Do you have any ancestors with the name of Philomena? One painful chapter for Ireland involves the forceful adoption of children whose unmarried mothers were not allowed to keep them. In this letter we meet Philomena Lee, who as a young girl was made to give up her son, and whose story went on to change history.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How is your New Year going so far? We’re doing well here in Cork regarding the weather stakes – it’s sunny and dry so there are plenty of opportunities to get out and about and shorten the winter.
I’m settling into a nice cup of Lily’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we go into today’s letter.
Given that you are reading this letter, can I assume that you have an interest in your Irish Heritage and ancestry? Now, let me ask you this – when did you develop this interest? For a few of us, it’s always been there – for others, a curiosity appears in our forties or fifties – for a few more, it arrives later still.
For today’s letter, we start with a reader who started to research her Irish ancestry with full energy coming up to the age of 70. Caroline Symons was on to us last week – she had read an earlier letter on the great houses of Ireland and decided to share the following:
My Father told me this – just before he died, age 96, that my Mother was the youngest daughter Rosemary Henriette O’Byrne of Edward Alexander O’Byrne and his wife Rose Emily Netterville. His Father, Count John O’Byrne purchased Corville House, Roscrea, Tipperary in 1858. It became known as Sean Ross Abbey of “Philomena” fame. I had no idea of any of this and at the age of 70 it was quite a shock and surprise!!!
Edward and his family went to France & his younger brother Count Patrick Joseph and wife Bernadette Boland took over Corville and had quite a history there in 1916!!! Patrick sold it to the nuns in 1931 and it opened as a mother and baby home. I discovered this and many more amazing stories and scandals a couple of years ago and am still finding out more. My daughter went over a year ago and the nuns gave her a tour of the grounds and house which included the family grand piano. We live in Canada so it is hard to find out if there are any more relatives still alive!!
Thanks for your Sunday letters,always look forward to them-hope this is of some interest to you.
Caroline Symons (nee:Kelleher)”
Thank you, Caroline for sharing that wonderful discovery of yours – it sounds like you are just getting started!
When a house stands for hundreds of years, it’s true to say it can tell a few stories of it’s own! And so it is with Corville House.
There were five ancient roads in Ireland – one of these was called the “Slighe Dhala” (the way of Dala). It was named after a chieftain of the area called Dala who married a woman by the name of Crea. This road ran through a part of north County Tipperary and over time many monasteries and towns developed along it’s length. One of these became known as RosCrea – named after the wife of Dala.
Over the centuries, the local land was ruled by Irish chieftains, Norman lords and English aristocracy in turn. One of this last group of landowners, the Birch family, built Corville House just outside the town of Roscrea in 1770. Like many of the big houses of Ireland, the house changed both fortunes and ownership over the following decades. It was eventually bought by Count John O’Byrne in 1858. The O’Byrnes were very active in the cause for Irish independence over the following years, with the house sheltering many rebels on the run through the Irish War of Independence during the early 1920s.
However, like many of these houses and estates across Ireland and Britain, the 1920s and 30s brought a new commercial reality. The ownership of these large houses often moved into the hands of religious orders – who more capable of dealing with the costs of running such enterprises.
So it was with Corville House – it was bought in 1932 by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts – and reopened as Sean Ross Abbey – a home for unwed mothers and their children. The system in these centres was simple: girls were sent by their families after becoming pregnant. They had their babies, who were then put up for adoption – and typically worked in the home for about four years “paying off” their keep in a form of tenure. The home also received payment from the state to support their upkeep.
Of course, much has come to light through the years – during the 1950s and 1960s alone, between 40,000 and 60,000 babies were adopted from religious institutions in Ireland with at least 2,000 going the USA. Were any of your ancestors among this group? Do respond below and let me know.
Have you seen the film “Philomena” which stars Judi Dench? It’s quite the story – based on the real life experiences of Philomena Lee.
Philomena was born up the road from Roscrea near Limerick City. She had the misfortune to have a baby out of wedlock in Ireland of the 1950s. Her family sent her to Sean Ross where she had her young boy whom she called Anthony. They lived in the house with the nuns until her son was three – at which point he was adopted by a wealthy couple from the USA. Philomena was forced to sign the adoption papers. After spending the first three years of Anthony’s life together, Philomena would never see her son again. Shortly afterward, she left the home as she completed her tenure and travelled to England where she trained as a nurse, got married and started a new family.
Many years later during Christmas, 2003, she revealed for the first time that she had given birth when she was 18, and had secretly been trying to discover what had happened to her son. Her daughter decided to help and approached a journalist called Martin Sixsmith to see if he could assist them in finding the child. The only thing that Philomena could provide was that Anthony’s adoptive parents were from somewhere in the USA.
Sixsmith proved a talented investigator, but it still took many visits to Roscrea and the USA before they discovered the identity of her child. During this time, the nuns in Roscrea insisted that no local records existed that might help Philomena in her search.
However, all through this time – the remains of Philomena’s son – now called Martin, were buried in the graveyard at Sean Ross Abbey. You see, Martin had spent much of his adult life looking for his mother in Ireland. He finally succeeded in tracing her back to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, but like Philomena, was unable to get any further information from the nuns. He died in 1995, and had requested that his ashes be laid to rest in the Abbey – so he could be near the place where he was closest to his mother in life.
As you might imagine, it is a heartbreaking part in the film when Philomena discovers this for the first time and visits the grave of her son as they reunite for the first time in so many years. Philomena (and Martin Sixsmith) went on to champion the right to information for all parties in adoption cases.
The nuns closed Sean Ross Abbey in 1970 as a home for unwed mothers – it was renamed St. Anne’s and opened as a school for children with special needs. It maintains that role today.
How about you? Do you have a relative, friend – or maybe yourself – who came from Ireland through the adoption processes?
Thank you again to Caroline for sharing the story of her recent discoveries – and we do hope she keeps us updated as her discoveries unfold!
That’s it for this week – but do feel free to respond below and share your family surnames and stories.
Slan for now,
Mike and Carina.
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