Fatherless Child in Ireland: Stolen from his Single mother - and sold to the highest bidder
26th September 2009
Early in 2004, I was approached by a woman who knew I had been a reporter. She said she had a friend who thought I could help her solve a family mystery. I told her that wasn't my sort of journalism; but she insisted and I went to the meeting.
The woman's friend was called Jane, a financial administrator from St Albans. She was in her late 30s and had been through an emotional experience.
Just before Christmas, her mother Philomena, tipsy on festive sherry, had revealed a secret she'd kept for 50 years: she had a son that she had never spoken about to anyone.
The reason for the secrecy was that he had been born illegitimate in Ireland at a time when such things were considered shameful and to be hushed up. Jane said her lost brother would be in his early 50s and probably living in the United States.
I still wasn't sure about getting involved, but a little later I met Philomena herself. What I discovered was a tale of the abuse of power, and how dogma and hypocrisy in high places can ruin the lives of so many people.
Philomena told me she had given birth in a convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary on July 5, 1952. She had been 18 when she had met a young man who bought her a toffee apple on a warm autumn evening at the county fair.
'I had just left convent school,' she said with a sigh. 'I went in there when my mother died, when I was six-and-a-half, and I left at 18 not knowing a thing about the facts of life. I didn't know where babies came from . . .'
When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had had Philomena 'put away' with the nuns.
After her baby, Anthony, was born, the Mother Superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her 'guilty secret'. Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century.
'All my life, I couldn't tell anyone,' she said. 'We were so brow-beaten, and it was such a sin. It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock . . .
Over the years I would say, "I will tell them, I will tell them" - but it was so ingrained down deep in my heart that I mustn't tell anybody, that I never did.' I was intrigued to know why the nuns had been so insistent on the importance of silence and secrecy. The answer, almost certainly, lay in what had happened next.
Philomena was just one of thousands of women sent to Irish convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Roman Catholic Church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.
Such was the power of the Church, and of its then leader, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, that the state bowed before its demands, ceding responsibility for the mothers and babies to the nuns.
For them, it was not only a matter of sin and morality, but one of pounds, shillings and pence.
Philomena told me about the hellish labour she was forced to perform in the convent laundries after her baby was born. Other girls were made to work in commercial greenhouses, making religious artefacts for sale, or stringing rosary beads until the wire cut grooves in their hands that would never disappear.
The Church may have opened its doors to 'fallen women'; but once they were inside, it exploited them mercilessly.
From speaking to mothers who were caught up in the convent homes, and by digging through government records, I realised that in the early Fifties the state was paying the nuns £1 a week for every one of the thousands of mothers they had in their care, and 2s 6d for every baby. In addition, the Church kept the proceeds from the girls' labour.
It was a source of significant income, and the nuns made sure the women stayed and worked for at least three years. They could get out only by paying £100 - an impossible amount for the vast majority.
In a fascinating echo of the debate going on today in America, the Irish government was trying to introduce a basic health and welfare service, which would have provided some safeguards for mothers and their babies.
But like the American right wing, the Church denounced the plan as 'opening the gates to Communism'.
John Charles McQuaid wrote to the Vatican: 'If adopted in law, it would constitute a readymade instrument for totalitarianism.'
The legislation was defeated, and the Church kept its malevolent stranglehold on the fate of the nation's orphans. The government was humiliated into tendering its resignation.
Even more shocking than the exploitation of the mothers was the exploitation of their children. The girls had to care for their babies during their three-year sentence in the convents - only then to be told that their child was being taken from them.
For women who had had so long to bond with their sons or daughters, the parting was terrible.
Philomena showed me the undertaking she had been forced to sign.
'I, Philomena Lee', it says, over a signature in a juvenile hand, 'do hereby relinquish full claim forever to my said child Anthony Lee and surrender him to Sister Barbara, Superioress of Sean Ross Abbey . . . to make my child available for adoption to any person she considers fit and proper, inside or outside the state.
'I further undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time.' Philomena told me she had fought against signing the document.
'Oh God, my heart. I didn't want him to go. I just craved and begged them to please let me keep him.
'None of us wanted to give our babies up, none of us. But what else could we do? They just said: "You have to sign these papers."
'I remember it was a Sunday evening . . . I'm so sorry, I'm crying now when I think about it.'
Philomena cried when Anthony was taken from her, at Christmas 1955. She was not allowed to say goodbye, but she spotted him being bundled into the back of a black car.
When she shouted to him, the noise of the engine drowned out her voice, but as the car pulled away she is convinced he stood up in the seat and peered through the rear windscreen looking for her.
Afterwards, her father would not take her back because of the shame: he had told neighbours, friends and Philomena's own sisters that she had 'gone away' and that no one knew where she was.
So, in the end, the Church despatched her to work at one of its homes for delinquent boys in Liverpool.
Philomena trained as a nurse, got married in 1959 and had two more children. She longed to tell them about their brother, but couldn't.
She kept her secret but she never forgot her son. The thought of him gnawed at her; she worried how he was coping without her.
'Oh, he was gorgeous,' she told me. 'He was a lovely, gentle, quiet lad. All my life I have never forgotten him. I have prayed for him every day.
'Over the years I would so often say: "I wonder what he is doing. Has he gone to Vietnam? Is he on Skid Row?" I just didn't know what had happened to him."
Finally - without telling anyone - Philomena embarked on a lonely, desperate search to find her son. She went back to the convent in Roscrea several times and asked the nuns to help her.
Each time they refused, brandishing her sworn undertaking that she would 'never attempt to see' her child.
When I agreed to help look for Anthony in 2004, we had little to go on. We knew his date and place of birth, but his name, Anthony Lee, would certainly have been changed by his adoptive parents.
Philomena had been told that her son would be taken to the United States, but little else.
The quest became more fascinating than any detective story: its twists and turns, the unexpected coincidences that finally led us to Philomena's lost child, are the backbone of my book. But the life story that the detective work uncovered is truly remarkable.
Early on in the search, I realised that the Irish Catholic hierarchy had been engaged in what amounted to an illicit baby trade. Archbishop McQuaid regarded single mothers as sinners, and believed their children would be safer away from them.
But he prevented social workers from intervening 'because they take no cognizance of the gravity of the woman's sin . . . her lust and selfgratification . . . and her fall is all too often condoned and excused.'
Even worse, he was horrified that the children might be given to Protestants. McQuaid insisted unbendingly that adopting couples should be practising Roman Catholics.
But there were no proper checks on their background, as long as they had the money to pay the 'donation' the Church demanded.
The result was that the 'orphans' were sold to the highest bidder, however unsuitable they might be, and thousands were bought by wealthy Americans at a going rate of between $2,000 and $3,000.
Philomena's son was one of them. When rumours of the Church's role began to emerge decades later, much of the incriminating paperwork was hastily destroyed, and even today the Church guards its adoption archives fiercely.
It took a painstaking trawl through passport records, and the piecing together of fleeting references in old newspaper articles, before we discovered that Anthony Lee had been offered to a middle-class couple from St Louis, Missouri.
Marge and Doc Hess certainly fulfilled the McQuaid criteria: they were good Catholics, a professional couple in their early 40s, and Marge's brother was himself a bishop. The Hesses already had three sons, but they wanted a daughter.
In the course of my research, I came into possession of Marge Hess's diaries.
Their carefullywritten entries gave me a startling insight into everything from the clothes and lip gloss she wore to the emotions that overwhelmed her as she studied herself in the mirror before setting off to Ireland.
In August 1955, Marge Hess scoured the Irish mother and baby homes for a little girl.
Her diary records her first impressions of the shy three-year- old, Mary McDonald, who was offered to her by the Mother Superior of the Roscrea convent. And it reveals the twist of fate that led her to adopt Anthony Lee.
When Marge leaned down to pick up her new daughter in the convent nursery, she was charmed to see Mary's best friend, a little boy in baggy trousers, come running to give her a kiss.
Marge fell for him at once. That evening, she called her husband in St Louis and asked if it would be all right to bring two children back instead of one.
Anthony's unthinking show of affection for Marge was the random nudge of chance that changed his life. By the end of 1955, he and Mary had been transported from rural Ireland to a new existence and new identities in the New World.
He was renamed Michael Hess and grew up to be an 'A' student. He was physically attractive and gifted, ran cross-country and sang in school musical productions.
But he was haunted by halfremembered visions of his first three years in Ireland, and by a lifelong yearning to find his mother.
He remembered her touch and the way she sang to him, and he embarked on repeated fruitless attempts to find her, tragically unaware that Philomena, too, was pining and searching for him.
Both came back to the convent and pleaded for information, but the nuns - perhaps ashamed of their role in Ireland's baby trade - refused to help.
Michael became a successful lawyer. He was spotted by the leaders of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party and brought into the White House.
As a rising star of the Republican National Committee, he masterminded the party's electoral strategy, brokering the redistricting (gerrymandering) reforms that kept them in power for over a decade.
When George Bush Senior became president, he made Michael his Chief Legal Counsel.
But Michael Hess was gay, and in a Republican Party that was rabidly homophobic, he was obliged to conceal his sexuality.
He was tormented by the double life he was forced to lead, and by the fact that his work was entrenching in power a party that victimised his friends and lovers.
When the president gave in to conservative demands to block funds for Aids research, Mike was plunged into despair.
He was tormented, too, by the absence of his mother and by the orphan's sense of helplessness.
He didn't know where he came from, didn't know who he was, or how he should live. He felt unloved by his adoptive father and brothers, living in fear that the stern, critical Doc Hess would discover his sexuality.
As a teenager, Mike had rowed with Doc, and Doc had told him he would no longer support him or pay his university fees. Mike suspected Doc knew he was gay.
As a practising Roman Catholic, he also felt guilt over his sexuality. He had a series of stormy relationships and was deeply disturbed when a spurned lover burned himself to death.
But Mike was loved by his adoptive mother and by Mary, the little girl who was plucked with him from the Roscrea convent and became his lifelong friend and 'sister'.
He found some happiness in a long-term relationship with a caring, loving partner - but he could never be at peace.
He went back to Roscrea, first in 1977 and again in 1993, to plead with the nuns to tell him how to find his mother. They turned him away.
On his return to the U.S., he plunged into alcohol, drugs and unbridled sexual indulgence.
It was as if the void he felt in his life was driving him into dangerous practices that put his reputation and career in jeopardy. For a gay man in the decade of Aids, it was close to courting a death sentence.
By the late 1980s, Mike found himself embarking on ever-more-frequent lost weekends in the gay bars and clubs of Washington and other cities.
His behaviour brought with it the terrible fear of exposure that would destroy him as a senior Republican official, but he could not stop himself.
On one of his lost weekends, he became infected with the HIV virus. He and Pete, his long-term partner, agonised over their future.
Mike kept his illness secret, refusing to tell his adoptive parents and urging Mary to tell no one. Pete stood by him, but Michael's health began to deteriorate. Fearing the worst, they flew to Roscrea in 1993 to make an emotional appeal to the nuns.
But still the nuns refused to tell him where he could find his mother, or indeed that her sisters and brother - his aunts and uncle - were living just a few miles down the road.
In desperation, Michael asked the Mother Superior if he could at least be buried in the convent if he were to die: he would put enough information on his gravestone to help his mother find out about his life 'if ever she comes looking for me'.
As we know (but Michael did not), Philomena was looking for him, returning to Roscrea, seeking traces of her son . . .
The hunt for Michael took me through state and Church archives, through adoption agencies, American university records and Republican Party sources before it led to the end of the trail and the story's poignant, unexpected conclusion.
It threw up a Hardyesque tale of coincidences and missed connections; and a powerful indictment of two historical eras: 1950s Ireland and 1980s America.
As we discovered, the nuns did agree to let Michael be buried in Roscrea - in return for a large donation to Church funds - and he did, indeed, put a 'message from beyond the grave' on his marble headstone, a message that ultimately allowed us to trace the path of his life.
'Michael Hess, a man of two nations and many talents,' the inscription reads. 'Born July 5, 1952, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea. Died August 15, 1995, Washington DC.'
Before his remains were flown to Ireland, the White House had staged a lavish memorial service for him. Many of the Republican Party leaders were there, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan sent personal messages of sympathy.
But nothing was said about his sexuality. Afterwards, Doc Hess had met Pete, Michael's partner, and was shocked to learn both that his son had been gay and that he had died of Aids.
Ultimately, my search brought me to an overgrown grave in a quiet country convent. In addition to Michael and Philomena's story, I had discovered the thousands of other lost 'orphans' whose lives were changed for ever by the greed and hypocrisy of Church and state.
Like Michael, many of them are still looking for their parents and, through them, for their identity.
Now in her 70s, Philomena is remarkably devoid of bitterness. She has started to go to Mass again. But she blames herself for everything - for giving her son away and for not speaking out about him earlier, when things could have been different.
'If only, Martin, if only. I curse myself every time I think of it. If only I'd mentioned it all those years ago, maybe he wouldn't . . .
'Oh Lord, it makes my heart ache. I'm sure there are lots of women to this very day who are the same as me; they haven't said anything . . . It is the biggest regret of my life and I have to bear that. It is my own fault, and now it is my woe.'
Knowing what happened to her son has at least resolved the doubts that haunted Philomena for half a century. I have stood with her at the side of his grave and heard how she speaks to him after the separation of all the years.
'Thank God you are back home again,' she says. 'You're here where I can visit you now.
But you came to this place and no one told you anything. No one told you I was looking for you and that I loved you, my son. How different it all could have been . . .'
The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith is published by Macmillan.