The Truth About The Philomenas of Ireland

It was usually Irish families who consigned their daughters to homes for unwed mothers.

The movie of Philomena is has attracted awards and wide popularity: Dame Judi Dench certainly deserves an Oscar, for her tender, sympathetic, and sometimes funny portrayal of Philomena Lee, the Irishwoman who was forced to yield her child for adoption in the 1950s – indeed, whose toddler son was snatched from her care and despatched to a rich couple in America.

The movie, directed by Stephen Frears and also starring Steve Coogan – in a spot-on performance as an opportunistic journalist with a bit of a heart – is everywhere described as a “true story.”

It is, broadly, a true story, though the truth has been amended to suit the purpose of the drama. The villain of the piece, the nun Sister Hildegarde, has been given lines to speak which she never said, and has had her life-span altered to provide a convenient configuration to the narrative. The good things that the real Hildegarde did are omitted – and people who knew this nun in real life have given testimony to some good things she did.

This isn’t unusual. Drama always re-shapes and embroiders real life: drama is not documentary. I met a Shakespeare scholar recently who informed me that the real Macbeth, King of Scotland, was an entirely blameless monarch, and brought a stable rule to his realm – there is no historical evidence that he waded through blood to a throne.

But that didn’t suit Shakespeare’s purpose which was (a) to entertain the folks at the Globe theatre in his time and (b) to write flatteringly about the Tudors as distinct from any other dynasty.

The Bard did something similar with Richard III, who, it now emerges was a perfectly fine fellow who never murdered the little princes in the Tower of London – he has been exhumed and his character re-instated. Shakespeare, who was keen to stay on the right side of the political establishment during the reign of Elizabeth I, purposely blackened the previous dynasty so as to enhance the one he served.

So drama doesn’t always tell the historical truth; and  Philomena isn’t obliged to tell the exact, objective truth because it is essentially one woman’s story, seen from her point of view.

The aspect of the movie that troubles me, however, is not the way it stretches concepts of facts and documentary truth: the greater mendacity is what it omits. In the introduction to the best-selling Philomena book written by Martin Sixsmith, Dame Judi writes that Philomena was “’put away’ in a convent by an Irish society dominated by the Catholic Church” after she gave birth to “a beautiful baby boy” out of wedlock. That is so: yet somebody hasn’t given Dame Judi the missing piece of the jigsaw. It wasn’t the nuns, or Irish society, or the Catholic church, which chose to consign these hapless young women to awful institutions: it was their own families who put them there. That is the dimension that is entirely missing from the universally successful Philomena movie.

We talk about “the elephant in the room” when a glaring fact is deliberately ignored and this is the carefully ignored elephant in  Philomena: what happened to Philomena Lee’s family? Where are they? Airbrushed out of the picture (in the book it emerges that her aunt, who was her guardian, threw her out, and her widowed father chose to consign her to the Roscrea abbey.)

What happened to the father of her child, who had a responsibility, too, to stand by Philomena when he made her pregnant? Mentioned only in passing – as “lovely” and “handsome” and then an invisible presence. Philomena’s predicament arose – as did the pitiful situation of other young women in Magdalene laundries – because her family chose to put her into an institution run by nuns known for austerity and discipline, if not outright cruelty.

Why is everyone so keen to avoid confronting this truth about young girls like Philomena – that they could have been saved from a regime of laundry slavery, and the coercive parting from their children, if their families had simply stood by them? Some families did so.

Sometimes they had recourse to a disguise used in many societies – the baby born to the daughter was ascribed to the older mother. The film star Jack Nicholson grew up in such a household – the woman he thought was his sister was his birth mother, and the woman he thought was his mother was his grandmother. This may be said to cause psychological confusion, but it didn’t faze Jack too much: “I kinda admired them for carrying it off”, he has said. Yet it was a subterfuge which enabled an out-of-wedlock child, in past times, to remain within the family.

Another common option was the “shotgun marriage”, where someone leaned heavily on the young man to marry the mother of his child. There’s a fabulous autobiography about slum life in Glasgow called “Growing Up in the Gorbals”, by Ralph Glasser, which describes exactly how working-class communities went after the lad and made him “do the decent thing” if a girl was pregnant. Not ideal, we would say now, but still better than being abandoned.

I hope Philomena wins many awards because, as a film, it deserves to. But it would surely be more accurate to describe it as “a true story which avoids certain key contextual truths”. Viz: the Philomenas of Irish life were first a victim of family abandonment before ever they were victims of the Sister Hildegardes. ENDS.