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'The Kerry Babies case was a clash of traditional and new modern Ireland'

We relook at the Kerry Babies case, in the wake of yesterday’s news that Joanne Hayes is seeking the High Court to declare that all findings of wrongdoing made against her by a Tribunal were incorrect.

Updated Dec 10th 2020, 12:05 PM

YESTERDAY, JOANNE HAYES, who was wrongly accused of murdering an infant over 35 years ago, and her siblings said they want the High Court to declare that all findings or wrongdoing made against them by the Tribunal into the Kerry Babies case were unfounded and incorrect. 

Hayes and her siblings Edmund, Kathleen and Michael Hayes seek the declarations in a bid to finalise matters relating to events during the mid 1980s and would vindicate the family’s good name.  In 1984 she, and members of her family, were arrested by gardaí following the discovery of a newborn baby with multiple stab wounds found in Cahersiveen, South Kerry. The matter will return to court next week.

Here, we take a look back at what happened in the case, with a piece originally published in 2018.  

ON TUESDAY 16 January, 2018, Joanne Hayes got an apology she had waited 34 years for.

The Kerry native’s name was once more back in the press, just four years after the 30th anniversary of what’s become known as the Kerry Babies case.

File Photo LEO VARADKAR HAS apologised on behalf of the State to Joanne Hayes who was wrongly accused of the murder of an infant child in Kerry in 1984. End. Joanne Hayes in 1985. Source: Eamonn Farrell

This week, Hayes got an apology from An Garda Siochána for what happened during that case, when she was accused of killing two babies. Gardaí made the startling leap of claiming she became pregnant by two different men at the same time (a process known as superfecundation) and killed both offspring.

But we know now had happened was that two babies died tragically around the same time in April 1984: one born to Joanne Hayes in Abbeydorney, which did not survive the birth (despite forensic evidence, the Tribunal found the baby had died by suffocation and blows to the head), and one at the hand of an as-yet unknown person who stabbed the newborn multiple times.

There were many tragedies wrapped up in the Kerry Babies case, and among them was that Hayes was charged with murdering the baby found stabbed on White Strand in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry. Some gardaí continued to insist, decades later, that she was in the mother of that baby – even though she denied it, and its blood type was not the same as hers or her partner’s (a married man by the name of Jeremiah Locke).

But this week, gardaí confirmed that DNA evidence showed definitively – definitively for them – that Hayes was not the baby’s mother. Now, they are searching for what really happened to that baby, known as Baby John. His sad fate, to be found dead by a jogger among rocks on a beach, is yet another of the Kerry Babies’ tragedies.

A baby, dead by someone’s hand, and unclaimed for over three decades.

The Kerry Babies case was handled in such an extraordinary way that it led to a Tribunal, where it was said that womanhood was put on trial. Joanne Hayes and her family claimed gardaí extracted untrue confessions from them.

The judge 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.

Gardaí said that Hayes had been pregnant through the extremely rare ‘superfecundation’. The Tribunal ended without an apology for Joanne Hayes and her family, and with the gardaí still believing she was the mother of Baby John (despite the tribunal saying she was just the mother to the Abbeydorney baby).

Which is why the garda apology this week, and for Superintendent Flor Murphy to say “Ireland was a different place in 1984″, while appealing for help in identifying Baby John, was so significant.

‘A sense of relief and a sense of outrage’

Tom Inglis, a professor at University College Dublin’s School of Sociology, wrote a book about the Kerry Babies case, called Truth, Power and Lies (2003). What was it like for him to hear about this week’s apology for Joanne Hayes?

“A sense of relief and a sense of outrage: relief that eventually justice has been done, outrage that it has taken so long,” he says.

File Photo LEO VARADKAR HAS apologised on behalf of the State to Joanne Hayes who was wrongly accused of the murder of an infant child in Kerry in 1984. End. Detective Sergeant Gerard O'Carroll (R) prior to taking the witness box on his last day of evidence at the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Source: Eamonn Farrell

Each time that someone involved in the case came out to yet again push the ‘superfecundation’ theory, it was “another wound at Joanne Hayes”, says Inglis.

“This continual thing that that woman, she is still to blame for all of this, and only finally when the definitive proof comes out that they say hands up, it seems to me too little, too late,” he says of the social attitude at the time.

There was always a cloud hanging over Joanne Hayes, is how he puts it, and he questions how the gardaí came to the conclusions they did.

“They went into this delusional form of thought which lasted into the Tribunal,” says Inglis.

“The murder squad was set up, if you like, to get confessions from hardened criminals and terrorists. Why did three of these leading members of the murder squad become involved in this case? The answer is they were all from Kerry,” he says.

[For some people], the killing of a baby in Kerry was a bridge too far in terms of modern Ireland becoming free and liberal. [They believed] this is what happens when you have wanton women going around having sex: babies getting stabbed to death. The message is “not in my backyard”.

He says that through her articles and book on the subject, Nell McCafferty drew attention to the gender divide in the Kerry Babies case.

She called the situation ‘medieval’, writing:

The legal men and a succession of male doctors, psychiatrists and police officers – 43 in all – spent six months probing the young woman’s mind and body. A doctor gave the dimensions of her vagina during a previous birth. Ordnance survey maps were used to pinpoint the exact locations of the places where she had sexual congress with her married lover. The question was asked, “Did she love this man or what was he and other men prepared to do with her?” It was medieval, but it happened in 1985.

Inglis became interested in the situation because it seemed to be a “perfect storm”.

“Where the clash of traditional and new modern Ireland came together. When there was this clash between rural and urban, male and female, a class divide. It was a story necessarily that I became interested in because of the sexuality but then I realised that the major story was about the State.”

State and church

He describes the State as an institution which is similar to the church, an institution that led its own “witch hunt against what they saw as wanton women in modern Ireland at the time”.

File Photo LEO VARADKAR HAS apologised on behalf of the State to Joanne Hayes who was wrongly accused of the murder of an infant child in Kerry in 1984. End. Sergeant PJ Browne leaving the Kerry Babies Joanne Hayes Tribunal after giving evidence (2nd from left) with Detective Superintendent John Courtney (1st left), Detective Sergeant Shelly and Detective Sergeant Mossey O'Donnell. Source: Eamonn Farrell

The Kerry Babies case also forces us to look at how women and children were viewed in Ireland at this time. Just a few years beforehand, Pope John Paul had visited Ireland. Ireland’s first feminist groups only emerged in the early 1970s. Contraception was difficult to get hold of for people.

“It’s so difficult to realise to what extent in those times both children and women were seen as not full members of society and that there was a time and a place for children as much as a time and place for women,” says Inglis. “And to get into that mentality of women should know their place in society, of how they should behave and that whole mentality.”

For people seen as outside the moral order or different sexually in some way, that difference can lead to them being persecuted or scapegoated in society, says Inglis.

And while the role of single parents has evolved in Ireland, Inglis questions who the moral outsiders are in Irish society today.

“Wanton women were like Eileen Flynn who around the same time was driven out of her job in Wexford [for being pregnant and unmarried] and in the same way it happens with gay people and may be happening with transgender people [today],” says Inglis.

He mentions the current #MeToo campaign, which serves to highlight the experiences of women who have been sexually harassed or mistreated. “You would think we have progressed way beyond that but the #MeToo campaign has revealed that not even in the most sophisticated cosmopolitan society have we moved forward.”

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‘We do history to find where we’ve come from’

Part of what drew people’s attention to Joanne Hayes was how she defied the ideas of what an unmarried mother should be like. “In Ireland then, the idea you could have a child outside wedlock and rear it on your own and stand in defiance of the dominant Catholic culture was an act of incredible defiance,” says Inglis.

But he believes that by the time Hayes got pregnant with her second child by the married Jeremiah Locke, “she lost the sympathy and support that was there when she brought up Yvonne”.

This was also a time when the likes of Magdalene Laundries were not where ‘fallen’ women were automatically put. “She was fully aware of what had happened to wanton women in the past,” says Inglis. “Getting pregnant out of marriage was a no-no.”

At the time, 1 in 20 births were outside of marriage. Now, one out of three births are outside of marriage. “Now it is absolutely normal,” says Inglis. “Now you would think you’re better off to have sex before marriage, or even a child before marriage.”

Looking back at what happened during the Kerry Babies case, and this period of Irish history, is hugely important, says Inglis.

Notably, the same day we talk to him about this, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admits his own lack of knowledge on the topic.

“One of the reasons we do history is to remind us of how we’ve come to be the way we are and it’s another reminder that history is not about political and economic events,” says Inglis.

“History is about culture, but it’s also about – dare I say it is about things like religion and sexuality, and stories of gender. And that’s why to my mind the Kerry Babies should be somewhere on the curriculum in the Leaving Certificate because here’s your real life history.

“OK, whether or not we went into the EU, absolutely, [that is] important. But in terms of family, gender, sexuality, everyday life these are crucial watersheds and that need to be discussed rather than brushed under the carpet.”

Read: Leo Varadkar apologises to Joanne Hayes over Kerry Babies scandal>

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