The Real Philomena

Originally published on January 14, 2014 5:13 pm

Philomena,” the movie starring Dame Judi Dench, has been both a critical and commercial success.

The film is based on the story of Philomena Lee, who as an unmarried pregnant teenager, went to a Catholic-run home for unwed mothers in Rosecrea, Ireland in 1952.

“In those days it was such an awful thing to have the baby out of wedlock, we were ostracized all over the place,” Lee told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “My father didn’t want to know me. He disowned me.”

Lee was compelled by the nuns to put her son up for adoption, and he was taken away when he was three and a half.

Leenever saw her son again, although she left word with the nuns for her son, in case he came looking for her. As a grown-up, Lee’s son tried repeatedly to contact her, but the nuns never put the two in touch with each other.

Lee eventually attempted to find her son, with the help of her grown daughter Jane Libberton 10 years ago, but the two found out that he had died of AIDS in 1995.


  • Philomena Lee, her life inspired the film “Philomena.”
  • Jane Libberton, daughter of Philomena Lee.
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The movie "Philomena" is a huge hit, even though it is a story of almost unbearable loss. Dame Judi Dench plays the title character, the real-life Irish woman Philomena, who became pregnant as a naive teen and was sent to one of Ireland's mother and baby homes, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea County, Tipperary, where her son was taken away from her when he was three and given to an American family for adoption. She searched for him for years. That's all true. The film deviates from the real story by having her travel to America with a journalist played by Steve Coogan.


JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) Now we're getting closer. All these years wondering whether Anthony was in trouble or in prison or goodness knows where. But as long as I didn't know, I could always tell myself he was happy somewhere and that he was doing all right.

STEVE COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Don't upset yourself.

DENCH: (AS Philomena) What if he was obese?

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Obese?

DENCH: (As Philomena) I watched this documentary that says a lot of Americans are huge. What if that happened to him?

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) What on Earth makes you think he'd be obese?

DENCH: (As Philomena) Because of the size of the portions.

YOUNG: All right, that's a somewhat funny line - there are a few. But the real Philomena Lee says she's OK with that because the story, the real story is so sad. It turns out her son was looking for her as well. Like two blind people feeling their way around the world, they never touched. He died of AIDS before they could. Philomena Lee joins us from the NPR Studios in Culver City, California, with more. Philomena, welcome.


YOUNG: And your daughter, Jane Libberton, joins us as well. Jane, welcome to you.

JANE LIBBERTON: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: I just have to ask you, I'm sorry, is that hard for you to hear, that clip from the film, or does the light moment...

LEE: No, not - not really, no. No. Not hard at all. No. This is all true, yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. You've said that you thought of Anthony every day for over 50 years.

LEE: Well, I kept this - as you know, Robin, for 50-odd years, I kept this as a secret. I never told anybody about it because in those days, it was such an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock. We were ostracized all over the place. Nobody - and my father didn't want to know me - disowned me. And I had one brother that was on my side, so I ended up in Roscrea.

And there I stayed for three and a half years. He was born the 5th of July, 1952. In June 1955, I had to wait for him to be adopted because there's no way I could take him home with me. My father didn't want to know me.

YOUNG: So you were resigned to the thought that he might be adopted. You had no choice. I can't imagine, you felt you had a choice.

LEE: No choice, whatsoever, because there was nowhere I could go.

YOUNG: Well - and you have said that image of him being driven away in a car, you were watching from a window, it's just unbearable. How do you survive that?

LEE: I don't know. I just kept thinking - I kept that image in front of me all the years that I kept the secret to myself. I knew he had to go because I had signed him away six months previously to that. But one of the very nice nuns that were there, she came down, she said: Quick, come up and look out the window. Anthony's going. I didn't really have time to say, good-bye, darling, or give him a hug or a kiss or anything. He was just gone, put into the car.

And all I could see was the little face at the back of the window looking out. And I'm looking down the window thinking, oh, my God, he's gone, you know, after three and a half years looking after him and loving him and nursing him (unintelligible). And, you know, Robin, you know, I've never forgotten the scene and never will do. I still have tears about it sometimes, you know, so sorry about that. But anyway...

YOUNG: Well, it's understandable. And yet we should jump ahead. You, in fact, got a job. You eventually had a career as a psychiatric nurse.

LEE: I did.

YOUNG: Always looking, always - as you grew up, grew away from the convent, always sending word back to them, them never saying anything to you about where he was.

LEE: No.

YOUNG: Yeah.

LEE: No. And then when I told my daughter 10 years ago, I thought - my brother said, for goodness' sake, will you go home and tell your daughter? But I couldn't tell her. I just kept the secret so long.

YOUNG: Well, yeah, you didn't - you weren't sure how she'd react. And, Jane, I'm sure you remember that moment.

LEE: That's right.

YOUNG: How was that for you to hear that your mother had carried this around for 50 years?

LIBBERTON: I'd felt extremely sorry for her. I have children myself, and I couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to have to give a child away at three and a half years old. But my immediate reaction was I wanted to go to search for him. I was curious. I was happy, actually. It was like, there was like somebody else out there that would be part of our family.

YOUNG: Well, except that, as you find out eventually, he became Michael Hess, raised by a family in Missouri, became a prominent lawyer, served with the first President Bush and was looking for you. He had gone to the convent. And just as you get, as we said, close, you find out that he has died.

LEE: Exactly. Yeah. Roscrea was turned into a home for handicapped children. And all the records were supposed to have been sent down to Cork. We actually rang the nuns in Cork to see if they had any information about him. The nun that answered there, she said, yes, we have. And I thought, oh God, we found him at last. But anyway, the next breath, she said, yes, we have information, but I'm so sorry to tell you he's dead. And I got - the shock of that was really awful.

You see, the awful, sad part of it was that when he went looking for me, they actually told him I'd abandoned him at two weeks, and he died thinking I had abandoned him.

LIBBERTON: Yes, that's something that angers me greatly. The fact that he went three times, and particularly on the third occasion, they knew he was unwell. And I don't understand the reason why they wouldn't tell him, why they wouldn't tell a dying man.

YOUNG: You know this has provoked a lot of discussion. In Ireland, adoption advocates are hoping that this is going to lead to a government investigation of what happened to young girls like yourself. There are others, though, who have been somewhat critical. Some in Ireland think it was a little bit sanitized.

And also, there was that exchange with the reviewer of the New York Post, a conservative tabloid in New York, Kyle Smith, who said the movie was anti-Catholic and anti-Republican. Anti-Republican because, of course, it pictured these Republican politicians working with your son who had AIDS, and it's - they were seen as foot-dragging on AIDS. You responded to that with a letter of your own that Harvey Weinstein, the producer, published in The New York Times. What did you want to say to people who think that this film is anti-Catholic?

LEE: It's not anti-Catholic, not whatsoever. I'm still a Catholic, you know?

YOUNG: Well, but explain to someone how you can have faith in this church that was so cruel.

LEE: I took up psychiatric nursing, and I did it for 30 years. Now, Robin, to think when you walk in a psychiatric hospital and you see such sadness that comes out of being bitter about something, I was able to forget about my sorrows and put them in the background and just carry on with my life. And within my heart, I never lost my religion because I always prayed for everybody and any but family, and always prayed that Anthony would one day be - I'd find him. That's all I wanted to do was to find the whole of my life. That was it.

YOUNG: Jane, for you, it was not just wanting to have your mother have this completion, but it's a brother.

LIBBERTON: Yes, indeed. It was the saddest thing of all to learn that he died before we ever had the opportunity to meet him. And I did say to her when we found out that he died, I was obviously then very concerned that it was a whole can of worms that I'd opened up. But she's glad that we did find him, we did know what happened to him and that, you know, he tried just as hard to find her, as she did to find him.

YOUNG: Well, and I'm wondering if, Philomena, with your faith, you maybe do get a little bit of a feeling now that you can tell him that you were looking for him.

LEE: Oh, all the time. I do pray to him all the time now, and I'm thankful that I did eventually, after all the years, I found out what happened to him. And he went to good parents, and he had a good life.

YOUNG: That's Philomena Lee. Her story about giving up her son Anthony as a teenager has been fictionalized in the new film "Philomena." Philomena Lee and your daughter Jane, thank you so much for speaking to us about it.

LIBBERTON: Thank you, Robin. It's been a pleasure.

LEE: And thank you very much, Robin. Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you.

YOUNG: Devastating.



YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.