Media’s coverage of Kerry Babies tribunal highlighted changing Ireland

Joanne Hayes became a symbol of an Ireland on the cusp of change, as her ordeal acted as a lightning rod for women’s groups, writes Dan Buckley.

Supporters from Cork of Joanne Hayes march outside during hearings at the Kerry Babies Tribunal, in Tralee, Co Kerry, in 1985. Judge Kevin Lynch had to receive a Garda escort after a hearing as 250 demonstrators, most of them women, chanted slogans as he, along with Garda witnesses and lawyers, emerged from the tribunal.

The Kerry Babies tribunal was almost the breaking of Joanne Hayes.

For days on end in the drab surroundings of a council office in Tralee, she was subjected to a relentless interrogation by counsel for the gardaí as to her moral probity.

Ordnance Survey maps were used to pinpoint the exact locations where she and her lover, Jeremiah Locke, had sex in his Mini car and it was insinuated that he was not the only man in her life.

The dominant media at the time was the newspaper industry and for the five-month duration of the tribunal, acres of newsprint were used to reveal the full extent of the Greek tragedy as it unfolded.

Donal Hickey, the Examiner reporter who covered the tribunal both in Tralee where it began and Dublin Castle where it ended, described the whole saga as “a tale of reckless love, passion, and intrigue ending in tragedy”.

He said it had “all the classic features of ancient Greek drama — mystery, intrigue, complexity, occasional comedy, death, and tragedy”.

A slight and fragile figure, Joanne testified for five days and answered thousands of questions about her

personal life and, in particular, her sexual encounters with Locke.

No detail was too squalid or too intimate to be ignored.

During the five months the tribunal ran, dozens of medical experts were called to attempt to prove the Garda’s bizarre theory that Joanne had given birth to twins as a result of having sex with two men in the space of 24 hours.

There were times when the ruthless barrage drove her to tears and, at one stage, she became so upset that she collapsed, was excused for a period, and could be heard sobbing in the corridor.

Kevin Lynch, the tribunal judge, ordered that she be sedated and brought back to give further evidence.

There were also occasional moments of levity.

Referring to the assertion by gardaí that Joanne had more than one lover, Hickey recounted how the name of a mysterious man named Tom Flynn was brought up during the hearing.

He wrote: “In years to come, people will still talk of Tom Flynn, the mention of whose name invariably sent gales of laughter through the sombre courtroom in Tralee.

“A green mattress, taken from Joanne’s bedroom, had the name Tom Flynn inscribed in one corner. Many witnesses were asked if they knew Tom Flynn but only one man came up with the answer.

“The mystery was resolved by Mr Joe Kelleher, of McElligotts Stores, Castleisland, who said that a young

fellow named Tom Flynn worked in the stores in the late 1960s before emigrating. He may have sold the mattress with his named penned on it.”

Also covering the tribunal was journalist Nell McCafferty. In her 2010 book, A Woman To Blame, she recalls Joanne returning to the witness stand after her near collapse and describes how she “gave evidence in a daze, her head bobbing off the microphone”.

In the end, though, the tribunal was also the making of Joanne.

The shy, impressionable young woman from a small farm in Abbeydorney who was naive enough to believe that Locke would leave his wife for her and scared enough to confess to a murder she could not have committed, became a symbol of an Ireland on the cusp of change.

Her ordeal in the witness box acted as a lightning rod for feminists and women’s groups who travelled from all over the country to attend the tribunal.

Their purpose was twofold: To show support for Joanne and to protest at the harsh treatment she was receiving.

Support at first came in the form of yellow roses. “The first yellow flower was sent by Bernie McCarthy of the Tralee women’s group on Wednesday morning, 20 January at 11.15 am,” writes McCafferty.

“She had come four miles into town from the country bungalow where she lived with her husband and three children. She was on her way to work, in Mahony’s bookshop on the main street.

“She stopped off at the arcade where Jean Murphy ran a flower stall.

Her instructions to Jean were meticulous: A single yellow flower wrapped in cellophane, to be delivered to Joanne Hayes at the urban-council building where the court was sitting, before the one-thirty national radio news if possible. She wrote out a card, wishing luck to Joanne.

“Later that morning, two other women, expressing a similarly urgent desire, visited the florist. Joanne Hayes emerged from the building at 1pm, bearing three yellow roses.”

Protest was equally florid. Forty locals from her home village of Abbeydorney, near Tralee, staged a picket outside the tribunal offices on January 23.

This was the first time public opinion had been visibly expressed. Neighbours were unhappy at the line of questioning and wanted to show their support for Joanne.

That galvanised others to show their anger and disgust at Joanne’s treatment.

The following day, Judge Lynch had to receive a Garda escort as 250 demonstrators, most of them women, chanted slogans as he, along with Garda witnesses and lawyers, emerged from the tribunal.

A banner headline in the Examiner read: “250 IN TRALEE DEMOS — Tribunal Judge gets Garda Escort”.

Hickey reported how “uniformed and plain-clothes gardaí escorted the judge as he left the UDC building at the end of the third week of the tribunal. He then walked 200 yards across the road to his hotel. No attempt was made to harm Mr Lynch.”

The protest group, which included representatives of the Cork Rape Crisis Centre and the UCC Women’s Group, chanted “We support Joanne” and carried placards that read “Womanhood on Trial”.

The demonstration, organised by the Tralee Women’s group, attracted representatives from women’s organisations in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Shannon, and Wexford.

When the final verdict of Judge Lynch came in, it shocked the Hayes family and their supporters. He concluded that Joanne’s baby had been born alive in the bedroom of her home and that she had hit it with a bath brush and choked it to death.

The judge’s conclusions sparked general outrage as there had not been a shred of forensic evidence advanced to support this conclusion.

Indeed, the State pathologist, Dr John Harbison, testified that it was impossible to tell whether or not Joanne’s baby had been born alive. Forensic scientist Dr Louise McKenna said there was no physical evidence of a birth in the bedroom.

Judge Lynch also found that Joanne and her family were entirely responsible for the statement which they

made to the gardaí in which they claimed responsibility for the death of the Cahirciveen baby.

The criticism in the weeks that followed prompted the judge to write a long letter to Magill magazine outlining his reasoning but also advancing new reasons for the conclusions he came to.

In the letter, he wrote that the location of the birth of Joanne’s baby “was central to the whole case of the Kerry babies. If the birth occurred in the field, the statements obtained by the gardaí abut the other baby could not have come into existence without there having been gross misconduct, almost certainly including physical abuse, on the part of the gardaí.”

This was in contrast to his comments during the tribunal when, time and again, he said that the location of the birth was not relevant.

“It doesn’t matter a thráinín whether the baby was born inside or outside if there was only one baby,” he said on one occasion.

Nevertheless, the judge’s mastery of the complexity of the case was acknowledged by the media.

Writing in The Irish Press, TP O’Mahony viewed the most striking feature of the final report as how Judge Lynch “has succeeded in unravelling the enormously complex web of truth, half-truths, lies, and misapprehensions which comprised the corpus of evidence amassed during the 77 days of the


“By any reckoning, Mr Justice Lynch has done a first-class job, given the immensity of the task which confronted him,” he wrote.

More on this topic

Baby John cold case probe ‘will go on for some time’

‘Baby John deserves the truth’: DNA samples taken as gardaí investigate Kerry Babies case

'Someone, somewhere knows': Gardaí begin door-to-door enquiries in Kerry Babies case

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