Critics and audiences are applauding "Philomena," the new film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It’s about an Irish mother who becomes pregnant and is more or less forced by local nuns to give up the child for adoption.
In the movie, the two main characters take a trip to America to track down Philomena’s long lost son. Such a trip never happened, though it does raise important questions.
The understandable focus on the pain of an Irish mother who never knew her son makes it easy to forget the pain of a son, in the U.S., who never met his mother.
Philomena’s son was born Anthony Lee. He was raised in the U.S. as Michael Hess. He became a mover and shaker in the national Republican Party, ultimately serving as top legal counsel to President George Bush Sr.
But Hess was hiding a secret from his Republican pals. He was gay.
He also longed to be reunited with his Irish mother. As The New York Times noted this week, “As he was dying of AIDS in 1995, he requested that his ashes be buried at the convent [in Ireland where he was put up for adoption], in case his mother should ever come looking for him.”
For a people so passionate about the past, an Irish American’s longing for roots he never knew might seem unusual. But over the course of Irish American history, there are unfortunately many stories of children separated at young ages from their parents and compelled to grow up in strange, sometimes abusive, new surroundings.
And even if they were relocated to loving homes (as Michael Hess seems to have been, raised by a Catholic family in St. Louis), these Irish children were forced to grow up detached from the faith and culture into which they were born.
Perhaps the most prominent and controversial symbol of this was the Children’s Aid Society, which ran so-called “orphan trains” for Irish and other immigrant children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Supporters argued that large numbers of Irish kids were wandering big city streets homeless, and that relocating them to loving families in the mid-West was a blessing.
Critics, however, note that the children were often exploited for their ability to labor on farms.
“At its worst it was not much better than slavery,” author Christina Baker Kline said in a recent NPR interview.
Earlier this year, Kline did extensive research for her novel "Orphan Train," which features a young Irish girl named Niamh who loses her family in a tenement fire.
Orphan train children “were all between the ages of mostly two — but sometimes as young as babies, baby trains were called ‘mercy trains’ — and up to the age of 14. Those 14-year-old boys, 12- to 14-year-old boys, were the most in demand because obviously they were labor,” Kline said.
It also did not help that Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace had an extensive record of anti-Catholic writing, and was open to the charge that he was taking Catholics off the dirty city streets in order to convert them into Protestants.
According to Kline, the extent of the era’s anti-Irish sentiment went to bizarre lengths.
“I came across a newspaper article from The New York Times about how the trains that were being sent were not allowing redheads,” she said.
During a heated exchange of letters in The New York Times back in 2001, Irish American novelist and historian Peter Quinn said the Children’s Aid Society “was not merely a compassionate agent of charitable relief...but an active partner with the courts and Protestant proselytizing societies in seeking to ‘redeem’ Irish Catholic children from a cultural-religious identity considered destructive of personal virtue and moral behavior.”
Of course, many Irish “orphan train” children grew up to live happy and productive lives. But the pervasive sense of dislocation and loss these children must have felt – especially after their own parents endured the trauma and uncertainty of emigration – is a rarely-discussed aspect of the Irish experience in America.
Perhaps the tragic story of Philomena Lee, and her son’s ultimately fruitless quest to reclaim a past he never knew, will help heal the wounds of the past.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)