District nurse Phyllis Whitsell was an adopted child who had always thought that her mother, alcoholic Bridget Ryan, died of tuberculosis long ago. Her mother put her up to be adopted, but she nevertheless tracked her down, spending nine years caring for the mother she never had secretly, never telling her about her true identity.
At the tender age of four, Phyllis was adopted and was told that Bridget Ryan, her mom, already died. Bridget, however, who was known all around the red light district of Balsall Heath as “Tipperary Mary” because she was an alcoholic and a troublemaker, was very much alive and well. And correspondingly, throughout her childhood years, Phyllis was somehow convinced that her mother was still alive. She told herself that she would track her down one day.
And it wasn’t until Phyllis grew to adulthood, trained as a nurse, and got married and raised her family, that she got around to doing it. And then one day, she just found herself on the doorstep of Tipperary Mary. By that time, she was already a district nurse.
She changed her mother’s clothes, bathed and cleaned her wounds, and eventually got her to talk about her five children, all of whom she gave away, including Phyllis. When her mother finally spoke about her ‘little Phyllis’ affectionately and accurately told Phyllis’ birth date, it was Phyllis’ best – as well as her worst – day of her life.
Phyllis continued to care for her mother this way, all the way from 1981 up to 1990 without telling her mother even once how she was being taken care of by the little girl she long ago had given away. Their ties were finally broken when Bridget passed away at the age of 74.
Phyllis wrote her book, “Finding Tipperary Mary,” and had stated that she was surprised by all of the fuss being generated by her book and story. She said how profoundly she was humbled by the public’s reaction to her story.
Phyllis expressed hope that the public would understand her reasons for doing what she did, and was relieved that it came to be that way. She said she had to protect herself, her immediate family, and her mother. She also said she could have walked away from all of it, or maybe had gone with her mother to the pub, but it wasn’t an actual option. She had a small baby, and whenever she saw her mother, she was tipsy or had a hangover.
Barbara Fisher, a journalist, first met Phyllis eleven years ago as she nursed her mother; they became friends. She said that Phyllis is very special, and she had always known how extraordinary her story was.
Whitsell’s story became headlines in the US, Australia, India, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Far East, and Croatia. Phyllis, now aged 60, received so many warm and loving comments from complete strangers, and their comforting words made her feel an intimate closeness with them all. Her circumstances became such a huge hit that director Ol Parker got on board to turn Whitsell’s story into a major film. Parker’s previous film, The Exotic Marigold Hotel, boasted of a stellar cast that included Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, and Celia Imrie. It has not yet been revealed who will play Phyllis or Bridget.