I went to see Philomena. I wasn’t really looking forward to it. It was going to be no ‘cheery upper’ but there wasn’t much else on, plus Philomena was being played by Judi Dench, and I love Judi Dench.
I wasn’t disappointed. Judi Dench is a delight in the moving, surprisingly funny, heartfelt true story that touches on depressing themes familiar to domestic audiences. Steve Coogan and Judi Dench bounce off each other really well: one cynical; the other gushing, but clearly Philomena was a woman with great dignity, an open heart and no bitterness at all like many Catholic women of that generation who are remarkable for their pure faith, lack of cynicism and devotion to Our Lady.
Still, I wanted Philomena to find her own voice as I waded with her through multiple layers of deep rooted sadness. I wanted to see her anger. I wanted her to grieve the insurmountable loss of her boy but she never confronts her grief in any meaningful way nor does she confront the Church. Throughout the film, Philomena upholds a constant unwavering acceptance and refuses to point the finger.
Pretty generous, methinks, as the Catholic Church has a hell of a lot to answer for and its excuses have been frankly insulting but what was society in general doing? After all, Philomena’s father threw her to the nuns. Irish society and the state excelled in removing “problems” into various clustered places, conveniently arresting the sphere of guilt which in reality should apply much more broadly. Where was the family support, the caring community, or public representatives that could have intervened?
Some did. Let us not forget the grandmothers who were brave enough to stand by their daughters and pretend that the newly-born was a menopausal child of their own, whether the neighbours believed it or not. But in general, these hideous crimes were mirrored in virtually every European country regardless of religion.
People do not like to take personal responsibility for their actions. Unless someone is held at gunpoint or manipulated by emotional blackmail, enforced guilt, threats of punishment, and other forms of ruthless emotional/psychological strategies which are often used to terrify adults and children alike, we are responsible for what we do. And whatever influence the Catholic Church had back then, they did not go into people’s homes, and remove children. The state and society was absolutely complicit, otherwise it would never have happened.
Like the fall of the celtic tiger, it wasn’t just the bankers who are to blame (and they sure as hell have a lot to answer for), the state and people were equally guilty of reckless behaviour and until this is acknowledged this, lessons will not be learnt.
Philomena eventually found the courage to tell her story, a story with relevance today but as a society do we have the courage to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated? Enda Kenny has, eventually, acknowledged the state’s role in this horrendous episode in our history. The church would do well to issue an equally unqualified apology and all individuals in society should examine their responsibility in preventing abuse in any form.
What went on in Ireland was directly consequential to under-provision of proper state funded child welfare and a belief that charity could suffice. Today’s Government exalts cutbacks, low staff costs and inadequate training as the basis for public services. Dark issues emerge almost every other day from the basement of Irish society. Sadly, mistakes of the past are being repeated because we haven’t learned the lesson. Terrible things, it seems, are still done on the quiet.