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Granard main st and church. Alamy Stock Photo

Dr Mary McAuliffe The details of Ann Lovett's tragic death are still harrowing 40 years on

The historian looks back at the loss of the teenager who died after giving birth in a grotto in Granard, 40 years ago today.

ON 31 JANUARY 1984 Ann Lovett, then 15 years old and a student at the local Sisters of Mercy school, was absent, unknown to her parents.

Ann had completed her Inter Cert (now Junior Cert) the previous year, she was a bright student, very involved in the school magazine Féach and loved art, biology and English.

Journalist Rosita Boland has undertaken much work on the Lovett case and, from her conversations with those who knew her, she reveals Ann as a gregarious, bubbly, outgoing teenager, a bit of a tomboy and, as once friend recalled, a ‘a strong kind of a girl; a kick-ass kind of girl’.

In her report on the case, in 2018, when Ann would have turned 50, Boland includes a photo in her article, the first image seen publicly since she died in 1984. In it, Ann looks like any 1980s teenage girl, a very pretty girl, her eyes fringed by her dark brown hair, cut in a 1980s style. She is staring at the camera, her chin resting on her hand, a poignant visual image of that strong ‘kick ass’ girl. 

A different country

On 31 January, a wet, windy, miserable day, instead of going to school Ann spent part of the day walking around her hometown of Granard, and in the early afternoon, walked to the local grotto. Several locals recall seeing her, and she called at the home of one friend in whom she had recently confided her secret.

At 15 and unmarried, Ann was pregnant. To be a teenager and pregnant outside of marriage is never easy, but in 1980s Ireland it was a situation fraught with danger, shame and stigma. The previous year, the country had torn itself apart in the debate about inserting the 8th amendment into the Constitution. Abortion was never legal in Ireland, but in 1981, when Ann was 12 years old, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was launched.

PLAC insisted that a constitutional ban on full reproductive rights for women was needed, arguing that any access to abortion was an attack on the patriarchal, marital, reproductive Irish family as defined within the Constitution. 

PLAC was part of the backlash against the gains of Irish second wave feminism, in particular some slight gains in access to contraceptives. The landmark McGee case, the judgment of which was handed in 1973, just over ten years before Ann Lovett died on that January day, overturned the complete ban on contraceptives. The court ruled that there was a right to privacy in marriage, meaning section 17 of the 1935 Criminal Amendment Act which prohibited the importation of contraceptives, was unconstitutional.

‘Irish solution’

Emboldened by this, second wave feminists campaigned for more open, indeed, universal, access to contraceptives. The short lived, radical feminist group, Irish Women United (1975-1978) called for ‘free, legal contraception and State financed birth control clinics’ and the Contraceptive Action Programme (CAP), founded in 1976 and lasting until 1981, campaigned for changes to the laws restricting access to contraceptives.

Much to their disappointment the Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978, brought forward by the then Minister for Health, Charles Haughey, delivered not free, safe and legal contraception but what he called ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’.

The Bill allowed access to contraceptives only for ‘bona vide family planning purposes’, only to married couples and only on prescription. The Bill proved restrictive and of no use to young unmarried women and teenage girls. For this cohort sex, outside of marriage continued to carry the immense fear of an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. 

Despite the restrictive nature of access to contraceptives, PLAC and their allies were very concerned that easing access to contraception and, potentially, gaining full reproductive rights might come about through feminist activism, through future challenges in the courts or through progressive legislation. In 1979 the setting up of the Women’s Right to Choose Campaign (WRCC) cemented their fears, while the visit of Pope John Paul II, also in that year, encouraged their activism. By 1983 they had persuaded the Irish Government to hold a referendum on the insertion of the 8th amendment which recognised the equal right to life of the ‘mother and the unborn child’; they won that referendum, and the 8th became a fact of women’s reproductive lives of the next 35 years, until repeal in 2018.

In the dark

This is the context of teenage life in 1984; they had no access to or much information on contraceptives, and even if they did, the faith-based sex education delivered in schools vehemently discouraged sex before marriage and the use of contraceptives, while abortion was not even mentioned or considered, except as a sin or murder. While there was some access to contraceptives in the cities where women, married and single, could go to a sympathetic doctor and get a prescription, girls like Ann Lovett, in places like Granard, were left to their own devices.

As one feminist magazine discussed, regretfully, in 1981, ‘lack of contraception in rural areas is of major importance as only married women can receive it from their doctors’.

These were the very specific historic contexts in which a teenage Ann Lovett was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. While the unmarried mothers’ allowance had been introduced in 1973, the shame and stigma surrounding pregnancy outside marriage, particularly teen pregnancy, was still strong. Young women and girls continued to be coercively confined to Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries, the last of these would not finally close until 12 years after Ann’s death, in 1996. An intelligent girl like Ann cannot have been unaware of the societal attitudes to teenage pregnancy and what might happen to her if the adults, her parents, her teachers in the school and the local priest, knew.

Whatever her reasons, she kept her condition a secret from her family, from adults in authority in her school and the community and from most of her friends. It is known that by the early afternoon on 31 January, 1984, Ann was in the grotto in Granard and sometime before 4 pm she gave birth, alone, to a full-term stillborn boy. She had brought a scissors with her, cut the umbilical cord and wrapped the baby in her coat. She lay down nearby, in the cold and rain, bleeding heavily, soon experiencing shock and unconsciousness. She was found sometime later by two boys who alerted adults. By 6 pm Ann and her baby were in Mullingar hospital when he was pronounced dead, and despite the best efforts of medical staff, she died of shock and blood loss. She was just over three months short of her 16th birthday.

Since 1983 this country has undergone seismic shifts in women’s rights, reproductive rights, attitudes to pregnancy outside marriage, and vitally for teenagers, sex education.  Access to contraceptives is universal and indeed free for 17- to 31-year-olds, the 8th amendment was removed in 2018, and access to abortion, although restrictive, exists.

Sex education in school is not longer predicated on virginity and purity before marriage for girls, rather it is a secular programme with emphasis on wellbeing, relationships and sexuality which is mandatory in all schools. Despite the changes, 40 years on, the death of Ann Lovett, and her baby, in a grotto in Granard still has the power to shock. When I teach this case to my students, most of whom were born in the 21st century, they cannot believe this happened within the lifetime of many of their parents.

Could such an event happen again? They, and I, would hope not. But the backlash against women’s reproductive rights is part of the politics of the right; without access to proper sex education, contraceptives, and full reproductive rights, it is not certain a pregnant teenager would not die in another grotto. As we remember Ann Lovett on the 40th anniversary of her death today, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that such an event can never happen again.  

Dr Mary McAuliffe is a historian and lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD.

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