Tuesday 20 February 2018

The Kerry Babies Case: The shocking scandal and tragedy that divided the nation and the mystery that was never solved

Joe O'Shea wrote about the Kerry Babies Case in the Irish Independent in 2014

'John', The Kerry Baby, in Cahersiveen Cemetary in Kerry
'John', The Kerry Baby, in Cahersiveen Cemetary in Kerry
In the eye of the storm: Joanne Hayes with her mother and family as the whole country became engulfed in a story that seemed to represent a fight for the soul of Catholic Ireland
Joanne at time of the controversy
Lover: Jeremiah Locke, the man Joanne was having an affair with at the time of the controversy
Joanne Hayes answers her door in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, in 2009
Jeremiah Locke at his home near Ballymacelligott Tralee, Co Kerry, in 2012

Joe O'Shea

It is only 30 years ago. But a look back at three cases involving three very different Irish women in 1984 reveals an Ireland that is both unrecognisable and strangely familiar.

In January of that year, schoolgirl Ann Lovett was found, close to death, lying next to a Marian shrine on a hill-top in Granard, Co Longford. The body of the baby she had just given birth to, a stillborn infant boy, was wrapped in her school coat next to her. The 15-year-old who had kept her pregnancy a secret, died shortly afterwards.

It was the year a teacher called Eileen Flynn lost another appeal against her dismissal from a Catholic School in New Ross, Co Wexford. She was fired after the school authorities had learnt that she was pregnant with an "illegitimate" child. The father was a local publican who was married, though separated.

Ms Flynn fought her case all of the way to the High Court, where she finally lost in March 1985.

In the eye of the storm: Joanne Hayes with her mother and family as the whole country became engulfed in a story that seemed to represent a fight for the soul of Catholic Ireland
In the eye of the storm: Joanne Hayes with her mother and family as the whole country became engulfed in a story that seemed to represent a fight for the soul of Catholic Ireland

While dismissing Ms Flynn's appeal in the Circuit Court, Judge Noel Ryan observed that the nuns had been too lenient with her. The judge pointed out that elsewhere in the world, women were condemned to death for this sort of offence. Not, Judge Ryan added, that he agreed with that sort of thing. Bank of Ireland had previously refused to set up an account for donations to support Ms Flynn's legal battle.

And in Kerry, starting in April 1984, a tragic, disturbing series of events centred on the bodies of two infants would become known as the Kerry Babies Case and raise fundamental questions about the treatment of women in Irish society.

Two dead newborn babies were found in Kerry in April 1984. The first was that of a baby boy with multiple stab wounds found on the White Strand in Cahirciveen. Two weeks later, the body of another baby boy was uncovered on the family farm of a local girl, Joanne Hayes, at Abbeydorney.

In the intervening weeks, gardai had drawn up a list of local women suspected of being pregnant or who had recently left the area; the list included women in a local home for unmarried mothers or who had been involved in relationships that had recently broken up. Similar lists also included "hippies" and "tinkers" who may have been in the area.

Joanne at time of the controversy
Joanne at time of the controversy

Local gardaí, and detectives from the Murder Squad in Dublin who had taken the unusual step of travelling to Kerry to help the investigation, at first suspected the Cahirciveen baby belonged to Ms Hayes.

Joanne and her family were brought in for extensive interrogation and signed statements which apparently backed the garda theory.

Lover: Jeremiah Locke, the man Joanne was having an affair with at the time of the controversy
Lover: Jeremiah Locke, the man Joanne was having an affair with at the time of the controversy

However, charges against Joanne Hayes were dropped after it emerged the blood group of the Cahirciveen baby was different to that of Ms Hayes, the married man, Jeremiah Locke, with whom she was having an affair and the other baby, found at the family farm. Hayes had admitted to giving birth to the baby on the farm, saying it had died shortly afterwards and she had hidden the body.

The identity of the Cahirciveen baby, found on the strand and christened John by the local undertaker, has never been established. In 2010, the baby's grave was badly vandalised, the headstone was smashed with what may have been a sledgehammer.

Joanne Hayes answers her door in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, in 2009
Joanne Hayes answers her door in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, in 2009

As the case against Joanne Hayes effectively collapsed under the weight of forensic and scientific fact, the investigating detectives stuck to their guns, putting forward a very complex theory, which attempted to prove the babies were twins by different fathers.

A Tribunal of Enquiry was set up to examine the handling of the case by gardaí. Its findings included a mild rebuke for some of the policemen (accused of "gilding the lily").

Journalist Don Buckley, together with his colleague Joe Joyce, wrote an explosive report for the Sunday Independent in 1984, just days after the case against the Hayes family was dropped.

The piece, based on extensive information apparently from garda files, questioned both the garda interrogation of the Hayes family and their theory of the crime. It led to the setting up of the Tribunal of Enquiry.

Today, Don Buckley says they could not have written the story if it wasn't for contacts and sources – including whistleblowers – they had established while writing previous stories about garda activities.

"Joe and myself got the story because we had sources and contacts and they told us that something was happening in Cahirciveen."

The two journalists covered the initial stages of the tribunal in Tralee. And Buckley remembers one particular night in the Brandon Hotel, which revealed a lot about local attitudes.

"It was a strange situation, after the day's business was finished, you had the guards, members of the Hayes family, journalists, feminists who had come from Dublin to support Joanne, all in the bar or the disco of the Brandon.

"And I remember one night, when Joanne Hayes was in there, and all of the women in the disco made their boyfriends go up, one by one, to dance with her, so she wouldn't be sitting by herself all night in a corner. It was their way of supporting her.

"I think the Hayes family were decent, out-the-country type of people. And they were mesmerised, in a way, by this huge case, the calamity they found themselves in. They were propelled into a situation that they could never have imagined.

"I do wonder if we, because we wrote the story, brought a whole lot of grief on the family, that the charges were going to be dropped anyway and they wouldn't have had to go through the tribunal".

Don Buckley believes there are echoes of the Kerry Babies Case in contemporary Ireland with questions about the culture within our police force and garda oversight.

"It didn't seem to change the modus operandi of the guards. It should have made more of a difference. But I think the case did, with others, make a big difference towards the liberalisation of this country," he said.

Professor Tom Inglis of UCD's School of Sociology has written a book about the Kerry Babies Case – Truth, Power and Lies: Irish Society and the Case of the Kerry Babies – which argues in part that Joanne Hayes represented a new generation of woman challenging traditional Catholic mores of the "long nineteenth century".

"Joanne Hayes was caught up in the transition from old to new Ireland," says Professor Inglis.

"She came from a traditional home where nothing had changed but she was working in a new sports hall in the town, she had a job, money. Ireland was starting to open up, suddenly everything was possible.

"Then she was caught up in this calamitous situation, the guards, the legal system, the media, the forces fighting for the soul of Ireland at that time descended on this family in Kerry. You had the deeply patriarchal, conservative Catholic Ireland against the new Ireland that was struggling to emerge.

"I don't think the case by itself switched the direction of Irish society, it was part of that long process. It was a pivotal moment in the women's movement because it was a reminder of how deeply patriarchal our society was. As Nell McCafferty said in her book on the case, a woman was to blame," says Professor Inglis.

He also points out that even now, 30 years later, there are still unresolved issues when it comes to the Kerry Babies Case.

"We are still talking about policing the police, about a Garda Authority. And there is still a glass ceiling in Irish society for women. Women are still being blamed when sexual or social order breaks down," he says.

"You could say we no longer tie sex to marriage in the way we did back then and there is not the same level of fear, guilt and shame associated with sexuality.

"Back then, around one in 20 births were outside of marriage. They were still referred to as illegitimate babies. Today it's one in three. Attitudes have greatly changed," he notes.

Professor Inglis does make one more point.

"Nobody has ever apologised to Joanne Hayes and her family for what they were put through. And I think Joanne in particular deserves that apology," he said.

Kerry Babies: the movie that never was

In November, 2012, Joanne Hayes made a very rare public statement – through her solicitor in Tralee – appealing to film-makers working on two separate proposals, not to make movies about the Kerry Babies Case.

The two projects, one involving a local writer and actor in Kerry, had received initial development funding from the Irish Film Board.

But in a letter Hayes gave to her solicitor Patrick Mann, she make an "earnest request" to those planning the movies not to go ahead, saying she was "very distressed" by the proposals.

Ms Hayes said she was not making the request for herself, but out of concern for her relatives, friends and her daughter Yvonne, who was living in the UK.

Both movie projects appear to have not moved beyond the initial development phase.

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