Steve Coogan and Philomena

The following lengthy beautiful true story was first published last year (2014) in the free West Cork newspaper, The West Cork Times, which is also read extensively on line.  The original version, with the Coogan family photographs, may still be read on line if one logs on to coogan and philomena – a family story.

It was my great pleasure to write this, and if I were a ‘real journalist’, I could have made dramatic headlines in the tabloids, but that’s not my way or the way the Coogan family wished this told.  This is a family story about real people we would all be privileged to know.  They have great ethics, good standards and I hope you find this as heartwarming as I did and still do.

“Steve Coogan and Philomena – a Family Story

“During an interview in West Cork a few years ago, Steve Coogan stated, ‘I like to do things I am passionate about.’   That passion was to the fore when he quite rightly took on the media during the UK’s Leveson Inquiry.

However when I saw a screening of the film ‘Philomena’ earlier this year I wondered why Coogan would have any connection or passion for the story of Philomena Lee.

Why would this highly successful man co-write, star and produce a story of a woman’s 50 year search for her illegitimate son – a story that could never have the ending we all hope for?    It would have been so easy for this story and film to fail and become a media target.  So why would he put himself out on a limb, exposing the frailties and cruelty of the Catholic Church?

I believed I had the answer in my notes of an interview Steve did with Greg Dyke during the Schull Film Festival, a few years ago, but I only had part of the story.  Thanks to his aunt, Patricia Coogan O’Dell, here’s the real story of the Coogan family and the background to what I think made Steve Coogan the man he is today.

Stephen Coogan grew up in north Manchester, one of seven children, five boys and two girls, one of whom was adopted.  But the story really starts with Stephen’s great grandfather, Thomas Coogan, a tailor from Kilkenny and his great grandmother, Margaret Coogan, who was from Cork.  They left Ireland as economic migrants to survive in Manchester before World War I.

Pierce Coogan, Steve’s grandfather was born in Manchester.  Pierce always maintained he had the good fortune to be educated by the Christian Brothers.  He left school well-educated, able to play musical instruments, a qualified electrician and with the manners of a gentleman.

He believed education was the key to success so three of his five children went to good grammar schools, including Tony, Steve’s father, as did Steve himself and most of his siblings.

Patricia Coogan O’Dell explains, ‘Even though there wasn’t tons of money, education was always very important.  Most of us had very little interest in sport of any kind.  We read The Guardian – red tops didn’t come into the house – and we went to the local library each week.   Steve’s family lived in a rambling Edwardian house they owned, although the family had socialist leanings.’

Steve’s grandparents, Pierce and Florence Coogan, had the Astoria Irish dance hall and then the Assembly rooms in Manchester.  These dance halls proved to be a Mecca for Irish people at the time.   Pierce brought Joseph Locke over and then the show bands so there was an established line of entertaining in the Coogan family.

Pierce Coogan was an incredibly kind person, lending people money knowing they’d never be able to pay it back.  He felt a huge sense of responsibility to people who hadn’t had the same opportunities, particularly the young Irish boys who arrived off the boat train with nothing more than what they stood up in.

Very often they would stay with the Coogan family until Pierce had sorted them out with lodgings and a job.  Many found their wives amongst the Irish nurses who flocked to the ballroom as Pierce laid on free transport and free entry for them.  There are people in West Cork and all over Ireland who met there.

Pierce held many charity dances to raise money for orphanages and the convents which looked after the aged and unwanted – the list was endless.  Pierce together with his wife Florence, always worked incredibly hard, their ethos being to treat people as they would have liked to be treated themselves.

Tony, Steve’s father, played saxophone in Pierce Coogan’s orchestra, with Steve’s uncle Thomas on the drums.  One evening Tony spotted an extremely beautiful girl, Kathleen Coonan from Mayo, in the crowd and the rest as they say is history.

Even with their seven children, Tony and Kathleen fostered children too. Steve Coogan recalls, ‘My father was a computer engineer for IBM and my mum raised the family.  They did short term fostering, but on top of those children, there would be abused kids, or kids who would be made wards of court.  They often fostered a brother and sister to keep them together.’

Some of the children came from horrific situations and were unbelievably traumatised.   It was often hard for Steve and his siblings to tolerate the effect they had on the household.  Steve’s parents have always “lived their Christian principles” rather than just given lip service to their Religion and this ethos has been followed by most of the Coogan family.    Even today, although he is almost 80 Tony, together with Kathleen, spend a great deal of their time on charity work.

In 1968 at a time when there was still a stigma attached to unmarried mothers, Steve’s aunt Mollie, aged 27, became pregnant.  She felt she couldn’t put her parents through the humiliation so against her parents’ wishes and of her own volition, Mollie went to the Good Shepherd Convent.  She experienced a dreadful time at the Magdalene Laundry.  Mollie intended to give her baby up to Tony and Kathleen for adoption.  Fortunately she couldn’t bear to be parted from her child and they returned home to Pierce and Florence so there was a happy ending to her story.

Patricia Coogan O’Dell who lives in Ballydehob with her husband Chris O’Dell, BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) explains.  ‘When Steve read the book Philomena he was particularly horrified by the iniquitous cruelty which had been inflicted on Philomena Lee by those nuns.  He is very close to his own daughter so would have felt very deeply the pain that Philomena went through at each stage as her tragedy unfolded.

‘Philomena has been a very rewarding project for Steve as he believed in it from day one.  Together with Geoff Pope, he wrote a splendid screenplay which persuaded Judy Dench to be part of it all.  He is a very clever chap, very much like his clever father and grandfather.  I am so glad that people can now see beyond the Alan Partridge character and see Steve Coogan as he is, a man with a very creative mind, capable of much more.  To be awarded the BAFTA for best screenplay has meant a great deal to him.  He is now inundated with all sorts of challenging projects.  I believe that we will continue to be surprised at the range of his considerable talent for many years yet.’

Steve Coogan became a patron of the Fastnet Short Film Festival at the invitation of Chris O’Dell.  Coogan and his company Baby Cow Productions Ltd, the UK television comedy production company, have contributed greatly to the festival by their involvement.

Coogan’s brother Kevin, who is the community leader for L’Arche, Manchester, and Steve recently joined forces to run the  Manchester Marathon.  L’Arche is an international movement which builds faith-based communities for people with learning disabilities in over 30 different countries across the world.

Steve Coogan divided the money he raised between L’Arche and the Rainbow Trust, an organisation which provides support to the families of children with life threatening or life shortening conditions.

Righting wrongs, looking after the less able, and continuing the giving is a trait most Irish people share.  It seems to me that the Coogans are continuing the good works their forebears began and this explains, at least to me, why Steve Coogan had to right the wrong done to Philomena Lee.

You can catch the man, the film and more at this year’s Corona Fastnet Short Film Festival on Sunday 25th.  One may visit for further information and bookings.

Thanks to Patricia Coogan O’Dell and Chris O’Dell for their help contribution to this article and for the Coogan family photographs.”

(c) Carol Gilbert