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EXCLUSIVE: Dame Judi Dench and the woman whose life-long search for her son inspired the hit movie Philomena

By John Hiscock

00:01, 3 Nov 2013

The actress opens up about her relationship with Philomena Lee whose store inspired a film

Philomena Lee and Dame Judi Dench at the Claridges Hotel (Image: PA)

The two venerable ladies sit together chatting away, sipping coffee, laughing and occasionally holding hands.

Anyone witnessing this happy scene would assume they were old friends.

“It certainly feels that way,” says Dame Judi Dench, 78, clutching the older woman’s hand.

“This is an extraordinary woman and I’m privileged to know her.”

Philomena Lee, 80, smiles shyly as a photographer takes a picture of them.

“I never expected or wanted all this – but I’ve always said that everything happens for a reason,” she reveals in a strong Irish brogue.

Philomena is gradually becoming accustomed to being the centre of ­attention since the release of the film named after her. Dame Judi plays her and is being tipped for Oscar ­recognition in the title role.

It tells the heartbreaking but often humorous story of Philomena’s 50-year search for the son taken from her at an Irish convent and sold for adoption to a wealthy American family.

“To have Judi Dench playing you, what more could a woman ask for?” says Philomena.

“She’s a treasure and a perfect lady. We got to know one another before she started the film because she said she’d never played anyone who is still alive and she had to get to know me.

“She put me totally at my ease. Such a lovely, gentle lady.”

Judi in the film Philomena


Philomena and Dame Judi were having a breakfast reunion at London’s May Fair hotel with Steve Coogan, who bought the film rights to the story.

Coogan, 48, also co-stars in the film as BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, who embarks with Philomena on the search for her son Anthony, who was taken from her at the age of three.

The two stars say they were emotionally moved by Philomena’s long and determined search.

Unbeknown to Philomena, Anthony spent decades looking for her too and three times he went to see the nuns – but because of the sisters’ refusal to divulge any information to either of them, the two tragically never met.

With the help of Sixsmith, Philomena eventually discovered that Anthony had been renamed Michael Hess by his new family and enjoyed a high-flying career in Washington as a White House lawyer and aide to George Bush Senior.

She learnt that he was gay and had died of Aids, and that his partner, fulfilling his dying wish, had taken his ashes to Ireland.

They were buried in the grounds of the convent where Philomena had given birth to him.

“The part I get so upset about is that he died thinking I had abandoned him, that’s what the nuns told him, but there was nothing else I could do but let him go,” says Philomena.

“I had nobody to help me and I asked the nuns several times to help find me a job in Ireland so I could take him with me but they said he had to be adopted into a good home.

“I remember how much I cried when he was taken away and I still think of him every day. I didn’t even get the chance to give him a cuddle. I saw his little face looking out of the window of the car. That has never left me.

“But I’m not angry. I didn’t tell anyone for so many years but I’m glad I did and eventually found out all about him, even though it took most of my life to do so. Imagine little old me having a son who was in the White House!”

Dame Judi stars alongside Steve Coogan in the movie ( Image:Pathe Productions)

Philomena’s dogged determination, inner fortitude and her capacity for forgiveness have made a big impression on Dame Judi.

“There are very, very few people of Philomena’s magnitude and strength, able to turn around at the end of the journey and forgive the nuns for what they did,” says Dame Judi. “She didn’t want to be angry and I know I couldn’t live with that and be able to do that.”

Philomena entered a convent school in Ireland at the age of six, after her mother died. She left when she was 18 knowing little of the world, and one evening met a boy called John who bought her a toffee apple at the county fair.

“I didn’t know a thing about the facts of life and I didn’t know where babies came from,” she says.

“John never knew he was a father. All I knew about him was he worked in the Post Office in Limerick which meant he was educated.”

When she became pregnant her family disowned her and had her “put away” with the nuns at Roscrea convent in County Tipperary.

She was one of thousands of Irish single mothers sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s because the Catholic church claimed they were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.


After Anthony was born, the Mother Superior threatened Philomena with damnation if she ever breathed a word about her “guilty secret”. Terrified, she kept it quiet for half a century.

“It was such a sin,” she said. “It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock. It was so ingrained deep in my heart that I mustn’t tell anybody.”

She was put to work in the convent laundry and while caring for Anthony she was made to sign a document agreeing to give up her son and ­relinquishing all claims to him. “I begged them to let me keep him but they told me I had to sign the papers,” she says.

Anthony was taken from her at Christmas 1955.

“I cried and cried,” she says. “I was heartbroken. I missed him so much. I’d raised him for three-and-a-half years.

“I was bitter and I didn’t know how they could have done it.”

She was sent to work in one of the convent’s homes for delinquent boys in Liverpool, got married in 1959 and had two more children.

For 30 years she worked as a nurse, mainly with psychiatric patients. And though the pain of losing her son never left her, she held no bitterness towards those responsible for her grief and ­amazingly kept her faith.

Philomena follows the story of a woman and her search for her son

“Over the years I stopped going to confession and communion, but I always prayed for everybody, even the nuns,” she says. “Within my heart I never really lost my faith. I began to mellow because the patients had so many problems worse than I had so I went back to my religion and there I have stayed.”

Saying nothing to anybody she returned to the convent several times in desperate attempts to trace her son but the nuns refused to help her, merely showing her the document she had signed giving up all rights to him.


Then, just before Christmas 2004, tipsy on sherry, she blurted out to her daughter Jane, now 52, the secret she had kept for 50 years.

Jane told a friend who contacted Martin Sixsmith, who had been a BBC foreign correspondent and had recently lost his job as a communications officer with the Labour government.

Intrigued by the story, Sixsmith set out to help Philomena in her search. He trawled through US newspaper obituary columns, state and church archives, adoption agencies, university records and Republican party sources in a trail that led to the White House and the story’s conclusion.

Sixsmith then wrote a book about Philomena and her epic search, and when Coogan happened to read about it in a newspaper he immediately optioned the rights to the story, without even having read the book.

He then went to Dame Judi’s home and told her the tale, and she instantly agreed to portray Philomena.

Coogan admits: “I was slightly daunted about sharing the screen with her as she’s so charismatic and iconic, but she made me feel very comfortable.

“We laughed and joked and talked in between takes and I felt I was spending the day with a little old Irish lady.

“It was only at the end of the day when she was transformed back into Judi Dench that I suddenly became ­intimidated again.” Philomena, who now lives in St Albans, Herts, originally wanted the book and film to use a different name to keep her identity hidden, but is now happy that everything is out in the open and she has no more secrets to keep. Now she can be at peace with her memories of her beloved son. She admits: “I talk to Anthony every day and I have done all my life.

“I prayed and prayed that one day I would find him and I know that ­somewhere up there he has found me. His partner gave me his Celtic ring which I wear all the time and every time I look at it I can say a little prayer for him.

“I’m a great believer that every single thing happens for a reason. Our life has been marked out from the day we are born until the day we die.”

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