Wednesday 22 May 2019

Ireland's Lost Babies - 'a devastatingly powerful piece of work that will move you to tears one moment and blood-boiling outrage the next'

Picture Shows: Martin Sixsmith outside a church in Dublin.
Picture Shows: Martin Sixsmith outside a church in Dublin.

Pat Stacey

Philomena, the Oscar-nominated, multi-award-winning movie about Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for the son stolen from her by nuns and given up for adoption, captivated the world.

It was a depressing tale, but leavened by a semi-happy ending: Philomena discovered what became of her baby and forgave those who had wrenched them apart.

It’s to be hoped that journalist Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book on which the film is based and was portrayed on screen by Steve Coogan, receives the same appreciative audience for his follow-up documentary, Ireland’s Lost Babies, which goes out on BBC2 tonight Wednesday September 17 and RTE1 tomorrow Thursday September 18.

It’s a vitally important, devastatingly powerful piece of work that will move you to tears one moment and blood-boiling outrage the next. Just don’t expect a re-run of Philomena. You’ll look in vain here for even the slightest hint of a happy ending.

After the film was released, Sixsmith was contacted by other individuals with stories to tell. Some were mothers whose babies the nuns had taken away and sold, like items of merchandise from a mail order catalogue (which is essentially how they were regarded), to well-off American couples. The average cost of the transaction was $320; there was an understanding that generous “donations” from the adoptive parents would follow.

Others were the very children who had been torn from their birth mothers’ embrace and transported across the Atlantic.

But the documentary begins in rural Ireland, where Sixsmith meets Lily Boyce, who kept her pregnancy secret from everyone right up to the moment of birth. Her outraged mother led Lily and her newborn son, who she named Joseph, to the gates of Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, one of the many grim dives where young women and their ‘illegitimate’ children were locked away like dirty little secrets.

When Joseph was 17 months, the nuns told Lily to dress him so he could go to his new family. She was allowed to wave to him from the top of the stairs as he was led away. Lily eventually succeeded in contacting Joseph and received a letter from him. But there has been no Long Lost Family-style ending.

Cathy Deasy arrived in New York City in 1958 when she was four. Her new parents had never set foot on Irish soil. “It was all done by mail,” she tells Sixsmith. At first, Cathy was happy — the lucky recipient of an idyllic childhood.

But when her older adoptive sister flew the nest to California, her father turned against Cathy. The money in her college fund was blown on a cruise. When she turned 18, she was thrown out of the house. Her parents sold up and moved to California to be with their biological daughter, abandoning Cathy.

She was finally reunited with her birth mother, who has since died, on a trip to Ireland. Home movie footage shows their touching meeting, but also Cathy’s confrontation with the nun who had the information she’d been seeking half her life at her fingertips, yet had refused to pass it on.

You can hardly grade one act of cruelty against another, yet there are other stories here that reveal even deeper levels of wickedness.

The real Martin Sixsmith is less visibly angry than Coogan’s screen incarnation; you, however, will have anger to spare after this.

Ireland's Lost Babies: TONIGHT, BBC2, 9PM; TOMORROW, RTE1, 10PM

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