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Campaign on forced adoption records
The woman who inspired Oscar nominated film Philomena is to lead a campaign aimed at shaming the Irish State into opening secret records on 60,000 forced adoptions.
Philomena Lee's extraordinary story of her 50 year search for her late son Anthony has become the catalyst for a renewed battle to get access to birth certificates held by churches, religious orders, private agencies and health authorities.
Sixty years after the Irish Government legalised forced adoption for unmarried mothers, files still remain closed.
Philomena's harrowing story is one of tens of thousands from stolen generations hidden from society in Ireland's erroneously named Mother and Baby Homes.
"They told Anthony I had left him at two weeks old, that I had abandoned him. I reared him to three and a half years, he was a lovely little boy," she said.
"But I never got any answers to anything. I never knew anything about him at all. It was very sad to find out he had passed away but at last I had found him.
"I did feel very sad and I still do, if only I had met him once more, put my arms around him and given him a hug. I do feel sad about that, but it was circumstance. I pray to him every day, I talk to him."
Philomena became pregnant aged 18 and gave birth to a son in July 1952 in the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Aged three the mother and son were forcibly separated and he was sold for adoption to the US.
One compassionate nun secretly took 12 pictures of Anthony as a baby for her.
With her daughter Jane Libberton they have founded the Philomena Project, a campaign spun out of her story and the success of the award-winning film, to lobby Irish, UK and US politicians and the United Nations to force the release of birth records.
The film tells Philomena's tragic search for her son who she finds out has died but been buried in the home in Roscrea where he visited several times to try and find his birth mother.
She is planning to attend the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles where the film is in the running for four awards including best picture, and best actress for Dame Judi Dench.
"The film does really relate to my story. I seriously hope that Judi will get an Oscar for it, she played me so well. Lots of funny bits in the film, laughter and tears," Philomena said.
"We found out we had a lot of things in common - a sense of humour and a few other things, but she was a lovely lady."
The scandal of forced adoptions in Ireland has been put on a par with the Magdalene laundries - Catholic and state sanctioned workhouses for poor, disabled or "fallen" women or others convicted of petty crimes. Women received a state apology last year.
The conditions in the Mother and Baby Homes have been described by campaigners as beyond inhumane with some mothers only allowed to see their children for one hour a day. Women were forced to give up their birth names and take a saint's name and were given no records of what happened to their child.
It is also alleged that some children were used in illegal vaccine trials.
Philomena, who worked as a psychiatric nurse in England for 30 years after fleeing Ireland after Anthony's forced adoption, said she does not want any other mother or child to face a wall of silence when searching for records.
She also said she does not bear any malice against the nuns.
"I saw so much hurt and pain caused through anger. I thought 'why am I angry? I have to let it go, let it fade away'. My anger left me and of course I forgive them," she said.
"I have still got my faith and I still believe."
The Irish Government continues to refuse to act on the issue over access to records citing the Constitution and a court ruling stating that no-one who was adopted has an automatic right to information on their birth parents.
Susan Lohan, co-founder of Adoption Rights Alliance, said Ireland's politicians will now be held to account at home and abroad thanks to the film's success and the new campaign.
"Philomena has acted as a touchstone now to give this more publicity. We think the vast, vast majority of children were taken without their mother's consent and we need to talk about forced adoption. This is about people's own identity," she said.
"The burden of shame has to be transferred away from the women."
Martin Sixsmith, author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee which led to the film, said: "Philomena's story is not a story about the past but it continues today with many women who went through this forced adoption, legal but forced adoption, in the the 1950s, '60s and early '70s."
Philomena spoke out about illicit adoption in Ireland at the Golden Globes awards in Los Angeles earlier this month and warned thousands of mothers and children were still waiting for justice.