Thursday 14 December 2017

Outpourings of pain after the Kerry Babies case that inspired a novel

Feted TV producer Anne McCabe was haunted by covering the story of mother Joanne Hayes, writes Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

NONE of us can predetermine those things that speak to us. For some, it's injustice; for others, the appeal of dumb animals; for many of us, it's children and the need to protect them.

For Anne McCabe, award-winning producer/director now turned writer, babies are what have inspired and motivated her to publish Under The Avalanche, her first book. Her own baby daughter, born when Anne was nearly 40; the baby she miscarried before that; and all the babies who suffered because of the way this country dealt with love, sex and marriage.

The book, a tale of three generations of women living in a Wicklow valley, each suffering the distortions and denials of shame, is often bleak, even distressing, but ultimately redemptive. Gertrude, Elizabeth and Catherine's stories hinge one upon the other, each of them betrayed by the silence and secrecy passed from mother to daughter. In the background, on television and radio, running in parallel with the momentum of the book's finale, is the Kerry Babies case, a pivotal moment in Irish society. It's a base note of historical fact, something that both grounds and defines the book. And it's a case Anne McCabe saw up close as a young producer/ director with RTE, covering the case for Today Tonight.

"We flew down to Kerry and back in one day. We interviewed Joanne Hayes, with the grandmother and the aunt and the male members of the family all stood in a row behind her. She was very nervous and I did feel she was being a bit evasive, and I'm not surprised. I did feel subsequently that we had a huge responsibility. What started out as a miscarriage of justice issue, actually turned round into a trial by media about a woman's personal life, and I've always regretted that."

That 1984 case, with all its lurid and terrible detail -- the body found on the beach, stabbed 27 times, the second body in the ditch, the speculation about paternity, the mooting of heteropaternal superfecundation (the theory of becoming pregnant simultaneously by two different men) as a explanation -- has still never been solved, and yet its effects have been like the aggressive, invasive roots of a willow tree. It showed up an Ireland far removed from the middle-class world of Dublin media, where so many of those who reported on it were dwelling.

"I remember the tribunal well," says Anne McCabe now. "What haunted me, and is there throughout the book, was the image of a baby stabbed on a beach. I just wondered what could drive any woman -- or man -- to harm a newborn baby? From that grew a set of fictional circumstances in my head, and this character, Catherine, was born in my head."

The Kerry Babies case came just months after the tragedy of Anne Lovatt, dying in a grotto in Longford, with her baby son beside her. Between them, these stories opened a sluice-gate in the Irish female psyche. "There was a whole deluge of letters into The Gay Byrne Show," says Anne. "The outpourings of pain; the most incredible stories. I've managed to allude to some of them in the book -- like a girl working on a farm, giving birth and putting the baby in a suitcase in the bedroom -- and these are true. I just found it so upsetting, I had to write about it. I had to expiate it."

The need for expiation may have provided the impetus for the book, but the spark of inspiration came when Anne's own daughter, Nora, was born. And in purely prosaic terms, being on maternity leave gave Anne the chance to actually sit down and write. "I thought, 'now I have to write a book. I can't just sit around having a baby,'" she says with a laugh.

Seeing maternity leave as a chance to write a book may strike those of us who can barely get out of our pyjamas as over-achieving, but it is entirely consistent with Anne's attitude. The youngest producer/director ever to be taken on by RTE -- she was just 22 -- she spent her 20s and early 30s working so hard she thought she'd developed stomach ulcers. "I was so tense, I was getting stomach pains. I was so ambitious, and the stress of it was making me ill. I was a very serious person in my 20s," she says now, wryly.

These days, Anne lives in an old castle -- "it's a small one, a leaking one, but the house part is comfortable" -- in Galway, where she directs Ros Na Run, does script consultancy, writes and rides horses. Part of this taking of life so seriously, she reckons, goes back to her convent school education. "I always felt I had to do something meaningful with my life." This took the form of hard-hitting TV programmes, one of which,

They Call Me Mammy Now, a documentary about the Dublin inner city AIDS orphans, won her the Jacobs Award.

But one casualty of all the hard work and determination was her first marriage. "I got married young, and was very

serious about that too, but it didn't last, with all that pressure going on. I was far too young as well. But there were no hard feelings -- it just fizzled out. He was a good guy, but it was the wrong time, and there were no children." Her beautiful Nora came later, with her second marriage, to a German lecturer, who was already a father. "Talk about being thrown into the deep end," she laughs. "I went from having no family, to having a family of two, which isn't easy. Being a stepmum isn't easy. I had to accommodate the ex-wives -- plural! -- and also other German children, although they were grown up. It was tricky."

Nora is now a teenager, meaning that the first draft of Under The Avalanche was written many years ago, and then "put literally under the bed". Its progression into print has been a kind of avalanche of its own, a snowballing of goodwill and word of mouth. Initially she had a partnership publishing deal, meaning she paid for printing the copies, but the reception has been so good among readers, that Anne now has a "proper publishing deal" with Shackleton.

And yes, there are more books. "I have two more," she tells me. "Both written in the last 10 years. I have always been writing on the side, and I'm now going to bring it into the fore. Recently, walking home back up the boreen, I suddenly though, this is a childhood dream. Riding horses, writing, living in the country, having a daughter ... I had to pinch myself!" It's an example of the way good things can come from painful ones; a journey that begins with the need for expiation, and ends in quiet satisfaction.

'Under The Avalanche', by Anne McCabe, €12, is available in Galway bookshops and through www.writtenin ireland.com.

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