Thirty-three years after gardaí failed to discover the killer and mother of a baby boy, the investigation is to be reactivated, writes Donal Hickey.


It was a story that gripped the country in the 1980s, a decade remembered for scandals surrounding female sexuality. And it might never have come to light had a quiet-living farmer not decided to take a leisurely run on a beach.

In the evening of April 14, 1984, Jack Griffin was jogging along White Strand, near Caherciveen, Co Kerry, when he spotted what he first thought was a doll on the sand beside a grey fertiliser bag, close to rocks.

On closer examination, he was horrified to find it was the body of a baby boy, which had almost 30 stab wounds, including two to the heart. It seemed the little body had fallen out of the plastic bag washed in by the tide.

Gardaí were called and local undertaker Tom Cournane baptised the baby, christening him John, on the beach. Thus began an investigation which led to the Kerry Babies Tribunal.

At times, the probe intruded into people’s private lives. Suspected cases of incest were probed, as were some people in extra-marital relationships and women known to have been pregnant. People dubbed the exercise as the building up of a “sexual profile” of the area.

Organisations such as Cura offered to help, but there was no response to pleas to the mother to come forward. All leads were checked out in the Caherciveen area, but gardaí drew blanks and became convinced the person responsible for the baby’s death did not live in the area.

Joanne Hayes: Subjected to interrogation at the tribunal.
Joanne Hayes: Subjected to interrogation at the tribunal.

On April 30, the name of Joanne Hayes, a single mother of one from Abbeydorney, around 80km away in north Kerry, came to the attention of the gardaí. She had been in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, and had a daughter by him.

On the day the body of the baby was found on White Strand, Ms Hayes was admitted to hospital in Tralee for a threatened miscarriage, but was found to have given birth to a
full-term baby.

Following conversations with medical staff, gardaí believed they had unearthed vital information which made Ms Hayes a suspect for the murder of the Cahersiveen baby.

Her baby’s body, later determined to have been stillborn, was found in a field at the family farm in Abbeydorney, where, in a panic, she said she had left him.

However, gardaí persisted in the theory that the Caherciveen baby was also hers, even though blood tests showed she would have to have had twins by two fathers.

Jeremiah Locke, the father of Joanne Hayes’ children.
Jeremiah Locke, the father of Joanne Hayes’ children.

Murder and conspiracy charges against the Hayes family were dropped, but serious questions about the Garda investigation and claims of coercion in the family’s signing of false statements implicating themselves in the murder of a baby and the disposal of its body at Slea Head, in the Dingle Peninsula, led to the setting up of the tribunal.

Continuing to trace the killer of the murdered Caherciveen baby, gardaí believed, after making calls to hospitals, that Ms Hayes was the culprit.

She was eventually charged with the murder of an unnamed infant and members of her family were charged with concealing the birth of the child.

When questioned earlier by gardaí, Ms Hayes was adamant she had given birth to a baby in a field and placed its body on the land in the family farm.

Following the court hearing, her family members returned home, searched for the baby and found it in a plastic bag in a stagnant pool of water.

They reported the find to gardaí, who went to the scene.

Judge Brian Curtin, senior counsel, at the Kerry Babies Tribunal.
Judge Brian Curtin, senior counsel, at the Kerry Babies Tribunal.

This was a major development in the sorry saga and this discovery called into question the credibility of statements made by the Hayes family about collusion and also in the disposal of a baby off Slea Head.

However, the gardaí insisted the statements were still valid and a “twins
theory” started to gain currency among investigating officers. They were now arguing she gave birth to two babies, the one found in Caherciveen and the other in Abbeydorney.

Inside a few weeks, however, the twins theory was further undermined when blood group findings showed that Jeremiah Locke could not be the father of the Caherciveen baby. That, of course, effectively ruled out Ms Hayes as the mother of that baby with whose murder she had been charged.

Judge Kevin Lynch, left, at the Kerry Babies Tribunal in Tralee, Co Kerry.
Judge Kevin Lynch, left, at the Kerry Babies Tribunal in Tralee, Co Kerry.

Another garda theory was that Ms Hayes had twins by two different fathers. The babies had different blood groupings. This theory stretched the bounds of credibility and was not taken seriously.

The murder charge against her was dropped in October 1984. The tribunal started in early January, 1985 and continued for six months. Essentially, the tribunal, under Judge Kevin Lynch, tried to probe why Ms Hayes came to confess to a murder she could not have committed and how her family members could make incriminating statements.

A highly emotional affair, the tribunal was marked by claim and counter claim, with the Hayes alleging they made statements under duress to gardaí.

The tribunal attracted huge media coverage and generated much public sympathy and support for Ms Hayes and her family.

She was cross-examined in detail about her private life and her relationship with Mr Locke — who also gave evidence — was forced to relive the harrowing experience of childbirth in a field, and was interrogated about how much she had bled before, during, and after childbirth.

Feminists and locals protested outside the tribunal, in Tralee, at her treatment. She collapsed a number of times while giving evidence and was often sick.

Meanwhile, the mother of the Caherciveen baby and its frenzied killer have never been identified. Soon after the publication of the tribunal report, gardaí indicated investigations into the murder of the Caherciveen baby might be reactivated.

Now, 33 years later, that’s going to happen.

Baby John was buried in the town’s Holy Cross Cemetery. People still visit his resting place and recall the burial, when a tiny white coffin was lowered into the grave in the presence of local clergy and schoolchildren, poignantly, formed a guard of honour.

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