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Varadkar admitting he wasn't fully aware of Kerry Babies shows importance of retelling our stories

When we don’t tell our stories we create a world where change is impossible and where inequality and oppression can openly flourish, writes Annemarie Ni Churreain.

Annemarie Ni Churreain Kerry County Council Writer In Residence

THE WRITER JOAN Didion said: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”.

I like to expand on this and say when we don’t tell our stories we create a world where change is impossible, where inequality and oppression can openly flourish.

In 1984, Kerry woman Joanne Hayes was wrongly accused, in the most brutal and public way, of the murder of newborn infant ‘John’.

It was a story that tore like a flame through the entire country, blowing wide open the attitudes of society at that time towards single women, motherhood and the female body.

Anyone who lived through the Kerry Babies story will remember it as a potent and explosive moment in Irish history. Yet, a few days ago our own Taoiseach admitted that it is only in “recent days or weeks” that he has become fully aware of the case at all.

‘By sharing stories, we honor loss’

Stories are the lifeblood of any society, where formal education fails, poetry and fiction often succeed. A story well-told bring us beyond ordinary thinking to a place of mystery and knowledge where the full complexity of the human experience can be faced.

Unlike a formal history lesson, or a piece of information through the mainstream media, a truth unfolded in a creative voice resonates in a deeply personal and ancient way. History lessons are tailored for history students, but storytelling allows us to explore the untailored edges of who we are and where we come from.

If Ireland is serious about having a conversation that fully explores the lives and rights of women and families, then we must make space to reconnect with stories. We must continue to use stories to put our conversation into an historical context.

It is in the telling and retelling of stories like Joanne’s that we can move beyond simplified and palpable versions of our lives and examine themes like cruelty, empathy, grief, love and restoration. By sharing stories, we honor loss. We make a place within ourselves and our communities to commemorate those who have been harmed. The true art of storytelling opens up the possibility of redemption.

‘Systematically silenced by rules’ 

I find myself returning again and again to the lives of Irish women in my poetry, in particular the lives of the women who were systematically silenced by the strict rules and norms of society in the 80’s and 90’s.

As a child I grew up knowing that my grandmother had spent time in a Mother and Baby Home. I began my schooling in the year that Joanne Hayes was arrested, the same year that a fifteen year old schoolgirl named Ann Lovett died at a grotto in Granard giving birth.

As a teenager I also found myself transfixed by Lavinia Kerwick, one of the first women to waive her anonymity to speak publicly about sexual assault. Burned into my mind is the image of Kerwick on a TV screen, burning from the inside out with a bright rage.

Using her physical shape, to state herself into the public consciousness like a single letter of the alphabet, Kerwick communicated a bodily ‘I’ – rejecting the idea of the female body as undefended or open to occupation and insisting the responsibility of the Irish state to hold her attacker accountable.

It’s a very human thing to seek answers through the making of marks on a page or the creation of a sound. It is with the greatest respect for Joanne Hayes, and out of a sense of personal sadness for us all, that I wrote my poem ‘The Kerry Foot’ at Cahir Saidhbhín.

Annemarie Ní Churreáin is the author of BLOODROOT (Doire Press 2017). She is the 2017-18 Writer In Reidence for County Kerry. The residency is a partnership between Kerry County Council and The Arts Council, supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Trustees of Muckross House. More information from www.studiotwentyfive.com

Read: Experiencing mothering stress and burnout? Psychologist gives advice on steps to take>

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About the author:

Annemarie Ni Churreain  / Kerry County Council Writer In Residence

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