Punishment of pregnant garda an example of sexual policing

Punishment of pregnant garda an example of sexual policing
Joanne Hayes was wrongly accused of the murder of an infant child in 1984, becoming the focus of the Kerry Babies Tribunal in 1985. Picture: Eamonn Far

Majella Moynihan was forced to give her child up for adoption after she had sex out of marriage in 1984. She was not the only ‘fallen’ woman shabbily treated by the State, says Linda Connolly

Key files relating to the discriminatory treatment of former garda Majella Moynihan, after she had a baby outside of wedlock in 1984, were reported this week to have gone missing from Garda Headquarters.

The same files were earlier sent to Garda Moynihan, upon her request, but heavily redacted. The records show she was interrogated in Store St station, by an all-male panel, and charged with bringing the force into disrepute.

There was an inquisition into her sexual behaviour, use of contraceptives, and other intimate details about her relationship with the father of her baby (a fellow garda).

The father was cautioned and fined £90 and Garda Moynihan was to be sacked. When CURA (a Catholic support agency for unmarried mothers) raised the matter with Archbishop McNamara of Dublin, he intervened and advised the then chief commissioner of the gardaí, Larry Wren, that firing Garda Moynihan would encourage other single women to go to England for abortions, because they would want to keep their jobs and abort their pregnancy.

Consequently, disciplinary action was taken instead of a firing, and adoption of the baby was “recommended”.

This is the same Garda Síochána that also treated Joanne Hayes and her family appallingly in 1984, coercing them into signing statements that accused Joanne of a double infanticide in two different locations in Co Kerry (Abbeydorney and Caherciveen), based on a false theory of superfecundation (that she could have given birth to two babies at the same time who were fathered by two different men in separate sexual encounters).

On April 13, Joanne gave birth to a baby boy in a field in her home, some 76km from where the “Caherciveen baby” was found, stabbed to death, on a beach on April 14. During the course of a subsequent tribunal, Joanne Hayes was cross-examined by barristers for five days, including about her sexual history.

Joanne Hayes outside the tribunal
Joanne Hayes outside the tribunal

The sexual policing, trial, and punishment of women who got pregnant outside of marriage in Ireland was not confined to Church institutions for “fallen women”. Single women who got pregnant had much to fear.

Numerous reproductive tragedies, rooted in traditions that stigmatised pregnancy outside marriage, including in Mother and Baby Homes, have dominated Irish political debate since the 1980s. The trauma inflicted in tragic cases of pregnancy and birth concealment was immeasurable. The death of 14-year-old Anne Lovett, in childbirth, alongside her stillborn baby, in a grotto in Co Longford in 1984, was a profoundly sad event and was never fully investigated. All of these tragedies followed a divisive constitutional referendum in 1983 that was supposed to “copperfasten” the ban on abortion in Irish law and shackle unmarried pregnant women further.

Files seem to go missing when scandals concerning female reproduction break in Ireland. In 2003, as the Neary case was set to go to the High Court, the biggest reported threat to potential legal actions was missing medical records. The gardaí were “not able” to discover how the records disappeared. Sixty-five women claimed the Drogheda-based obstetrician had performed unnecessary hysterectomies of healthy wombs.

During the subsequent Lourdes Hospital inquiry, Judge Harding-Clarke’s offices were broken into at least three times. In 2015, the symphysiotomy redress scheme, also chaired by the judge, indicated that medical records submitted by predominantly elderly women would be shredded if a form was not returned requesting them back within two weeks.

It is not known where these records now are, if any have been shredded, or what hospitals or doctors are named on files documenting the incidence of known symphysiotomies conducted between the 1940s and 1980s. Explicit denial of historical files by the State, including in relation to providing adopted people with a right to their birth certificates and other information from their pre-adoption childhood, continues.

The minister for education and skills has also published the Retention of Records Bill 2019, which provides for testimony and other records from three key redress bodies to be “preserved”. The legislation will cover documents from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee.

The objective of the bill is to ensure that these records will be sealed and withheld from public scrutiny for a minimum 75 years, though academic experts consider this excessive and unwarranted. How can accountability and reparation ever be achieved if files that document historical injustices are withheld, redacted, destroyed, or “lost” without consequence? Profound injustices of the past continue to emerge and reemerge in Ireland through the medium of State inquiries, legal cases, survivor testimony, schemes to provide redress, investigative media, and the stories of individual women who speak out.

Majella Moynihan is one such brave, truthful and powerful woman. For this, we should be grateful.

- Professor Linda Connolly is director of the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

More on this topic

Majella Moynihan: Why were we so very hateful?Majella Moynihan: Why were we so very hateful?

Former Garda Commissioner's family say he did not meet Archbishop on Majella Moynihan caseFormer Garda Commissioner's family say he did not meet Archbishop on Majella Moynihan case

Letter to the Editor: Many women are owed apologiesLetter to the Editor: Many women are owed apologies

1980s Ireland was no place for women1980s Ireland was no place for women

More in this Section

Plans for new look HSE sound oldPlans for new look HSE sound old

Forest elephants are our allies in the fight against climate change, finds researchForest elephants are our allies in the fight against climate change, finds research

Change is difficult to implement by well-meaning, time-poor politiciansChange is difficult to implement by well-meaning, time-poor politicians

Democracies under threat - Our options are beyond soberingDemocracies under threat - Our options are beyond sobering


Christy Collard and Robin O’Donovan are parents to six children, but sustainability is still a cornerstone of their busy lives in west Cork.The family that composts together stays together

Ron Howard was happy to let the spirit of Luciano Pavarotti shine through in his documentary on the great tenor, writes Laura Harding.Hitting the right note with new Luciano Pavarotti documentary

Prevention is so much better than cure, says Fiann Ó Nualláin, who offers gardeners timely advice on guarding face and body against those potentially damaging ultra-violet rays this season and beyond.Gardening: Be skincare-savvy for summer

It's never been more important to choose flowers and trees according to their environmental needs, says Peter DowdallIn these times of climate change, choose plants to weather all conditions

More From The Irish Examiner