Thursday 22 August 2019

Ann Lovett, the Kerry babies, Eileen Flynn and now Majella Moynihan: the decade that was 'traumatising' for women

The story of Garda Majella Moynihan is yet another example of the ferocious backlash from Church and State that women faced after the hard-won gains of the 1970s, writes John Meagher

Different rules for men: Joanne Hayes faced an obscene interrogation of her sex life during the 1985 Kerry Babies tribunal
Different rules for men: Joanne Hayes faced an obscene interrogation of her sex life during the 1985 Kerry Babies tribunal
Majella Moynihan as a garda
The grave of Ann Lovett
John Meagher

John Meagher

Eileen Flynn started work as a history and maths teacher at the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross in 1978. She was regarded as a gifted teacher, who loved her job and imbued a sense of passion for the subjects among her pupils.

But four years later, in 1982, Flynn was sacked from the Co Wexford school. Her crime? She had given birth to a son by a local man, Richie Roche, with whom she was living, but as he was separated and the couple could not be married, the school showed her the door.

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Undeterred, she took a case for unfair dismissal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, the Circuit Court and, eventually, the High Court. Her plight gained considerable media attention in a year in which in which the term GUBU - taken from a Charles Haughey quote, "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented" - entered the vernacular.

At the Circuit Court judge Noel Ryan dismissed her appeal. "Times are changing," he said, "and we must change with them, but they have not changed that much or in the adjoining jurisdiction with regard to some things. In other places, women are being condemned to death for this sort of offence. Here people take a serious view of this and it is idle to shut one's eyes to it."

Majella Moynihan as a garda
Majella Moynihan as a garda

Eileen Flynn - who died in 2008 - would never work as a teacher again until 2000.

Her story has echoed with another this week. Majella Moynihan was in the early years of her career as a garda when she too faced expulsion in 1985 after falling pregnant out of wedlock. It was the intervention of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Kevin McNamara, which spared her the sack, but only because he had been concerned that she would have the pregnancy terminated in the UK.

Moynihan was effectively forced to give up her baby boy for adoption and she had to undergo an interrogation from her superiors about intimate details of her personal life. By contrast, the father of the boy - also a garda - was fined £90.

A remarkable RTÉ Documentary on One - aired last weekend - captured the heartbreak suffered by the former policewoman. In a subsequent interview, Moynihan said she considered taking her own life on five occasions. And, in the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described what happened to her as "wrong on every level".

Some of the social-media commentary expressed shock that it was in the 1980s, and not the famously repressive 1950s, that this had happened, yet for others, Moynihan's captivating story simply confirmed what they thought - that the Ireland of the 1980s was a relentlessly oppressive place for women.

"The 1980s was so traumatising for many women," says Dr Mary McAuliffe, lecturer in gender studies at University College Dublin. "I look at that decade as a time when the politics of the body comes to the forefront.

The grave of Ann Lovett
The grave of Ann Lovett

"The 1970s had seen some significant gains by feminist activists such as the setting up for the Rape Crisis Centre and changes in the way 'unmarried mothers', as they were called then, were treated. There was more empathy. But then you had a visit of John Paul II, which I see as a fulcrum around which the backlash begins."

Moral retribution

The backlash, she says, came in the form of an aggressive right-wing conservatism. "The firing of Eileen Flynn, the death of [15-year-old pregnant schoolgirl] Ann Lovett and the Kerry Babies [tribunal] were all aspects of how women's bodies were being controlled. We didn't realise it at the time, but it was a fulfilment of Church and State ideology and legislation that had been there for decades prior to the 1980s."

It's a sentiment echoed by historian Diarmaid Ferriter, whose book Occasions of Sin explores sex and women's rights. "It's the aggression that women were subjected to in the 80s which is the most striking thing," he says. "The word misogyny is overused but it was justified in relation to those kind of controversies [Flynn, Kerry Babies] and you can see it in the Moynihan case.

"These cases have a lot in common. There's a sort of moral retribution at the heart of them: 'You're going to have to pay for your sin'. It's as if they got pregnant on their own. The guard who impregnated Majella is fined £90 and she gets her life destroyed."

"[Fine Gael TD] Nuala Fennell was the first to be appointed to the Cabinet with a brief for women's affairs in the early 80s by Garret FitzGerald and he addressed the Ban Gardaí, as they were called in 1983, and said 'Don't let anybody stand in your way - fulfil your ambitions'. They were very emboldening words, but within a couple of years Majella got pregnant and it was back to the old misogyny."

Ferriter says there were very different rules for men, who were seen to have morally transgressed. "Nell McCafferty wrote a brilliant book about the Kerry Babies case and what's striking is how male it was: there were something like 46 officials invoiced in the tribunal between judges and lawyers and police. All men.

"During the opening days of the tribunal, one of those men, a married man, was caught having an affair with a married woman in a hotel in Tralee. He was confronted with this privately. First he denied it, then he completely crumbled and started crying and said, 'Oh my marriage, my reputation, my status' and he was assured of discretion and Nell made the point that women like Joanne Hayes [falsely accused of infanticide during the Kerry Babies tribunal] weren't assured of any discretion as they were stripped bare."

Like McAuliffe, Ferriter also believes that the 1979 papal visit helped embolden a new anti-feminist conservatism. "He [the Pope] was here for a specific reason which was to try to rally the troops and make it clear that Ireland remained the jewel in the crown when it came to the rejection of an increasingly secular agenda and that they needed to redouble their efforts to ensure that Ireland's purity remained.

"And, of course, that emboldened Catholic action groups and those who felt they had to put pressure on lawmakers and politicians and indeed on women."

Ferriter believes there was a systemic attempt to row back some of the gains that the feminist movement had achieved the previous decade.

"There were notable court cases here including the McGee case [1973] on contraception and you had the introduction of an Unmarried Mother's Allowance [also 1973]. And you'd a government saying it was committed to being very active around the International Year of the Women [1975].

"But there were a lot of people who feared that the law could be used to further advance the autonomy of women and they were worried that it would dilute the essential Catholicity of the State and that it could be the beginning of an unstoppable force."

'A civil war'

Prof Linda Connolly, sociology lecturer at Maynooth University and an author of two books on the history of the Irish feminist movement, says there was a viciousness in the attacks on women in the 1980s.

"It's quite shocking to look back at TV footage from the time and to watch the debates around abortion," she says. "Nell McCafferty called it a civil war.

"You have a clash in the 80s for the first time between tradition and modernity and you see those battles played out in individual women and those stories that were hidden are now coming out."

And the aggression towards women was not just from men. Alice Glenn - the arch conservative Fine Gael deputy - famously declared that "a woman voting for divorce is like a turkey voting for Christmas" in the bitter months leading up to the first divorce referendum in 1986.

Connolly says that if the 1980s could be a dark place for Irish women, it was a remnant of what had happened immediately after the foundation of the State. "Women were very involved in the Irish Revolution, but when it came to the new state, two things happened: the first was that the men took all the credit for it and all the power - from the start, the new state was based on a patriarchal model of power; and the second thing was that that patriarchy was infused with Catholic ideology.

"What happened in the 1980s stemmed from the choices the State made in terms of the path it was going to follow and where it was going to position and situate women."

It wasn't all grim though. Some concessions were made, such as the loosening of the contraceptive laws in 1985 - a prescription was no longer required - although condoms were still comparatively difficult to access. And, in 1990, a new law was introduced recognising marital rape as a crime.

And, as Mary McAuliffe points out, there was a growing sense among "ordinary women" that the sexism in society would have to be confronted. "All of these things [Ann Lovett's death, the Kerry Babies and so on] helped to galvanise women and more and more of them felt, 'We have to change this'. You can see that to the response of what happened to Joanne Hayes on the stand - that obscene interrogation of her sex life, which is reflected in what happened to Majella Moynihan. They were sending yellow flowers [to Joanne Hayes] from all over the country. There was a sense of, 'Enough is enough'."

But real change, she argues, only came about from the mid-1990s following, the crumbling of the Catholic Church, the decriminalisation of divorce and the rapid growth in property brought on by the Celtic Tiger.

"We have to call the 1980s what it was - a fundamentally misogynistic society. And it dragged on until well into the 90s. The last Magdalene [laundry] wasn't closed until 1996 and girls were still being put in, albeit in fewer numbers."

Turning point

Linda Connolly says the so-called X Case in 1992 - in which a 14-year-old schoolgirl who had been raped was prohibited from travelling to the UK for an abortion - marked a key turning point for women and for the feminist movement.

"I think that changed everything," she says. "There was such anger that this could happen and I think many of the rights that have been won since, including last year's [abortion] referendum stem from that."

Eileen Flynn would not live long enough to see the overwhelming show of support for women's bodily autonomy in that referendum. She died suddenly in 2008. She went on to marry Richie Roche and the couple would have five children together.

After her death, some noted the obscene irony. At the time Flynn was being fired for having a child with a separated man - for living "a lifestyle flagrantly in conflict which the school sought to promote," in the words of principle Sr Rosemary Duffy - just a short drive away, in Fethard, a Fr Seán Fortune was continuing to rape teenage boys with ­impunity.

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