Friday 15 February 2019

How meeting Philomena helped me to deal with my adoption

Caitriona Palmer was taken from her mother when she was just two days old. Confiding in Philomena Lee has helped her pain

A scene set in Roscrea with Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith.
A scene set in Roscrea with Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith.

Caitriona Palmer

For the past 14 years I have been having a secret relationship with my mother. We meet in hotel bars across Dublin, preferring darkened corners where we can catch up in peace, avoiding conversations with strangers, and evading any questions about our physical similarities with a polite smile.

The relationship feels clandestine, almost like an affair. Our rendezvous are arranged by text message – we never speak on the phone – and I have long stopped bringing her bouquets of flowers, knowing well that she cannot explain their heady extravagance back home.

This is the story that I told Philomena Lee while we sipped tea in the fancy bar of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, DC. Philomena is in town with her daughter, Jane, as part of a publicity tour for the Oscar-nominated movie about the son she bore in a convent in Roscrea in 1952 and whom she lost to forced adoption when he was three-and-a-half-years old.

I was meant to be interviewing Philomena but before long she had turned the tables on me. My journalist's notebook sat empty as I found myself opening up, telling Philomena the story about the woman who gave me up for adoption 41 years ago in Dublin and who every day since has lived with the festering secret of my existence, a ballast around her heart.

Philomena knows all about secrets. For 50 years she told no one about her little boy Anthony, who won over even the sternest of nuns with his dazzling smile and gentle kisses.

Having given birth to Anthony in the mother-and-baby home in Roscrea, Philomena was forced to work in the convent laundry, the price of admission for "one night of romance" with a handsome lad whom she met at a carnival in Newcastle West and never saw again.

For one hour of the day, over three and a half years, Philomena was allowed to play with Anthony and, despite this depravation, they formed an unbreakable bond. But because Philomena was a "sinner", her child could never belong to her.

The week before Christmas 1955, Anthony was dispatched to America, Philomena unaware of his departure until she saw his tiny face searching for hers in the back window of the car that was taking him away.

My own mother – let's call her Sarah, not her real name – made the mistake of falling in love with a swaggering man-about-town in a rural Irish outpost in 1971. The day she told him she was pregnant he pretended not to hear. That day was the last she would ever lay eyes on him.

Ostracised by her family, Sarah fled to Dublin where a Catholic charity sent her to live with a married couple with young children.

For free room and board, she tended to the couple's kids while her belly swelled. I was born on a warm spring night in April 1972 and dispatched to a Dublin baby home two days later. Six and a half weeks later I was ensconced with my new family.

The nuns had assured Sarah that once I was born, she would soon "get over it" and return to a normal life. But how can life be normal when your heart has been ripped out of your chest and tossed aside and no-one wants to talk about it?

Traumatised and stigmatised, she entered a self-imposed witness protection programme. She created a new life, erasing her past. She met another man, fell in love and accepted his proposal of marriage.

She worried that he might leave her if he knew of her terrible sin and so she didn't tell. She had a child, then one more, and another. But despite the happiness of her new life, the secret inside grew bigger, a constant drum of anxiety and unhappiness, a daily reminder of her terrible past.

"You just believed everything that they told you," Philomena says when I tell her about Sarah's pain. "I carried my secret all though my life, and even when I left Roscrea, it never left me because I thought, 'I can't tell this to anybody. It's too serious. I've committed a grave sin.'"

"We were so ostracised and so browbeaten into thinking that we had committed a sin, a mortal sin," she says.

Now as unofficial ambassador for the shamed women of Ireland's past, Philomena is using her new-found celebrity to usher those such as Sarah out of the closet, urging them to liberate themselves from the time machine that has left them stuck in the backward Ireland of the '50s, '60s and '70s.

"I was in the same situation. I was so afraid to tell. I was afraid that my children would reject me," she says. "But they are the most wonderful daughter and son. I should have known better."

"Please, please, women my age, will you please come forward and tell your story like I did?" Philomena says in reference to the older Irish women, like her, for whom time is running out. "For my age group you need them to tell your story because for a lot of this group, it's the siblings that are looking for them."

Philomena's argument is a compelling one but the plucky 80-year-old has her work cut out for her. Despite all the economic and social progress that Ireland has made in recent decades, the shame and stigma – enforced by the unhealthy relationship between church and state – still has a vice-like grip on the minds of these women.

The Irish Government last year had to be dragged kicking and screaming into an apology for the forgotten Magdalene women who washed the dirty laundry of the Irish public in penance for their "crimes."

Philomena, as head of the newly created Philomena Project, is now advocating changes in Ireland's arcane adoption laws to allow adoptees like me access to our original records. (Despite permission from both Sarah and my adoptive parents, I am still denied access to my records.)

The Irish State – which stood by, and in many cases profited from the imprisonment of unmarried mothers in religious institutions – has a lot for which to answer.

Sitting next to Philomena and her daughter Jane during our tea in Washington is Mari Steed, another "forgotten" Irish child born in a baby home and sent to America when she was 18 months old.

Mari, in a cruel twist, became pregnant as a teenager and was forced to relinquish her own child for adoption.

It struck me that the Ritz Carlton in downtown Washington had never had a tea party quite like it before – four Irish women, some holding hands and shedding tears, each of our lives irrevocably altered by Ireland's messy relationship with the Catholic Church.

Back at home that night, I felt somehow altered. The interview with Philomena had felt like a benediction, her grace and forgiveness in the face of the terrible injustice she had suffered like a healing balm.

I poured myself a glass of wine and paused in the kitchen to send Sarah a quick text message. It was nearly midnight in Dublin but I guessed that she would be awake.

"Just met Philomena and told her about you," I typed in a hurry. "She had such empathy for you. Said you are not alone."

Sarah's reply was instantaneous.

"I think it took her 50 years to open up," she wrote. "I'm praying for a miracle for myself."

CAITRIONA PALMER IS WRITING A BOOK ABOUT HER ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AND HER SECRET RELATIONSHIP WITH HER BIRTH MOTHER. SHE HAS CHANGED DETAILS IN THIS ARTICLE TO PROTECT THE IDENTITY OF HER BIRTH MOTHER.

Irish Independent

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