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'The Kerry Babies Tribunal laid bare the virulent misogyny at the heart of a patriarchal Irish State'

Dr Mary McAuliffe reflects on the Kerry Babies Tribunal following the State’s apology to Joanne Hayes and her family – 36 years later.

Dr Mary McAuliffe

DELIVERING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE and apologies to women for past wrongs has become something of a regular occurrence in the country, as it should be.

From the Magdalene survivors to those who endured the traumas of the Mother and Baby Homes to those women caught up in the cervical smear scandal, acknowledgements of wrongs done have come, although oftentimes they came dropping slow, grudging and imperfect.

This week marked another moment when a grave injustice committed by the State, and its policing and judicial arms led to an apology for a heinous wrong done to a young woman and her family 36 years ago.

Joanne Hayes this week, graciously accepted the apology of the State for the virulently misogynistic treatment it, and its actors meted out to her and members of her family in 1984 and 1985.

For many, the 1980s can seem like another world, a world where women’s bodies were considered possessions of Church and State, a world where women were not allowed control their fertility, sexuality or their reproductive bodies.

An open hostility to women’s control of her own body, ideologically underpinned by the dictats of a virulently anti-women Catholic Church, had been written into the DNA of the State since its foundation.

For Irishwomen, marriage, domesticity, motherhood (in that order) was the route to acceptance and respectability. Control of one’s own fertility, self-determined sexuality, sex and pregnancy outside of marriage were all seen as makers of an immoral society.

Those women who did not live up to the standards of respectability demanded by society were, at best, ostracised, at worst, incarcerated in the many carceral institutions such as Magdalene Laundries for their ‘sins’.

Second-wave feminism, in the 1970s, driven by young, idealistic activists had achieved some important gains for women. An improving economy, joining the EEC, some modernisation and relaxation of censorship saw a new generation in Ireland begin to emerge from the dank cocoon of controlling Catholicism.

However, the powers that be were never going to let go of the reins of power and control easily.

The 1980s was a time when the final but most painful stings of a shaken theocratic, patriarchy society, which had dominated Irish society for decades, were felt by many who challenged the mores of Irish conservatism.

The drive to re-establish control of female sexuality, partly inspired by those gains of second wave feminism in the 1970s, went into overdrive in the 1980s.

This decade saw the Church and its secular allies, in alliance with a complicit State, choose the female body as its battleground.

In 1982, Eileen Flynn was sacked from her position as a teacher at Holy Faith Convent in New Ross, Co Wexford, because she was an unmarried mother living with a separated man.

In 1983, a referendum had seen the Eighth Amendment inserted into the Constitution, whereby the right to life of the foetus was put on an equal footing with the right to life of a living, breathing woman.

In January 1984, the bodies of a young girl, 15-year-old Ann Lovett, and her full-term baby, were found in a grotto in Granard.

News of this tragedy unleashed a torment of heartbreaking stories from women all across the country. Ann Lovett had not been the first girl or woman to conceal a pregnancy, to go through an unplanned pregnancy, to have no one to turn to, and indeed, not the first to lose her life, or that of her baby.

In April 1984, the body of a baby boy, with multiple stab wounds, was found on a beach in Caherciveen, a murder inquiry was launched, with senior detectives sent down from Dublin to carry out the investigation.

Before the detectives zoned in on Joanne Hayes, they had already shown, through their inquiries in south Kerry, how certain behaviours by women made them suspect. This misogynistic attitude to women was to carry through to the investigation into Joanne Hayes, and through the Tribunal of Inquiry set up, ostensibly, to inquire into the behaviour of the Gardaí.

The ‘investigation’

Within days of arriving in Kerry in Spring 1984, the Gardaí had begun, what journalist Nell McCafferty who covered the story, presciently called a ‘woman hunt’. Women who were known to be having affairs, who were suspected of having sex outside of marriage, who may have had a quickly arranged marriage, or who were simply young, unmarried, earning some money and having an active or unsupervised social life, were all quizzed.

There was no actual proof required to subject these women to the inquiry, their supposedly ‘immoral’ lifestyles made them untrustworthy, their female bodies made them suspect.

Based on this thinking, Joanne Hayes made the perfect suspect.

She was a young woman (25 at the time), with a job earning her own money, enjoying a modern lifestyle.

She had one child outside of marriage and was known to be having an affair with a
married man.

In mid-April 1984 she had been admitted to Tralee hospital, claiming she’d had a miscarriage, but a scan revealed she had carried the pregnancy to full term.

Gardaí heard of the Hayes pregnancy and were suspicious about what became of the baby. What happened subsequently is well known.

After being accused of killing the Caherciveen baby, the body of the child Joanne had given birth was found on the farm at Abbeydorney. This second body did not deter the Gardaí however, and they determined that Joanne and her family had killed both babies, throwing one in the sea and burying the other on the farm.

When blood tests revealed that Jeremiah Locke, the man with whom she was having the affair, could not have fathered the Caherciveen baby, they decided she was seeing another man, had been impregnated by both men in a process known as superfecundation, and so gave birth to non-fraternal twins.

A ridiculous search for a man called Tom Flynn whose name was on a mattress in the Hayes household was undertaken.

Despite insistence by senior detectives that they had the right woman, blood tests in October of 1984 showed that Joanne Hayes could not have been the mother of the Caherciveen baby and the case against her and her family was dropped.

However, the coercive, and as claimed by Hayes, abusive, behaviour of the Gardaí and their treatment of the Hayes family led to national disquiet and a public tribunal of inquiry was set up by Justice Minister Michael Noonan.

If the 1984 investigations in Caherciveen and Abbeydoney demonstrated a determinedly sexist attitude towards women on the part of Gardaí, what came during the Tribunal, and after, in its findings from its chairman, Mr Justice Lynch, laid bare the virulent misogyny still at the heart of a patriarchal Irish State.

Public support

The Tribunal lasted 84 days, and Joanne Hayes was in the witness box for five days, the longest period any witness has been questioned in the history of the State.

A photograph of the Tribunal, as it sat in Tralee in from 7 January 1985, shows a roomful of men sitting in judgement of a woman. As outlined at the time by McCafferty, there were ‘43 male officials … judge, 15 lawyers, three police superintendents and 24 policemen … engaged in a public probe of the private life of Joanne Hayes’.

Members of the public, especially women, and many in the press were shocked by the treatment of Hayes. It was considered a witch hunt, with Trinity College Professor of English, Brendan Kennelly, saying in an interview at the time, “It’s like a medieval witch hunt with the victims burning at the stake and the crowd dancing around the fire.”

file-photo-joanne-hayes-received-an-apology-from-the-state-today-including-an-overturn-of-any-findings-of-wrongdoing-against-her-arising-from-the-kerry-babies-tribunal-end A woman protests during the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

As Joanne Hayes endured an intrusive grilling about her private life, her affair, her pregnancy, her menstrual cycle, her use of contraception, where and when she had sex -all laid bare in newspaper reports – something began outside that courthouse that showed that patriarchal Ireland was not going to have it all its own way.

The people of Abbeydorney and north Kerry had turned up to show their support and solidarity with the Hayes family; but others, mainly women, some but not all from the area, also began to arrive in front of the courthouse in Tralee to stand with Joanne Hayes.

With placards and banners, they protested at her treatment, the line of questioning designed to show her to be a ‘loose’ woman of questionable morals.

Organisations like the Tralee Women’s Group, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, as well as individual women came to show solidarity and their anger and outrage at her treatment.

Yellow roses, given to her as she arrived at the court house each day, became to pour in from all over the country – women knew what was happening was a travesty and they were determined to show their opposition.

Mr Justice Lynch had no truck with those who protested the Tribunal and its line of questioning.

His findings struck a determined note of a man finding a woman guilty of nothing more than control over her own life, body and sexuality.

He judged her, with no evidence, calculating and devious, determined to become involved with and pregnant by Jeremiah Locke, despite knowing he was married; she was he wrote, the ‘main or dominant force in the liaison’ in the relationship.

He found, contradicting the forensic evidence, that Joanne Hayes had killed her child.

The Gardaí were let off with a slap on the wrist for being ‘slipshod’ with their investigation, but Joanne Hayes was found guilty of being a woman in a country where women who showed control of their own lives, bodies and sexuality were judged and found wanting.

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kerry-babies-investigations-case-tribunals Chief Superintendent John Courtney (R), head of the Garda Murder Squad, with sergeant Gerry O'Carroll at Dublin Castle in 1985 Source: Eamonn Farrell

‘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?” This question was posed by Judge Lynch when he was asked about the support Joanne Hayes received, and the anger of women outside his Count room.

What indeed?

Everything, said the women of Ireland.

After the Tribunal, Joanne Hayes returned to her home and her life in Abbeydorney, but the women of Ireland did not forget.

Later that year when Eileen Flynn lost her appeal against her firing, the women of Ireland noted that too.

As the State and the legal system continued to intrude on women’s private morality and behaviour, women continue to organise, to campaign, to believe that change and freedom should and would come.

There would be setbacks, as when the first divorce referendum was lost in 1986, but change was coming.

It would take 36 years for Joanne Hayes to get the apology and justice she and her family deserved. In those three decades, Ireland, and the position of women in Ireland, has changed immeasurable.

Long campaigns have delivered justice for many women, have overturned sexist and controlling laws and attitudes, have seen a more open and inclusive society come into being.

However, the roots of the patriarchy lie deep and are still embedded in our society. Always keep that in mind.

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


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