bidder. Every year, hundreds were shipped off to American couples who paid “donations” (in reality, fees) to the nuns. Few if any checks were made on the suitability of the adopting families – the only condition laid down by Archbishop McQuaid was that they should be practising Catholics.’
Silence enveloped the decades-long practice. Even International Child Law, the circa-2010 British text that we’re using in my Children & International Law seminar, makes no note of it: though these out-of-Ireland adoptions occurred just an island away, the book’s chapter speaks of 1950s intercountry adoption solely in the context of U.S. adoptions of children born in wartime Korea.
This may change, as Lee has helped found The Philomena Project, committed to push, in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, for legislation that would ease access to adoption information. (credit for undated photos, of the Mother and Baby Home where Lee was placed, courtesy of the Adoption Rights Alliance, which is working with the Project)
The Project calls for justice along the lines of the efforts begun in relation to another tragic Irish institution of the era, the Magdalene Laundries, the subject not only of a 2002 film, but also of a 2011 report by the U.N. Committee Against Torture. To date those efforts have resulted in an official state apology regarding the Magdalenes practices – though not yet the actual award of promised reparations, as a recent post in the Human Rights in Ireland blog detailed.