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The Kerry Babies: Death, tragedy and scandal, 30 years on

This day 30 years ago, the body of a baby was found on a Kerry beach. Its discovery led to a major moment in Irish social history.

Joanne Hayes
Joanne Hayes
Image: Eamonn Farrell/PhotocallIreland

ON 14 APRIL 1984, the body of a newborn baby boy was found on White Strand beach at Caherciveen in Co Kerry.

The baby had been stabbed to death.

Joanne Hayes was a 25-year-old local woman who had been known to be pregnant, and was soon arrested by gardaí as part of their investigations.

She and her family confessed to the baby’s murder – but later withdrew their confessions and said that Joanne had given birth to a baby on the family farm. Hayes said that this baby – a different baby to the baby found at the beach – had died shortly after it was born and was then buried on the farm.

Joanne Hayes was an unmarried woman who had had a relationship with a married man and became pregnant. She already had another child, a daughter who she was raising at home.

The first baby, the boy found at White Strand was baptised, and named John.

Joanne Hayes’ murder case and the 1985 tribunal seared the Kerry Babies case into the national consciousness, demonstrating as it did the attitudes towards women, family and religion in 1980s Ireland.

Kerry Babies case

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 Hayes family lodged complaints against the gardaí involved in the investigation, claiming they were intimidated into making certain confessions.

After the charge of murder against Hayes was thrown out of court, the Kerry Babies Tribunal was set up to investigate the behaviour of the gardaí during the initial case.

The Ireland of 30 years ago was a very different place to what it is now – divorce was illegal, contraception was illegal, the marriage bar preventing married women from working in certain professions had only been lifted the decade before.

The social landscape was constrained by religious rules, spoken and unspoken.

The sexual abuse of children by priests, and treatment of women at the Magdalene laundries did not become national – and international – issues until the 1990s.

A referendum on abortion in 1983 saw Irish people voting in favour of a ban on abortion being added to the Irish Constitution, with the addition of Article 40.3.3.

The relationship between Church and State was extremely close in the Ireland of 1984, but it was being challenged. Its subsequent loosening serves to highlight how a woman like Joanne Hayes and her sexual behaviour would have been viewed by those around her.

The Kerry Babies case and the death of teenager Ann Lovett just months beforehand at a grotto in Granard were two defining moments of Irish social history, and particularly in illustrating the changing role of women in Ireland.

Tribunal

Joanna Hayes Kerry Babies Tribunals Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The case and tribunal rocked Ireland.

In her book A Woman To Blame, journalist Nell McCafferty looked at how Hayes was treated by gardaí and the judge, Mr Justice Lynch, 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 suggestion that the two babies – the baby found on the beach and the baby at the Hayes family farm – were in fact twins through ‘superfecundation’ added a further twist to the case.

Superfecundation was a theory that 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.

This theory was supposed to explain how the two babies had different blood types, and how the baby at the Hayes farm was the biological child of Hayes and Jeremiah Locke, with whom she had been having a relationship.

Joanna Hayes Kerry Babies Tribunals Garda Ursula O Regan on her way to the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The country was “sickened” by the case, said McCafferty.

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

Joanne Hayes was supported throughout the tribunal by feminist and women’s groups who demonstrated outside the courthouse in Kerry.

The tribunal concluded that Hayes was not the mother of the baby on the beach in Cahirsiveen, but was the mother of the baby found on her family farm.

Joanne Hayes last made a public comment in 2012, when she appealed to filmmakers not to make a movie about her story. In 2010, John’s headstone was damaged at Cahirsiveen Cemetery.

There has been a call for Hayes to provide DNA samples in order to prove – once more – that she was not John’s mother.

This is not believed to have occurred, and 30 years on from his tragic death, John’s parents have never been identified.

Read: RTÉ to rebroadcast the Ann Lovett letters>

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

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