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Saturday 14 December 2019

Kerry Babies: How the discovery of a baby's body on a beach 34 years ago sparked a traumatic series of events that shocked Ireland

Joanne Hayes pictured with her daughter around 1985
Joanne Hayes pictured with her daughter around 1985
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

IT was a Saturday morning when a local man out jogging on White Strand in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, made the grisly discovery of the body of a baby boy.

The date was April 14, 1984, and the infant was confirmed to be dead. He had been stabbed multiple times before he was put in a plastic bag and left on the beach, just outside Cahersiveen town on the scenic Iveragh Peninsula in south Kerry.

His little body had been jammed into a space between the rocks. The subsequent post-mortem examination revealed he was approximately five days old and had been dead for about two days. He had been stabbed 28 times, with four of these wounds penetrating his heart.

What remains a mystery to this day is the identity of his parents and the circumstances surrounding the three short days he might have lived prior to his brutal death.

Joanne Hayes
Joanne Hayes

The baby was baptised and given the name 'John' by local undertaker Tom Cournane, who was deeply affected by the incident and arranged and paid for the baby's funeral.

The simple headstone on his grave at the local cemetery proclaimed: "I am the Kerry baby, Christened on April 14, 1984, named John. I forgive". The gravestone has, however, been vandalised several times, including being smashed in 2004.

Garda Breda O'Donoghue, Det Walter O'Sullivan, Supt Flor Murphy and Det John Brennan pictured at the Kerry Babies Press Conference in Cahersiveen Garda Station on Tuesday.
Photo: Don MacMonagle
Garda Breda O'Donoghue, Det Walter O'Sullivan, Supt Flor Murphy and Det John Brennan pictured at the Kerry Babies Press Conference in Cahersiveen Garda Station on Tuesday. Photo: Don MacMonagle

The true identity of 'Baby John' has never been established, but the discovery of his remains led to the infamous Kerry Babies case and the eventual setting-up of a tribunal of inquiry to examine the handling of it by gardaí.

The investigation began to focus on several women in the area and a list was drawn up of anyone suspected of having been pregnant or who had left the area recently.

Women who had been in a relationship that had recently broken up or who were suspected to have been having an affair with a married man were also under suspicion, as were any "hippies" or "tinkers".

Eventually, the investigation began to hone in on a single mother, Joanne Hayes, who was known to have been pregnant, from Abbeydorney, over 75km away in north Kerry.

Joanne Hayes was wrongly believed to be Baby John’s mother
Joanne Hayes was wrongly believed to be Baby John’s mother

Ms Hayes already had a young daughter.

Two weeks later, the body of another baby boy was uncovered on the Hayes farm.

Joanne Hayes: charges were dropped after blood tests
Joanne Hayes: charges were dropped after blood tests

Ms Hayes had given birth to a boy on April 12, at around eight months gestation, but the baby died and was buried on the farm.

The results of a post-mortem examination were inconclusive.

Investigating gardaí suspected the Cahersiveen baby also belonged to Ms Hayes and she and her family were brought in for questioning.

They signed statements confessing one of the bodies had been hidden on the family farm, and the other baby was stabbed and his body thrown in the sea at Dingle. She signed a statement confessing she had killed the baby in her house.

Her initial statement said she had given birth to a baby boy in a field on her parents' farm.

Detectives believed she gave birth to him in her bed before she stabbed him to death, and that members of her family had disposed of his body.

She was charged with the murder of the Cahersiveen baby in May at a special court sitting in Tralee, but the following day the remains of her own baby were found on her parents' farm.

When blood tests revealed the baby found on the beach was a different blood group to Ms Hayes, her married lover Jeremiah Locke, and the baby found on the farm, the charges were dropped.

But then there were attempts to prove "heteropaternal superfecundation" had taken place - that she had borne twins by two different fathers.

The investigation ultimately led to a tribunal of inquiry - the Kerry Babies Tribunal - headed by Mr Justice Kevin Lynch.

The public tribunal that was ordered by the then-minister for justice, Michael Noonan, was held in Tralee and Dublin in 1985 and lasted for 82 days.

It was to investigate the circumstances leading to the charges and allegations of Garda ill-treatment of the Hayes family.

Questioning of Ms Hayes during the tribunal focused on her personal life and she was asked about intimate issues pertaining to her sex life, menstrual cycle and her use of contraception.

Jeremiah Locke was questioned on whether Joanne Hayes had been a virgin when he first had sexual intercourse with her.

Ms Hayes collapsed and was sick a number of times and even required sedation.

There was huge media attention on the proceedings, which attracted the support of women's groups who picketed outside.

A Dáil committee on women's rights described the questioning as "insensitive, harrowing, horrific and shameful".

The findings of the tribunal were highly critical of the Garda conduct of the investigations.

State papers released in 2015 revealed the then-Garda commissioner Lawrence Wren believed gardaí had been "grossly negligent" in their investigation.

In the review of the discovery of the remains of Baby John, investigating gardaí have stressed that the Cahersiveen and the Ireland of 1984 was a different place than that of 2018.

Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach, Patrick Hillery was President, and divorce and contraception were both illegal at that time.

In January of that year, 15-year-old schoolgirl Ann Lovett died after giving birth to a baby boy, alone in a grotto in Granard, Co Longford. Ann was discovered lying beside the statue of the Virgin Mary by a group of children who were walking home from school.

Ultimately, neither mother nor baby survived.

The previous year, a bitterly fought referendum led to an amendment to the Constitution that recognised the right to life of the unborn child.

The last time Joanne Hayes had spoken publicly was in 2006 when, through her solicitor Pat Mann, she appealed to filmmakers not to make a dramatisation of the events.

In 2004, the headstone that marked Baby John's grave was vandalised and the headstone smashed.

The replacement headstone no longer bears the words "I forgive".

Gardaí have assured the public that this time the investigation will be carried out correctly. Supt Flor Murphy said: "This investigation is going to be thorough, it's going to be professional and it's going to be staffed by people very experienced, drawn from the locality and from Kerry.

"It is supported by the Serious Crime Review Team, who have the expertise and the experience in dealing with historical investigations and their knowledge and expertise, complemented by our knowledge and with the support of the community, we can resolve this."

Ms Hayes has also been kept abreast of developments and a dedicated Garda Family Liaison Officer has been assigned to her.

But the garda leading the new investigation was also mindful that it was a review into the death of an innocent baby and an appeal for information.

"On April 14, 1984, on White Strand Beach in Cahersiveen, the lifeless body of a newborn baby boy was found in a bag," he said.

"The baby was called Baby John and he is buried here in Cahersiveen.

"We have never found out the full circumstances of the death of Baby John. We need the public's help to change that."

The strong belief among gardaí is that the answers are not too far away and that even the smallest piece of information could be vital.

"This is an opportunity for them to help bring closure on this terrible event and ensure Baby John receives justice.

"After all these years, Baby John deserves the truth," he added.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Cahersiveen garda station at 066-9473610 - or the Garda Confidential Line at 1800 666 111.

Irish Independent

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