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Womanhood on trial: The letters received by the Taoiseach during the Kerry Babies saga

Documents released under the 30-year rule show the public interest in the tragedies.

Joanne Hayes and her family arrive at the tribunal.
Joanne Hayes and her family arrive at the tribunal.
A NEWBORN BABY boy has been found dead near Caherciveen, county Kerry. The body was found abandoned on the White Strand, about three miles from the town, and a post-mortem is being carried out by the State pathologist Dr John Harbison.  The baby is believed to have died about three days ago.

These were the words from an RTÉ news reporter on 14 April 1984 which would leave Ireland a forever changed nation.

A tragic discovery of a newborn baby – who had been stabbed to death – was always going to shock the nation, but nobody was prepared for the media and social firestorm to come.

Over the next 20 months, Irish people would take a hard look at Ireland’s treatment of women, as well as its patriarchal systems, attitudes to sex and the work of An Garda Síochána.

From local councillors to the Taoiseach, every politician in the land was dragged into the saga.

Papers just released under the 30-year rule show how much correspondence Garret Fitzgerald had to deal with in relation to the case following the then-Justice Minister Michael Noonan’s decision to order a tribunal of inquiry into the garda handling of the case.

Letters sent to him include one from the wives of the three gardaí who were involved in the questioning of the woman at the centre of the entire story – 25-year-old Joanne Hayes from Abbeydorney.

Although their letter is redacted, it is clear from the reply that they discussed the transfer of their husbands out of their original duties.

In his reply, the private secretary to the Taoiseach said the Commissioner had informed the Justice Minister that he had “considered it right and indeed necessary to transfer from their present posts most of those who were assigned from the Technical Bureau to the Kerry Babies investigation”.

He was clear that this was not a disciplinary decision, but one that was made “in the interests of the Force”.

The Taoiseach said he would not intervene in the matter.

PastedImage-77206

The letter came over a year after the case had rocked the establishment.

Sexual profile of Kerry

Following the discovery in April of the previous year of the newborn, by now known as the Caherciveen Baby, gardaí arrived at the Hayes family’s door. Their inquiries led them to investigate women in the area who could possibly have given birth to ‘unwanted’ children at the time. It was known in the area that Joanne was in a relationship with a married man who had fathered her daughter. People were also aware that she was pregnant for a second time.

PastedImage-9745 Joanne Hayes Source: RollingNews.ie

Unknown, however, was that Joanne had already given birth – to a baby boy in a field on her farm at Abbeydorney. She initially told gardaí this. She believed that her son had died and panicked, returning to the farmhouse. The next day, she returned to the spot to find the baby’s body. She put the remains in a paper bag and then a plastic bag before placing them in a pond elsewhere on the 65-acre farm.

She and her family were questioned about the Cahirciveen baby. She told them she had given birth on the farm and that the baby’s body was still on the property. Gardaí did not believe her and continued to press her and other family members about the baby found on White Strand with stab wounds.

Somehow – after lengthy interrogations – inconsistent confessions were made that she gave birth in the house and killed the baby by stabbing it with a carving knife and beating its head with a bath brush.

Her family members also confessed to being involved with the disposal of the body into the sea near Dingle.

On 1 May 1984, Joanne was charged before a special court with the murder of an unnamed infant and remanded in custody.

According to a government memo written ahead of the tribunal:

Although the charge did not specifically allude to the Cahirciveen baby, this was the only unnamed infant known to the gardaí to have died at that time.

A day later, a member of the Hayes family brought gardaí to the spot where Joanne’s baby was actually buried on the farm.

The newborn would become known as the Abbeydorney Baby. A post-mortem did not give conclusive results and it was unclear whether the baby had lived after childbirth.

Gardaí now had two deceased newborns and just one mother.

Blood tests showed that Joanne was not the mother of the Cahirciveen Baby – although this did not stop theories that she could have mothered twins to different fathers.

People began to talk about superfecundation where a woman could conceive twins by two men if she had sex with them both within 24 hours, and showed the lens through which a young unmarried woman like Hayes was viewed.

The forensic tests also did not deter gardaí from pressing ahead with charges. They began to prepare a book of evidence against the Hayes family in relation to the Cahirciveen Baby.

Eventually, the DPP told them to drop the charges, basing his decision on evidence available.

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At this point in the saga, the media turned against the gardaí, critical of their handling of the investigation.

Subsequently, the Hayes family complained about the alleged ill-treatment which included assault, harassment and oppressive conduct. They said the statements given to gardaí were done so under duress.

As pressure built, the Garda Commissioner established an investigation, asking two senior chief superintendents to report back to him.

However there were a number of serious problems with the probe. The Hayes family refused to be interviewed, instead handing in prepared statements. According to a government document at the time, this meant there was “no opportunity of clearing up contradictory aspects or of assessing the truthfulness of the witnesses”.

The same approach was taken by some gardaí who were involved in the interrogations of the Hayes family. They handed in prepared statements to reiterate their earlier testimony. It led investigators to believe that some aspects of their work was being concealed.

Joanna Hayes Kerry Babies Tribunals Det Sergeant Gerard O Carroll about to resume evidence after the lunch break during the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Source: /Photocall Ireland

The garda report also said that no explanation was given for why gardaí pressed on with charges after the blood test results emerged. It also noted that gardaí never asked Joanne Hayes to point out where she had disposed of her baby.

The government memo summarises the main jist of the report:

To all intents and purposes, active investigation of the case ceased once the charges had been preferred against the Hayes family, notwithstanding the finding of the second baby. The conclusion of the investigating gardaí from the finding of the second baby seemed to be that Ms Hayes must have had twins although the results of the forensic tests on the blood groups clearly threw serious doubt on this.

The Minister for Justice’s memo goes as far as saying the Commissioner believed that investigating officers were “grossly negligent” in their handling of the case. He considered a sworn inquiry was needed to “establish what really happened”.

Calling for government to back his decision, Michael Noonan said the issues involved were “clearly of major public importance and warrant the most searching investigation”.

“Moreover, as a result of all the publicity the case has received, there is a very large public interest dimension to the case,” he added.

His request was granted and a Judicial Inquiry was announced.

Over 82 days in 1985, Justice Kevin Lynch heard evidence from Joanne Hayes, the man she was in a relationship with, Jeremiah Locke, the investigating gardaí and others.

As the tribunal dragged on, public opinion was firmly on Joanne Hayes’s side. People were horrified at the line of questioning she faced – she was asked about contraception, her sexual experiences, her menstrual cycle – as part of attempts to portray her as capable of anything. She broke down in tears numerous times and required medical attention while giving evidence.

Locke was also asked whether Hayes was a virgin when they first started seeing each other. He was asked “how many other boys or men had Joanne had intercourse with”.

PastedImage-87652 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The tribunal eventually concluded that the Hayes family wilfully and freely gave false statements to the gardaí, finding that they perjured themselves when talking about garda ill-treatment.

It also found that Joanne was the mother of just the Abbeydorney baby. Despite forensic evidence to the contrary, the Tribunal also found that she had killed her child by suffocation and blows to the head.

The worst Judge Lynch said about the garda investigation was that it was “slipshod”, that their searches of the Hayes farm were “deplorably inadequate” and that they didn’t find the second baby straight away was “deplorable”.

He said that it was Joanne’s own “guilty conscience” that led her to tell gardaí about the Cahirciveen baby. He noted that the second child was probably “illegitimate”.

What is so unbelievably extraordinary about two women in Co Kerry, in one of the weeks in 1984, both deciding to do away with their babies? The tribunal accepts that it is something of a co-incidence, but does not accept that there is anything really unbelievable about it.’

A catalyst for change

Neighbours travelled to Tralee to picket the proceedings, while feminist groups came together to protest against the treatment of women by authorities. In the same year, schoolgirl Ann Lovett died after keeping her pregnancy secret. She was found at a holy grotto in Granard with a stillborn infant boy next to her. 

It was also the year in which school teacher Eileen Flynn lost an appeal against her firing. She lost her job because she became pregnant outside of marriage. When first dismissing her case, the Circuit Court judge said that the nuns in the school had been too lenient with her.

Among the letters to the Justice Minister following the tribunal is one from the Irish Women’s Forum which had just passed a motion of no confidence in the Irish legal system.

The Dail Committee on Women’s Rights described the questioning of Hayes as “insensitive … very, very frightening… harrowing and quite horrific. . . and shameful.”

In her book A Woman To Blame, journalist Nell McCafferty looked at how Hayes was treated by gardaí and the judge and how this reflected the attitudes towards women at the time.

A measure of his temperament and attitudes to women in the Kerry Babies case is the judicial pronouncement made at its end by Justice Lynch. He asked, “What have I got to do with the women of Ireland in general? What have the women of Ireland got to do with this case?” He presumed to lecture Irish women on what he saw as their misguided support for Hayes in her agony, by sending her flowers and Mass cards.

McCafferty described Hayes’ case as “medieval”: a young woman from a tiny village being questioned about how she conceived a child by a married man.

The author concluded that women came together because they felt that womanhood itself was on trial.

Joanne Hayes still lives in Kerry and refuses all requests for interviews about the time. Her long-time solicitor Pat Mann makes some brief media appearances. Earlier this month, he told Newstalk that forensic testing of Baby John (the Cahirciveen Baby) would still be welcome.

Read: RTÉ to rebroadcast the Ann Lovett letters>

Read: History lesson: What happened during the 1983 abortion referendum?>

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