It was, to be fair, a ‘sincere apology’ but when Superintendent Flor Murphy issued it at a press conference at Caherciveen Garda Station on Tuesday, my knuckles clenched white.
We were told new scientific evidence — the development of a full DNA profile — proved, beyond doubt, that Joanne Hayes could not be the mother of a baby boy, known as John, washed up on a beach in 1984.
But we already knew, beyond doubt, that Ms Hayes was not the mother of that baby.
During a public flaying of a single woman, whose only crime was to get pregnant by a married man, we found out that her baby had died and was buried on the family farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry.
I remember it so well because at the time I was a teenage ‘nearly-woman’ who lived just a stone’s throw from the sports centre where Ms Hayes worked.
It has always struck me as curious that people turn to George Orwell’s 1984 to imagine a modern dystopia. In the Ireland of 1984, you didn’t have to speculate — the nightmare was real and playing out in front of our eyes.
What I recall most was the sense of fear. A dull undercurrent of fear had sprung from the deeply ingrained knowledge that you might be cast out, exposed, and possibly pilloried if you went against the mores of the day.
It was even more pronounced if you happened to be a woman, or nearly one. There was also a pervasive sense of shame that managed to insinuate itself into every crack and crevice of the female psyche. It seemed shameful to be female and have a body.
Contraception was not widely available. Yet, churching, the Catholic practice of ‘cleansing’ a woman after she’d given birth, was a very recent memory.
For heaven’s sake, there was something approaching outrage around that time when we asked to be given communion in our hands rather than on the tongue at the parish church.
“Put out your tongue, woman,” a priest told one parishioner who was brave enough to attempt it. (For the record, she refused, turned on her heel, and walked from the altar).
That one act of defiance was hardly enough to heal the aftermath of the bitter debate that followed the insertion of the Eighth Amendment into Constitution in 1983.
If a young woman, or indeed anybody, suggested that it might be unworkable, they were excoriated. You learned to keep your mouth shut. To use the French expression, a scalded cat is afraid of cold water.
It was a cold place to be a young woman. Mortuary-slab cold.
Given the prevailing atmosphere, it was not surprising that gardaí investigating the death of a baby would look for a woman to blame. Yet none of us were quite prepared for the grotesque horror show that would follow.
For all the faults of the Kerry Babies tribunal, let us recall that Judge Kevin Lynch unequivocally found that Ms Hayes had nothing to do with the death of the baby boy, whose stabbed remains washed up on White Strand, Caherciveen, around the same time.
True, DNA profiling was not as sophisticated as it is now, but even in the dark days of 1985 we had blood tests and those proved, without doubt, that Ms Hayes and Jeremiah Locke could not have parented the murdered baby.
But the science of blood tests was not enough. For months, a team of 43 male ‘experts’ discussed the ins and outs of the theory of ‘superfecundation’ which holds that a woman can conceive twins by two different fathers if she has intercourse with two men within 24 hours.
This week’s apology suggests that the gardaí had not, until now, fully
discounted that theory.
Indeed, as recently as 2014, Gerry O’Carroll, a detective inspector involved in the case, wrote this revealing line in the Evening Herald: “This [DNA analysis] would prove, I believe, that Ms Hayes was the mother of both babies. My belief is based on evidence that was given at the tribunal.”
Little wonder, then, that the apology, which has come so late in the day, might be greeted with suspicion.
Supt Murphy’s apology — though welcome — will ring very hollow if the gardaí do not explain why it has taken three decades to say sorry.
And where is the detailed apology for what Supt Murphy describes euphemistically as the “failings” of the investigation?
Those “failings” include the extraction of false confessions for murder from members of the Hayes family.
Ms Hayes’s siblings made complaints of serious assault at the hands of the gardaí, but they have gone uninvestigated for more than 30 years — just another item to add to the growing list of incidences of Garda corruption and malpractice.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan did say there was merit in investigating the Garda handling of the case when he was so ably pressed on the matter by Keelin Shanley on the Six One News on Wednesday.
That is, I suppose, better late than never.
I never thought I would see the day either when a Taoiseach would apologise to Ms Hayes on behalf of the State and open the door to a compensation payout.
Even so many years later, it is worth something to hear him say that she was very badly treated by our State and our society, as so many other women have been in the past.
And yes, the Kerry Babies tribunal happened many years ago, but it is not quite past.
There is still one unsolved murder, a case to be answered by gardaí, and a question for all of us — if it happened today, have we come far enough to
believe what a woman says?