The stories that changed Ireland

SEVERAL days after 15-year-old Ann Lovett died in hospital, just hours after giving birth to a 6½lb baby boy found dead beside a Co Longford grotto, an anonymous caller phoned the Sunday Tribune newspaper to explain what had happened on that cold and dark winter afternoon on Jan 31, 1984 outside Granard.

The stories that changed Ireland

Later that day, the newspaper’s news editor and a few journalists, including Emily O’Reilly, who broke the story nationally the following day, debated whether to name the young girl in the article.

The argument that decided it was that nobody was going to remember the death of an anonymous girl, but everyone would always remember the death of Ann Lovett.

It was a watershed moment. Gay Byrne’s agenda-setting morning show on RTÉ Radio One dedicated part of a series of programmes to reading out listeners’ letters recounting their own similar stories of misfortune and cover-up in Catholic Ireland. A lid was lifted on Irish society.

An events that unfolded three months after Ann Lovett’s death — the Kerry Babies’ case (see panel) — cast further light on some dark corners of shame and secrecy in the country’s handling of issues of sex, morality and reproductive rights. This was less than a year since a divisive abortion referendum.

“The two cases didn’t lead to direct changes in the law, but they really changed Ireland,” says Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History, UCD. “First of all, in challenging hypocrisies and taboos. Suddenly, there were things that could be talked about on the national airwaves. People were releasing their own personal stories into the public domain even if they were anonymous.

“The Ann Lovett case prompted that famous deluge of letters to RTÉ about people who had experienced terrible things over the years. It facilitated an opening up. It was partly responsible for the beginnings of confessional radio, which is such a part of what we listen to now. We can’t keep people away from the radio now, trying to tell us their terrible life stories. It had an impact in that sense.

“The Joanne Hayes case really brought home to people how gendered the whole approach to these subjects was. There was always the so-called ‘fallen woman’, but some people were wondering after that: ‘Here’s a woman who’s being put into the dock even though she’s not on trial’.

“It was a tribunal into gardaí and how they handled the investigation. She’s been stripped bare and had her character under scrutiny. And where are the fallen men? Why is this process so obviously directed towards the woman? Long-term, there was much more of an awareness of the unfairness of that.”

On the right, is a selection of 10 more stories that changed Ireland in recent times, from a defining moment in the Troubles to the irrational exuberance of the Celtic Tiger years and tthe World Cup in Italy in 1990.


The Bishop and the Nightie (1966):

During a light-hearted item on marriage on the Late Late Show, Gay Byrne asked a Mrs Fox, from Terenure in Dublin, the colour of her nightdress on her wedding night. “Transparent,” she replied. The audience giggled. The Bishop of Clonfert, Thomas Ryan, sent a telegram, saying he was disgusted.

Contraception Train (1971): Mary Kenny, Nell McCafferty and their sisters took the train from Belfast to Dublin, following a day’s shopping for condoms.

Hunger Strikes (1981): There were several notable moments during the Troubles — Bloody Sunday in Derry City; the murder of Lord Mountbatten in Sligo; Enniskillen; Omagh. The second hunger-strikes campaign, however, and the election of Bobby Sands to Westminster in 1981, grabbed the world’s attention.

David Norris’s Gay Rights Campaign (1988): David Norris’s campaign for homosexual law reform lasted two decades. Having lost a Supreme Court case, he went to the European Court of Human Rights, where he won his case in 1988. It paved the way for decriminalisation.

Italia 90 (1990): As the late sports journalist Con Houlihan remarked dryly: “I missed Italia 90. I was in Italy at the time.” The Republic of Ireland had never qualified for the finals of a World Cup until 1990. The country went la-la. Washing machines and homing pigeons were sold to finance the 30,000 travelling fans. In the pubs of Ireland, grown men cried, and strangers hugged each other during a three-week party.

Election of Mary Robinson as President (1990): Ireland grew up a little with the election of Mary Robinson, our first female president, in October 1990, turning its back on old Civil War party lines. She weathered sexist comments and benefited from rival Brian Lenihan’s “on mature recollection” moment on RTÉ television.

Bishop Eamon Casey (1992): In the days before clerical child abuse cases, the news that the popular Bishop Eamon Casey had fathered a child with Annie Murphy, an American divorcee, shocked the nation. The Catholic Church in Ireland hasn’t recovered its mojo.

States of Fear (1999): Stories about the maltreatment of children in Ireland’s industrial schools went back to the 1930s. The public didn’t want to hear, until Mary Raftery’s States of Fear television documentary on RTÉ in 1999. The incarceration, rape and abuse of children in religious-run institutions, with the collusion of the State, was laid out in cold, vivid detail on screen. It led to the publication of the 2,600-page Ryan Report a decade later.

Kathy Sinnott (2001): In 2000, the Cork woman Kathy Sinnott, a mother of nine children, took a court case against the Irish government to force it to provide primary school education for her autistic son, Jamie.

It was a landmark case, as it changed the law regarding education for autistic children — a year later, the High Court ruled that every person in Ireland had a constitutional right to primary school education, and that the right was based on need, not age.

Patrick Neary on Prime Time (2008): It seemed to crumble so quickly. If there was a moment when it hit home that the Celtic Tiger party was over, it was, perhaps, when Patrick Neary, Ireland’s financial regulator, went on RTÉ’s Prime Time to explain the state of the nation’s finances, on Oct 2, 2008.

As the economist Colm McCarthy said: “What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere in Ireland there was a little, wise old man who was in charge of the money, and this was the first time they’d ever seen this little man. And then they saw him and said, ‘Who the fuck was that? Is that the guy who is in charge of the money?’ That’s when everyone panicked.”

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