Kerry Babies: A watershed in changing rigid old values of Irish society

Kerry Babies: A watershed in changing rigid old values of Irish society
Joanne Hayes with friends at the Kerry Babies Tribunal, Tralee, Co. Kerry. Pic: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Donal Hickey covered the six-month tribunal into the case. Here, he recounts how Joanne Hayes was subjected to relentless pressure in the witness box as Garda legal representatives tried to portray her as a woman of ‘loose morals’.

The Kerry Babies Tribunal was supposed to last two to three weeks. It began in Tralee in the frost of early January 1985 and finished in Dublin Castle in sunny June after 82 days of hearings.

A high moral tone, reflecting the established sexual mores of the era, pervaded the hearing. Lights were shone into many dark corners. Ireland was another country back then. There was still a stigma attaching to women who had babies outside marriage. Contraceptives were available only on prescription for “bona fide” family planning and health purposes. Divorce and homosexuality were illegal.

Some observers now see the Kerry Babies saga as a watershed in Irish society — an event that prompted people to replace rigid old values with more compassion and tolerance.

The Catholic Church was still a major power in the land, and the male-dominated tribunal into a murder investigation that seemed to have gone badly wrong attracted huge publicity.

It was set up to examine all the circumstances leading to criminal charges being brought against Joanne Hayes, a 25-year-old mother of one, and her family.

A murder charge against Ms Hayes had been dropped some months prior to the tribunal, but it soon became apparent legal representatives of Garda superintendents were trying to paint her as a woman of “loose morals”.

Yesterday's Gardapress conference
Yesterday's Garda press conference

As she was relentlessly cross-examined, intimate details of her private life and her relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, the father of her daughter, were raked over in full public glare.

In the witness box, she kept turning a miraculous medal in her hand. She became visibly distressed, cried openly, and there were breaks during the hearings to allow her regain composure. On one occasion, she leapt off the stand and ran down a corridor to a toilet where she got physically sick. A doctor was called to attend to her.

Ms Hayes worked as a receptionist at the Tralee Sports Centre and lived with her mother, her young daughter, a sister, two brothers and an aunt on the family farm in Abbeydorney. She was pregnant for the third time in a relationship with Mr Locke.

Towards the end of her third pregnancy, she said she gave birth in a field on the farm after midnight about 30 yards from the farmhouse. She said she pulled out the baby by the neck, gripping the umbilical cord firmly in her hands and breaking it. 

She did not think the baby was alive. She placed the infant in a bundle of hay and returned to the house. The baby was dead. She returned to the field at dawn, put the body in a paper bag and then in a plastic bag and placed it in a small nearby pool. 

She was later admitted to St Catherine’s Hospital, Tralee, where she denied to a gynaecologist she had given birth.

At around the same time, the Garda murder squad, under Detective Supt John Courtney, was called in to investigate the murder of a baby, christened John, whose body had been found with multiple stab wounds on a beach near Caherciveen.

The headstone marking the grave of Baby John in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry.
The headstone marking the grave of Baby John in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry.

While in Garda custody, Ms Hayes signed a statement saying she had killed her baby in the house. Members of the Hayes family signed statements about dumping the body of the baby in the sea at Slea Head, in the Dingle Peninsula. Gardaí later vehemently denied allegations by the Hayes family that they were forced into making confessions.

Ms Hayes offered to show gardaí the location of the body of her baby on the farm in Abbeydorney, which she said would prove she was not the mother of the Caherciveen baby. That offer was refused.

However, on the evening after she was charged with the murder of the Caherciveen baby, members of the Hayes family, acting on her directions, located the body on the family farm.

The tribunal also heard that blood group findings ruled out Mr Locke as the father of the Caherciveen baby. Gardaí advanced a so-called super fecundation theory that Ms Hayes had been impregnated by Mr Locke and another man at about the same time and had given birth to twins with different fathers.

White Strand near Cahersiveen, CoKerrywhere the body of baby John was washed up. Pic: Dan Linehan
White Strand near Cahersiveen, Co Kerry where the body of baby John was washed up. Pic: Dan Linehan

The charges of the murder of the Caherciveen baby against Ms Hayes, and concealment of birth against four other members of the family, were dropped on the instructions of the DPP. Calls for an inquiry led to the setting up of the tribunal under Mr Justice Kevin Lynch, of the High Court.

Ms Hayes spent more than five tearful days in the witness box. She became upset when Martin Kennedy, barrister for Garda superintendents, said to her: “You were not in love and still you allowed intimacy to take place on your first date.”

He also put it to her that she had no intention of allowing the child to live after it left her body.

“That’s untrue,” she answered.

The tribunal report, published in October 1985, concluded the baby found at the Hayes family farm was born inside the farmhouse and died after Ms Hayes put her hands on its throat to stop it crying. That conclusion was firmly rejected by her through her solicitor, Pat Mann, of Tralee.

Judge Lynch found she was not the mother of the Caherciveen baby and that she gave birth to only one baby. He criticised several aspects of the Garda handling of the case; but found the gardaí did not assault or ill-treat any member of the Hayes family and did not secure statements from them through coercion.

Det Sgt Shelly and Det Sgt Gerry Carroll. Pic: Michael Mac Sweeney
Det Sgt Shelly and Det Sgt Gerry Carroll. Pic: Michael Mac Sweeney

However, he was critical of the gardaí for their failure to find the Abbeydorney baby which, he said, put further pressure on Ms Hayes to confess that her baby was not on the lands and therefore must be the Caherciveen baby. Critically, the judge’s report failed to explain how statements from the Hayes family, containing details which later turned out to be false, came to be taken from them.

Government papers for 1985, released after 30 years, revealed the Garda commissioner at the time, Lawrence Wren, believed parts of the investigation were “grossly negligent”. 

Following the release of the papers, Mr Mann urged anybody who knew anything to come forward and solve the mystery of the Caherciveen baby once and for all. He said Ms Hayes was still very keen to resolve the murder: “My client was accused of murdering baby John. 

Despite her not being in any way responsible for his death, certain detectives who were involved in the case are convinced she was involved.

“Meanwhile, there is a killer out there who will be haunted by what they did. There is also a woman out there who will also be haunted by this.”

More in this Section

Mick Clifford Podcast: London Irish voices - Ray O'Rourke and Rory GodsonMick Clifford Podcast: London Irish voices - Ray O'Rourke and Rory Godson

Cyberspace is for everyone and so it must be safe to useCyberspace is for everyone and so it must be safe to use

Dr Ciarán Ó Riain: Cancer screening is not perfect, but we need itDr Ciarán Ó Riain: Cancer screening is not perfect, but we need it

Slawomir Sierakowski: France’s Emmanuel Macron risks political future if he becomes too ambitiousSlawomir Sierakowski: France’s Emmanuel Macron risks political future if he becomes too ambitious


Lifestyle

Architect and artist Harry Wallace tells Eve Kelliher how his style has evolved.How a lifetime as an architect has inspired Cork artist Harry Wallace

Don’t let present stress ruin your run-up to Christmas. Pat Fitzpatrick has done all the hard work with this tongue-in-cheek gift guide for every budget, so you can tick everyone off your list and get down to enjoying yourself for the festive season.Gift stressbuster: We sort out who gets what and why

It’s not what you have that makes you happy, it’s what you do. And what better time to be proactive than during the season of goodwill, says Margaret Jennings.Joy to the world: Strategies to increase your happiness during the season of goodwill

For a magical mantelpiece makeover the natural way, foliage and garlands add showstopping sparkle to the scene, says Hannah Stephenson.Bring Christmas cheer indoors: Foliage and garlands add showstopping sparkle

More From The Irish Examiner