Sunday 26 May 2019

'Absurd, pathetic and occasionally relevant, the tribunal was a car crash'

The Kerry Babies Tribunal and subsequent report was obviously flawed yet politicians accepted it without question, writes Gene Kerrigan

Joanne Hayes
Joanne Hayes
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

We were running. All of us were confused - lawyers, gardai, journalists, members of the public - we didn't know which way to run.

Out of the tribunal we ran, across the green in front of the Tralee council offices, each of us trying desperately to find a taxi, a car, any form of transport.

It was Monday morning, January 28, 1985. There was no hint, when Judge Kevin Lynch opened that day's session of the Kerry Babies Tribunal, of the disorder he was about to cause.

Lynch mulled over when he might hear the evidence of Joanne Hayes's aunt, Bridie Fuller. She was frail, too ill to attend the tribunal.

Abruptly, the judge announced he was adjourning the tribunal to the local hospital, where he intended to take Ms Fuller's sworn evidence. He slammed shut his heavy notebook, stood up and hurried out.

We ran like the clappers after him.

The Kerry babies tribunal in Tralee courthouse
The Kerry babies tribunal in Tralee courthouse

Swerving into the council car park, I began to realise how ghastly this was, how farcical, undignified and just plain wrong. But to stop was unthinkable.

Every journalist worries about the dread call from the newsroom: "Hey, where's the story?" "Well, I missed the story, boss, but I kept my dignity." So, to hell with dignity - we ran like Jayzus.

Somehow I ended up in a politician's car, shouting at him to go, go, go and he went, went, went.

And that was the Kerry Babies Tribunal.

That was it, not just in those moments of panic - that was the essence of it, the calibre of it, the pseudo-legalistic farce of it.

From the first witness to the final report, throwing up evidence that was absurd and pathetic and gross and occasionally relevant, the tribunal was a car crash.

Nevertheless, the politicians opportunistically accepted an obviously flawed report without question. It got an awkward issue off the agenda.

Thankfully, the doctors stood firm against the high court judge that January morning.

Bridie Fuller is our patient, they said, and you don't get to come stomping into our hospital without notice, demanding answers from a sick, confused woman.

On another day, under medical supervision, Ms Fuller - a former nurse - gave evidence. She hadn't been at her best for a long time, but such was her service to her community that the respect in which she was held never dimmed.

Except, perhaps, on that shabby day, when a tribunal - and we, its camp followers - rushed towards her with an arrogance and disrespect I find hard to credit even now.

It started on April 14, 1984, when a dead baby with 28 stab wounds was found on White Strand, near Cahersiveen. The baby was wrapped in plastic bags, including a Gouldings 0:7:30 fertiliser bag. He became known as the Cahersiveen baby.

By April 30, gardai, who included locals and members of the murder squad from Dublin, had identified 25-year-old Joanne Hayes, of Abbeydorney, outside Tralee, as having been pregnant by a local married man. She had no baby, and no record of delivery.

On May 1, the police questioned the family. Joanne said she had given birth on the farm, the baby was stillborn and she had hidden the body. This was true, but they didn't believe her - after all, the baby they believed was hers had turned up at White Strand, stabbed 28 times.

On May 2, after persistent questioning of the frightened, shamed Hayes family by skilled murder squad interrogators, Joanne and the family signed detailed confessions. These described Joanne stabbing the baby and a detailed account of a family trip to Slea Head, from where the baby was thrown off a cliff into the sea.

The baby, according to the confessions, was wrapped in plastic bags, including an 0:7:30 fertiliser bag. Later that day Joanne's own baby was found on the farm, just where she told the gardai it was.

The gardai quickly adjusted their view of the case. Joanne must have had twins. She hid one on the farm, she stabbed the other and the family threw it into the sea from Slea Head - from where it drifted across the bay to White Strand.

Eventually, forensic evidence emerged. The blood of the Cahersiveen baby was type A. Joanne is type O. Jeremiah Locke, father of her baby, is type O.

The Cahersiveen baby was not Joanne's.

The Kerry State Solicitor, Donal Browne, remained fixedly sceptical - drop it, he said, drop it quickly. He was in touch with the DPP's office and they tended to agree.

The Garda had a problem. If Joanne didn't stab the Cahersiveen baby, how could they explain why she and her family signed detailed confessions to the killing?

Those "confessions" not only described the stabbing, they contained lots of detail relating only to the Cahersiveen baby, details the family couldn't have known, such as the 0:7:30 bag - details the police certainly knew.

The Garda quickly adjusted its view of the case again.

Joanne, they decided, must have had sex with Locke and - around the same time - with someone else. A man with type A blood.

She had twins by different fathers - superfecundation.

Drop it, said the DPP, Eamonn Barnes.

And on October 10 it was dropped at District Court level.

That could have been the end of it. But journalists Joe Joyce and Don Buckley got their hands on the case documents. They contacted the Sunday Independent and on October 14 the story was splashed over two pages. How, people wanted to know, did the gardai get detailed confessions from innocent people?

A Garda internal inquiry failed. The pressure grew for a tribunal.

In essence, what happened was this: the Cahersiveen baby was stabbed in circumstances unknown, by person or persons unknown.

Around the same time, Joanne Hayes was pregnant, in difficult circumstances. Her baby was born at Abbeydorney, died, was hidden. In holy Ireland, at that time, it happened quite a lot. Just three months before these events, 15-year-old Ann Lovett died giving birth alone in a Catholic grotto in Granard, Co Longford.

The Cahersiveen baby had no connection to Joanne Hayes. The two events weren't connected - except in the minds of the police.

There were two more stages to go in the scandal: the tribunal hearings and the report.

Judge Kevin Lynch was an experienced lawyer; he had a terrific grasp of detail and excellent powers of recall. For some reason he became fixed on the Abbeydorney baby, not on the confession that Joanne allegedly stabbed the Cahersiveen baby 28 times.

He decided he must establish what happened in the Hayes household on the night Joanne's baby was born.

There was conflicting evidence. The baby was born in the house or in a field. It was stillborn, or Joanne put a hand on its throat to stop it crying and killed it.

Was the baby born alive? Gardai said State Pathologist Professor John Harbison examined the baby and said: "Gentlemen, we have separate existence" - meaning the baby was born alive.

Prof Harbison had no memory of saying that. He found dark patches on the baby's lungs suggestive of non-inflation, meaning the lungs never expanded fully and the baby never lived.

None of this is relevant to the confession of stabbing the Cahersiveen baby, unless we want to satisfy our curiosity about Joanne's private life.

Similarly, Joanne's personal history is irrelevant - her earlier pregnancy, her affair, all of that.

However, the judge allowed the police to run the superfecundation defence for months, as they promised an expert who would prove it scientifically possible.

This allowed them to probe every corner of Joanne's life in pursuit of the fantasy man with type A blood with whom she had supposedly slept.

It allowed incredible "fallen woman" nonsense to be indulged. When a workmate of Joanne's spoke of waiting in a bar for her husband, and meeting a fellow worker and having a drink with him, an apparently incredulous lawyer barked: "And you a married woman!"

The absurdity included investigating a name written in biro on Joanne's mattress, "Tom Flynn". This was thoroughly pursued, on the basis that a pining Joanne must have written it, having slept with this Tom Flynn.

There was no Tom Flynn in her life. A young man named Tom Flynn used to work in the shop that sold the mattress, he may have scribbled his name. This prurient, irrelevant, insulting nonsense went on endlessly.

Eventually the police expert arrived and promptly shot down the Garda's superfecundation theory.

I was working for Magill magazine and we did a 14,000 word analysis of the tribunal report, questioning its findings. We believed the judge got carried away playing amateur detective.

Judge Lynch, in return, wrote a 5,000 word rebuttal, also for Magill.

We said he didn't set out Prof Harbison's medical findings. He said he did. They are not in the report.

The report concluded that Joanne Hayes put both hands around her baby's neck and choked it to death. She then, Judge Lynch said, hit the baby with a bath brush, to "make sure it was dead".

The medical evidence by Prof Harbison was that the baby's larynx was not damaged, therefore it was not strangled or choked.

Prof Harbison sat in the witness box, the bath brush in hand, and smacked it into the palm of his other hand.

Such a blow, he said, would have fractured a baby's skull. There was no such injury.

All this happened at a time of great controversy about the use of confession evidence by police. The State had no wish to explore the implications of what happened in the Kerry Babies case.

In the Dail, Minister for Justice Michael Noonan unhesitatingly accepted the report.

He likened the judge's deductive powers to those of Sherlock Holmes, amateur detective.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss