‘Philomena’, evil and the lost years

Sir, – Michael Hess had been chief counsel of the US Republican party under the Reagan-Bush administrations, and was not someone whose politics I would have shared. Last May, however, I journeyed to his graveside in order to place a bouquet of flowers on behalf of my recently deceased wife Annette. That expression of solidarity related to their common search for family identity. Annette had died from cancer 60 years and a day after her birth in Sean Ross Abbey, where Hess, “The lost child of Philomena Lee”, had himself been born 10 months prior to Annette.

It is, however, necessary to correct your report on Sean Ross Abbey (Home News, November 25th) which seriously, if inadvertently, misquotes me, no doubt due to mishearing "essential" for "sense" in what I had said on the Liveline programme on November 4th. I never stated, to quote your report, that I had found a "sense of evil" about Sean Ross's Sr Hildegarde. "Evil" is such a definitive term, implying a condition well-nigh irredeemable, that I would hold back from ever using it lightly, and I am certainly not psychic enough to sense it in people. Whenever I have come to conclusions about evil, they have been based on an accumulation of hard facts. When Annette and I first visited the late Sr Hildegarde in 1985 we certainly found her to be a consummate liar, sadistic enough to attempt sending Annette on a wild goose chase by claiming her mother was from Limerick, when both she and we already knew she hailed from New Ross. And yet when Annette, through her own supreme efforts, eventually traced her late mother's family and immediately bonded with them, she returned to Sean Ross Abbey in 1991 and told Sr Hildegarde, who professed to be overjoyed at the good news. Annette took that with a grain of salt, but nonetheless hoped her story might at least have softened Hildegarde's heart sufficiently to refrain from ever again placing similar obstacles in the way of adoptees seeking their families.

When Martin Sixsmith's book was published in 2009, we were horrified to learn that, two years after Annette's last encounter with her, Hildegarde would be lying to both Philomena and her lost child, in the full knowledge that each was looking for the other. What I stated on Liveline was that it was this specific act which was "the essential element of the evil" that Annette now concluded was present in Hildegarde, and which had to be "something totally vindictive and vicious".

A fortnight before Annette’s passing, we travelled with all three of our children and all three of our grandchildren for her to spend a final day with her mother’s family. Notwithstanding the knowledge of approaching death, nothing could take from the sheer joy of that Sunday, like snatching a moment from Paradise. For Sr Hildegarde to have wilfully denied to both Philomena Lee and a dying Michael Hess the opportunity for any such joyful family reunion was indeed an act of unforgivable evil. – Yours, etc,



Finglas Road, Dublin 11.