Book Review – ‘Philomena’ by Martin Sixsmith


This is a relatively fat book, written by a very reputable journalist with an engaging and informative style, so I was really looking forward to it. Despite hints in the subject matter – tales of the Magdalene Sister slaves having now come into public awareness – that all would not be well, I looked forward to reading about Philomena and learning about her life.

Interestingly, this account is about so much more than one woman, and exposes the deep and painful hypocrisy embedded in the antediluvian system of Irish ‘care’: young girls who had the misfortune to become pregnant out of wedlock – in a culture where young men expected to have a fling or two before ‘settling down’ aged thirty-five or so – bore the full brunt of society’s disapproval, being forced into a painfully closeted, almost captive existence in which their ignorance of sex was mocked, their sorrow and naivety scorned, and in which young women and girls were forced to work in kitchens, gardens and laundries for three years and never once allowed to leave the confines of the catholic ‘home’ in which they found themselves.

Sixsmith does an excellent job exposing the web of conspiracy and intrigue that allowed this venal system to perpetuate for decades, enlisting our sympathy for our subject matter, and our immense gratitude that things have finally changed. It is so easy to take our freedoms for granted. I really empathised with Philomena and found myself aghast as the blinding hypocrisy of a system which lied, cheated and stole, for no better motive, it seems, than profit.

Once the link between Philomena and her long-lost son is made, the bulk of the book is about him. From the reader’s point of view, it is fortunate that her son had an interesting life, and that his inner landscape revealed so much of the pitfalls of adoption. For all that, I would have loved to learn more about the life and struggles of the woman who lent her name to the title of this book, and whose contribution is slim, compared to that of her beloved, darling boy, torn from her at the age of three and sent to live in America.

All in all, a very worthwhile, provocative read, if only because it reminds me to be grateful for all my blessings.

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