Martin Sixsmith: the story behind Philomena the book

12 May 2015

By Pan Macmillan

'It took just one meeting with Philomena to convince me to help her find her son'

The story of Philomena is one of mothers and children, of the intense maternal bond that develops in the first years of life. That story is a universal one. But the tragic event at the heart of Philomena concerns the emotional turmoil that is unleashed when that sacred bond is broken by the callous actions of others.

Philomena Lee was just eighteen when she met a handsome young man at the county fair in Limerick one evening in 1952. She had no idea about the facts of life. After an evening of romance Philomena had fallen pregnant, a shameful thing in 1950s Ireland. She was sent to the nuns at a convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary to give birth as a ‘fallen woman’. She was forced to spend over three years there, slaving in the laundries while also caring for her son, Anthony. 

But worse was to follow. When Anthony was three and a half Philomena was told he was being taken from her, given for adoption in America, in return for a hefty ‘donation’ to the church from his new parents. Philomena was devastated. Sent away to England, she kept the ‘guilty secret’ of her illegitimate child for fifty years, not telling her family or her friends because the church had told her she would be damned if she did so. Full of regret, Philomena spent five decades secretly searching for her lost son, while he – unbeknown to Philomena – was also searching for her.

Finally, on the day of what she knew to be Anthony’s fiftieth birthday, Philomena told her daughter Jane that she had a long lost half-brother. Jane knew I’d been a journalist and asked me for help in finding him.

It took just one meeting with Philomena to convince me to do so. From the very first moment I was struck by the immense humanity of the woman. She was friendly, bright and hugely likeable; we hit it off straight away. And over the next four years as I worked to try to unravel what had become of her lost child I came to appreciate Philomena’s emotional wisdom, the way she took what the world had thrown at her and refused to let it make her bitter or ruin her life.

The detective story I embarked on took me to Ireland and to America. And what I discovered about the forces that had separated a mother from her child made me very angry. But Philomena, remarkably, is full of forgiveness. Her emotional wisdom and breadth of spirit restored my faith in humanity.

-Martin Sixsmith