The Real-Life Philomena: 'You See So Much Hurt Caused by Anger'

Were you worried people would take an anti-Catholic message away from the movie?

Jane: I don’t think we even thought about the Catholic stance at all, this is just my mom’s story and what happened to her. Obviously people have come out and said, “This is an anti-Catholic film.” It was never intended to be. This is what happened.

Philomena: No! It’s my story.

Jane: There are other Catholic groups that are in support of it, [saying] that it isn’t an anti-Catholic film because she retains her faith all the way through it. We’re just telling the truth of what happened. It was never, ever from the start meant to be an attack on the Church. Steve Coogan [who plays Martin Sixsmith] says the same thing. He’s from an Irish-Catholic family. He spent a lot of time with women my mom’s age when he was a child. He never set out at all to make an anti-Catholic film. It’s just different people who have different views. As mom said, yes, they did take her in. Where else would she have gone? But they kind of caused the problem in the first place. They were part of the solution, but they were part of the problem.

Did you feel surprised that so many people found your commitment to your faith inspiring?

Philomena: We did, actually. People can’t understand how I could have been so forgiving. But I mean, Anthony would have been 61 last year. When he was adopted and taken away, I went to Liverpool, two years I stayed there, and then I went down and did psychiatric nursing for 30 years. Now, you don’t work in a psychiatric hospital and not see some awful, sad faces. You see so much hurt and pain caused by anger. I was angry in the beginning, and I used to think, why did this happen to me? And then nursing the patients, sitting down and talking with them, helping them with their problems—it made my own slide into the background. I’ve seen so much hurt caused through anger. And I thought, “I couldn’t go through my whole life being angry.” It’s just not in my nature to be angry. I was upset and very sad and very hurt. But I just went on with life and got married and had children. Working with psychiatric patients, it helped me to heal a lot of the pain I had.

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the moment of forgiveness near the end. Steve Coogan, as Martin, seems confused by it, asking, “Just like that?” But Judi Dench, as you, says it actually takes everything inside you to forgive.

Philomena: When my daughter first found out about this story, she was very angry, and I think Steve Coogan took on her anger.

Jane: Martin was a political journalist, and he wasn’t particularly angry. He’s seen all sort of things in his career. Steve asked a particular question of whether you forgive the nuns, and you did. I said, “I don’t,” so he took the anger and put it in his character. Martin wasn’t an angry character, he was a journalist.

Were the nuns as big of an obstacle in learning about Anthony as they appeared in the movie?

Jane: When we went the first time, they didn’t help. They were very pleasant very nice.

Philomena: Lovely.

Jane: We sat down to tea like this. We knew Anthony’s grave was there. But they didn’t give us any information about the American side of things. When we went back the second year, I’d said we found Anthony’s partner and we found Mary, who was adopted with Anthony, and then they went to the cupboard and gave me papers they could have given me before. Without those papers, there never would have been a book. They just weren’t helpful.

Did they not fully understand?

Jane: Oh, they understood. [The character] Sister Margaret was [based off] the present-day nun we met with Martin. She was delightful. She’s English like I am, so she knew where I was coming from, because in the United Kingdom, at 18 years old, you can find out your history if you’re adopted. In Ireland, you can’t. I didn’t get angry with her. I was angry, but I didn’t shout out her like Steve Coogan shouts at Sister Hildegard [in the movie]. She knew exactly what I meant when I said, “To me, what you’re doing is completely wrong.” She did sit there kind of stony-faced. She was in the position where she felt she couldn’t give me the information because that’s what she’d been taught by the Church. And we’re only talking about seven years ago. It wasn’t a long time ago.

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Did you have a sense of how widespread this was?

Philomena: You mean everybody having babies? Women having babies?

The forced adoptions across the country, I mean.

Philomena: I was a teenager at the time. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t know about babies being gone abroad and getting donations for them. I didn’t know the first thing about that. How would we know? The nuns wouldn’t tell you. We were Catholic, we went to church, we went to mass, that’s all we did. I worked in the laundry for three and a half years.

Mari: There were many Irish families who might have had a mother and baby home just up the road and didn’t even know it. They just knew it was the nuns who ran their business. Nobody really knew what went on behind the walls or dared ask. I think they had an inkling, it just wasn’t discussed.

Philomena: And often the mother’s parents were glad to get rid of you, because it was such a shame on them. We were ostracized so much. We had to lose our identities. I wasn’t Philomena Lee anymore. I got a name called Marcella. For three and a half years, I was Marcella. Some of the women now come forward and say, “Did you remember me when I was there?” I wouldn’t have remembered them because they’d have another name. From the day I went in till the day I came out I was Marcella, not Philomena Lee.

Tell me about the first time you told Jane about Anthony.

Philomena: I go home to Ireland every year. I call it home still even though I’ve lived 56 years in England. My brother, he was a young lad. He was 18 months older than me when I went to the home. He drove me when they discovered I was pregnant. He bounced him on his knees and hugged him and loved him. My father was out signing papers with the nuns—in them days you didn’t query what they were doing—and my brother was out with me in the halls. For years he felt so guilty. “I should have run away with him.” But with the police, the guards, we call them guards in Ireland, [he] wouldn’t have gotten away with it. I went home in 2003, was it? He said, “For goodness’ sake, go back home and tell them.” My son is older than Jane. I went home and sat them down and told them.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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