Philomena is the hit film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan about a woman’s search for her adopted son.
Once A Catholic is the hit play by Mary O’Malley, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1977 and currently enjoying a revival in London and Liverpool.
Villains in habits
Nuns are at the centre of both works. In Philomena, we have the nuns who ran baby-farms in Ireland, taking in pregnant young women and sending their babies to be adopted, often to America, often for money.
The head honcho, Sister Hildegarde, is unrepentant to the end about separating mother and child and about concealing from Philomena knowledge of her grown son.
Once A Catholic is set in a convent school in London in the late 1950s, where the nuns instil into the girls (all called Mary) their own brand of theology, superstition, snobbery and casual cruelty and spite.
The details are instantly familiar to anyone who experienced a similar regime. You will recognise references to Limbo (not the dance), little black babies who you could buy, being forced to eat gristly meat, the torments of the souls in hell and highly coloured versions of Our Lady’s appearances on earth. You could probably add many more examples.
Behind the laughter
Once A Catholic is often described, rather bafflingly to my mind, as a riotous comedy. True, it is funny, very funny in places, with telling dialogue and excruciatingly on-the-button monologues, and true, I laughed like a drain when I saw it many years ago. But the passage of time has brought with it more knowledge and awareness of the different types of abuse perpetrated by religious figures, and world events have shaped our attitudes to cultural, social and religious discrimination.
The discrimination experienced by the Irish diaspora in London in the 1950s is depicted in Once A Catholic with Teddy Boy Derek telling one of the Marys that although she has Irish parents she could easily pass for normal. You can spot a mick a mile off – no offence. At least she hasn’t got that diabolical ginger hair. And he’s seen enough of Irish women in Kilburn, two on the pram, three more hanging on the handle and half a dozen outside the boozer waiting for Daddy to come rolling out.
Sharp lines? Undoubtedly. Funny? It depends. Do we laugh with Derek, or at him, deploring his racism? There are so many targets in the play it’s possible that this one slips through the net.
No my darling daughters
It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s sex, stupid. Fear and loathing of human sexuality is at the core of Philomena and Once A Catholic.
In the film, it’s what has fuelled the ferocious anger which Sister Hildegarde nurses until the end of her days. Hatred of what she sees as the sins of Philomena and the other girls justifies her cruel behaviour.
In the play, the girls are energetically harangued to be pure at all times. Never be alone with a boy in a room, kissing is a mortal sin and arouses bad feelings. Questions are punished or answered with evasions. The process of reproduction is illustrated in a biology lesson in which a female rabbit is dissected and one of the Marys is sent out for asking a question.
It’s hard to believe now that this non-education was the norm for convent-educated clever girls who knew their gerunds from their gerundives and their sines from their cosines but whose sex education was based on a baffling mixture of biological fact (sort of), rumour, hearsay, dodgy doctrinal precepts, wishful thinking and the absolute authority of that girl in the fifth form who had to leave because she was pregnant.
And the winner is…
It must be Hats Off to Philomena, not least for its feelgood factor. The film touches on weighty matters of sin, forgiveness, responsibility. It depicts the now well-trodden ground of the cruel treatment of young women in the Magdalene Laundries and other institutions. There is no fairy-tale ending, no heart-warming reconciliation or begging for forgiveness. But the comedy in Philomena is warm and its depiction of the human spirit is uplifting. It is possible to emerge from the wrongs of the past intact and with dignity.
The King and The Boss
The nuns in Once A Catholic were right about one thing. Mother Peter forbids the girls to bring Elvis Presley records into school. She says Elvis is ‘a positive menace to decent young girls’.
Amen to that.
Another thing. Bruce Springsteen, speaking of the biblical imagery which creeps into his songs, said of himself ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’ And he knew a bit about girls called Mary.