HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Kerry Babies case in 2014, historian Diarmaid Ferriter and Irish Examiner writer Donal Hickey published a hard hitting news special on the events that many feel changed Ireland forever. Their work is no less powerful today as we reflect on the apology that has now been extended to Joanne Hayes.

30 years ago Ireland was changed forever

A baby’s body was washed up on a beach in Kerry 30 years ago and Ireland was changed for ever, says Diarmaid Ferriter.

IRELAND in the 1980s has a legacy of scandals about female sexuality and reproduction. One such was the Kerry Babies saga, which began 30 years ago this month.

After the body of a baby with multiple stab wounds was washed up at a beach in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, infanticide, historically common but rarely discussed, was brought into the open. At the centre of the story was 25-year-old Joanne Hayes, who was in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, a colleague at the sports centre where she worked in Tralee, and the father of her first baby. Hayes had been open about this relationship and her first pregnancy, and Hayes’s daughter lived with her and the wider Hayes family at a farm in Abbeydorney, a few miles outside Tralee.

But a second pregnancy was kept quiet, because Locke would not leave his wife and it would further stigmatise Hayes. In mid-April, 1984, she admitted herself to the local hospital and claimed she had suffered a miscarriage, but a scan revealed she had carried the baby to full term.

A Garda investigation to trace the mother of the Cahirciveen baby led to Hayes. After a series of phone calls to hospitals, gardaí were satisfied she was the culprit.

But what happened subsequently was anything but straightforward and has never been resolved.

Hayes and her family were taken in for questioning by members of the Dublin-based murder squad. Hayes confessed to her baby’s murder; she said she had given birth alone outside her house, had panicked, had gone back to the house, and then returned to the baby boy early the following morning to find him dead. She wrapped his body in a plastic bag and hid it in a pond on the farm. Gardaí also extracted confessions from other members of the family that Hayes had beaten and stabbed the baby to death, and that her siblings had disposed of the body at Slea Head.

Such information suggested the baby found on Cahirciveen Beach on April 14, 1984, was Hayes’s.

But the discovery of the body of a baby on the Hayes farm ensured there was to be no straightforward answer. After they had returned home from being questioned, the Hayes family reported to gardaí that they had found a plastic bag submerged in a pool on the farm, and when the Gardaí arrived they discovered a baby’s body in the bag.

This discovery should have called into question the statements made by the Hayes family about collusion in the disposal of a baby off Slea Head. But the gardaí claimed that Hayes was the mother of both babies, until scientific tests proved that she was not the mother of the Cahirciveen baby. The murder charge against her was dropped in October 1984, though some clung idiotically to the idea that she had given birth to twins conceived by two different men. The mother of the Cahirciveen baby has never been identified.

HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever

Why had the Hayes family given statements that Joanne had stabbed the baby to death? Hayes said the family had been intimidated and coerced; she said she had been slapped and pushed by the gardaí questioning her, had been refused permission to go to the toilet, was told her brother would be charged with murder, that the family farm would be sold, and that her three-year-old daughter would be put up for adoption.

There was a huge public interest; and an internal garda inquiry was established, but both sides refused to co-operate with it, leading to calls for an independent inquiry.

Minister for Justice Michael Noonan ordered a public tribunal of inquiry. It lasted 82 days in 1985.

The tribunal was to investigate the circumstances leading to the charges against Hayes, allegations of garda ill-treatment of the family, and any other “connected and relevant” matters.

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

She collapsed a number of times during the tribunal, was frequently sick and required sedation. Aggressive questioning sought to depict her as a woman of ‘loose morals,’ promiscuous and “capable of anything”. She was interrogated about her menstrual cycle and use of contraception.

Jeremiah Locke was asked at the tribunal: “was she a virgin when you first had intercourse with her? How many other boys or men had Joanne had intercourse with, other than yourself?” Then TD Michael Keating was vocal about the inappropriateness of such an approach: “it has never been intended that such personal and medical evidence, every sad and minute detail, should be dragged out of people. That should never have been part of the tribunal,” he said.

The Dáil committee on women’s rights described the questioning of Hayes as “insensitive, harrowing, horrific and shameful.”

The tribunal report concluded that the Hayes family had perjured themselves and it rejected the family’s allegations of ill- treatment by the gardaí. Justice Kevin Lynch, who presided over the tribunal, concluded the Hayes family gave “free and voluntary” confessions that were false.

He also concluded that Hayes had given birth to a baby boy, whom she killed by suffocation and blows to the head, and that this was witnessed by her family. But this conclusion was unsupported by forensic evidence.

The Kerry Babies case was one of the most emotive episodes of modern Irish history, evoking sympathy and anger about the dissection of a woman’s private life by an all-male inquiry.

It revealed alleged garda intimidation, perjury, infanticide and the sexual mores of a hidden Ireland. When the Gardaí had descended on Cahirciveen to conduct their inquiries, they had circulated a questionnaire and began a ‘sexual profile’ of the town, which had a population of 1,428. They were identifying ‘fallen women’ — single women with children and women involved in extra-marital affairs — and families where there were was incest or violence. Nell McCafferty, in A Woman to Blame, her marvellous account of the Kerry Babies story, wrote: “the collated information profiled an Irish town where such features are not normally given public recognition. Families were named where incest was suspected; a married woman was having an affair with a young woman; the female partners in broken romances were checked out; women who had to get married because of pregnancy were reported.”

There was much hypocrisy in public, but also behind the scenes. As recalled by McCafferty in an acerbic and insightful passage: “in the opening days of the ‘Kerry babies’ tribunal, a married man went to bed in a Tralee hotel with a woman who was not his wife. He was one of the 43 male officials — judge, 15 lawyers, three police superintendents and 24 policemen — engaged in a public probe of the private life of Joanne Hayes.

When this particular married man was privately confronted with his own behaviour, he at first denied it. Then, he crumpled into tears and asked not to be exposed. He had so much to lose he said. ‘My wife … my job … my reputation …’ He was assured of discretion. No such discretion was assured to Joanne Hayes, as a succession of professional men, including this married man, came forward to strip her character.”

On the 20th anniversary of the case, in 2004, leading Irish sociologist, Tom Inglis, dissected the saga and suggested it revealed how the State “symbolically dominates society through maintaining a monopoly over the means of producing the truth”. It asked whether the treatment of Hayes was a paradigm for Irish male attitudes to women, and to single mothers, though, in truth, Hayes was not, in the words of Inglis, “the classic Irish single mother”.

She did not hide, or give up, her first baby; in that sense, she was “a bold and transgressive figure,” and the case illustrated how “sexually transgressive” women became isolated, marginalised and oppressed.

Inglis also depicted Hayes as embodying a cultural tension between traditional and changing Ireland: “She began to express herself in an urban society [Tralee] in which she was not so well-known. At night, she went home to a family and traditional way of life [Abbeydorney] in which notions of self, desire and pleasure had a long history of denial and repression”. It was also clear that infanticide was not a rarity in Ireland; a gynaecologist in Tralee hospital said that he knew of “at least five cases of unassisted birth” in the previous few years.

It was also an important time for the media (as without them the family’s allegations of ill-treatment would not have come to light) and for feminists (who were determined to vocally challenge the tribunal’s targets and methods). The reaction to the feminists was highly revealing; during the tribunal, Justice Lynch castigated “raucous, ignorant urban dwellers” — his description of the women’s groups who were protesting outside the tribunal.

The tribunal did not answer the most obvious question: how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken?

HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever

It was no wonder the Hayes family preferred to call it the ‘Kerry Garda Case,’ and Hayes said that when the report was published, in 1985, it “was made public with the same indifference to our feelings that we experienced throughout all our relations with the law”.

The reaction to the case suggested that a tide had turned, in that much public sympathy lay with Hayes, the so-called “fallen woman,” but it also underlined the extent to which women, as was the case historically, were still left to carry the blame and the stigma as a result of pregnancies outside marriage.

The controversy occurred in the middle of a decade of moral ‘civil war,’ with acrimonious debates and campaigns about abortion, divorce and contraception, but also a growing realisation that behind some of these often abstract debates were women experiencing great trauma, and worse.

Earlier that year, 15-year-old Anne Lovett had died after giving birth in a grotto in Granard, County Longford, an event that had also brought secrets and taboos, humiliations and denials, into full public gaze.

If it was true that attitudes to sex, marriage, and love were changing (in 1987, the Status of Children Act in effect abolished the concept of illegitimacy), such change did not come without victims, including the truth. Journalist Gene Kerrigan said of the Kerry Babies case that “the issues raised … had more to do with attitudes towards women, morality, sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth than any impartial attempt to establish the facts around the police investigation”.

Inglis said it reveals a story about “honour and shame, about Ireland awakening from the Catholic Church’s monopoly over sexual morality, about the State and what happens when people turn a blind eye to the way police operate, and of the synergy between police, lawyers and judges”. The idea that it was a turning point is not just a retrospective assessment; as Kerrigan wrote while the tribunal was still sitting, “many people have identified the happenings in Tralee over the last few weeks as a kind of watershed in contemporary Irish history. What has been significant has been the recognition that people throughout the country, especially women, are sexually active, despite our antiquated family planning laws and the counsel of the Catholic Church. Female sexuality has been a topic for discussion as never before.”

The unity and ‘respectability’ of the Hayes family — they were landowners and active in sport and politics and in their community — empowered them to speak out against what they saw as an abuse of power by the State. Coverage of the tribunal, in local and national media, ensured not only that people were informed, but also that they were engaged in a debate that highlighted so-called ‘pro-life’ Ireland (the abortion amendment campaign had taken place in 1983) and the reality of what was experienced by women, and whether or not there was a right to individual morality and privacy.

Those critical of the way this issue was handled were not condoning what Hayes had done, but were questioning the rights of self-appointed enforcers to dictate private codes of morality, and the sickening exposure to public scrutiny and humiliation of those who were deemed to have transgressed. As McCafferty recorded during the tribunal, “a lot of women are trying to reassure themselves in Kerry. There is a sense among them of womanhood itself being on trial here, and the traumatic echoes of the amendment debate in the recurring phrases of the legal and medical practitioners about sex and wombs and babies done to death.”

Throughout this saga, certain gardaí were determined to cling to the veracity of their version of events, even when forensic information made a mockery of them; not for the first nor last time, the force closed ranks and, in doing so, showed scant regard for those who legitimately questioned their methods and the consequences of those methods.

When, in 2005, Judge Morris issued his second report into garda corruption in Donegal in the 1990s, he referred to “the ability of hatred to transform myth into facts”.

It seems that was at play in Kerry in the mid-1980s also.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever

Saga transfixed and changed the nation

The Kerry Babies Tribunal was set in motion following the chance discovery of a baby’s body on a beach, reports Donal Hickey

THE extraordinary story of the Kerry Babies might never have come to light had Jack Griffin, a farmer from Caherciveen, not decided to go for a jog on the isolated White Strand, 5km outside the town.

It was a Saturday evening, April 14, 1984, when he spotted what seemed like a doll on the rocks. Taking a closer look, he was shocked to find the naked body of a baby boy which had its neck broken and had been stabbed 28 times. Nearby was a fertiliser bag in which it had apparently been washed in by the last tide.

Around the same time, a 25-year-old single mother, Joanne Hayes, gave birth to a baby boy on her family farm in Abbeydorney, about 65km away, near Tralee, and its body was found over two weeks later in a drain 200m from their home. Joanne already had a one-year-old daughter, Yvonne.

But what was to unfold held the attention of the nation for up to two years, with High Court Judge Kevin Lynch left to unravel a maze of truths, half-truths, lies, inconsistencies and groundless theories that defied science, all aired during an 82-day tribunal.

Following the discovery of the Caherciveen baby, Garda investigations focussed on the local south Kerry area. When no leads emerged, the probe, involving murder squad detectives, shifted northwards to Tralee.

Soon, gardaí believed they were on the verge of an early breakthrough after learning that receptionist Joanne Hayes had been pregnant but had no baby to show for it. They called to her workplace, Tralee Sports Centre, and brought her to the town Garda station for questioning. She initially told the gardaí she had miscarried after four months, but later said she had a baby boy which she delivered while standing up in a field. The baby appeared to be dead and, the following morning, she placed it in a hole of water, she told them.

And, in statements to the gardaí later, Joanne and other members of the Hayes family gave detailed accounts of how her baby had been beaten and stabbed to death and thrown into the sea at Slea Head, in the Dingle Peninsula.

HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever

Subsequent charges against the Hayes family, including a murder charge against Joanne, based on their incriminating statements, clearly related to the Caherciveen baby. But there was a sensational twist on the day after their court appearance when the body of a second baby was found in a hole of water on the Hayes’ farm.

The Garda presumption was that twins were born to Joanne, but results of blood tests on tissue from the Caherciveen baby, which became known about three weeks after the charges had been preferred, debunked this theory.

The Caherciveen baby’s blood was Group A while Joanne’s blood and that of Jeremiah Locke — the married man by whom she became pregnant — was Group O, meaning they could not be the parents of the Caherciveen baby.

Some gardaí continued to hold the view she had twins by different fathers, despite expert evidence that such a possibility was extremely remote.

She had been having an affair with Mr Locke, who was also the father of Yvonne, it was later revealed at the tribunal.

The charges were not dropped until October 1984 and there was an immediate outcry after details of the case became public knowledge. The Hayes family claimed they had been ill-treated by the gardaí, forced to make statements and that the charges had been fabricated.

Tantalising question was: how could anyone go into a Garda station and confess to a crime they did not commit? Serious concerns were raised about the Garda handling of the case. An internal Garda inquiry was set up, but the Hayes family did not present themselves for questioning and a public sworn inquiry (Kerry Babies’ Tribunal) under Judge Lynch followed.

The basic role of the inquiry was to examine the Garda handling of the case, the circumstances that led to the charges, as well as allegations surrounding the questioning and taking of statements from the Hayes family, also including Joanne’s mother, Mary; her sister, Kathleen; brothers, Ned and Mike, and an aunt, Bridie Fuller, who lived with them.

The inquiry started in Tralee on January 7, 1985, and became a contentious, emotional affair. Feminists and others around the country were angry about the way Joanne was being questioned about intimate details of her private life, her relationship with Mr Locke, with the stigma attached to unmarried motherhood at the time coming to the fore. She broke down a number of times and a doctor had to be called to the hearing in Tralee courthouse.

Sitting nervously in the witness box and discreetly fingering a holy medal in her palm, she said she became hot and flushed at her home on the night of April 12/13, 1984, went outside and gave birth to a baby. She said she did not think the child was alive and left it outside after panicking. She adamantly denied she had twins. The then state pathologist, Dr John Harbison, could not conclude if the Abbeydorney baby had achieved a “separate existence’’. A psychiatrist said Joanne told him she panicked and killed the baby by putting her hands around its neck.

Gardaí carried out a search of the Hayes’ farm. However, a key issue was their failure to accede to Joanne’s request to accompany her to the spot where she claimed to have placed the baby. Had they gone there with her, the course of the investigation would have changed and the murder charge could hardly have been sustained.

HEART OF DARKNESS: The 'Kerry Babies' saga changed Ireland forever


Judge Lynch, since deceased, had four essential questions to deal with in his tribunal report, published in October 1985.

- Garda handling of the case

Judge Lynch cleared the Garda investigating teams, in general, but found the investigation was “slipshod’’. The gardaí took considerable licence in inventing and sticking with the twins’ theory, even when expert evidence ruled it out, he maintained.

He also criticised the gardaí, saying their searches for the Abbeydorney baby, on May 1, 1984 were “deplorably inadequate’’ and their failure to find the baby was “inexcusable’’. He rejected allegations gardaí assaulted the Hayes family during the investigation

- Did Joanne Hayes have had twins?

Judge Lynch unequivocally found that Joanne Hayes did not have twins, but one baby — the Abbeydorney baby. However, he was heavily critical of her and concluded that she choked her baby in the family home and beat it with a bath brush.

nWhy did Joanne Hayes and members of the Hayes family confess to a crime they did not commit?

The initial failure to find the Abbeydorney baby put further pressure on Joanne Hayes to confess that her baby was not on the lands and, therefore, must be the Caherciveen baby, Judge Lynch concluded. As a result of pressures and guilty consciences regarding to the Abbeydorney baby, she and other members of the Hayes family signed confessions to involvement with the Caherciveen baby, which were not true, he added.

- How did Joanne Hayes come to be charged with the murder of the Caherciveen baby?

Judge Lynch found her “own guilty conscience’’ regarding the Abbeydorney baby led her to become convinced, or half-convinced, that she was the mother of the Caherciveen baby and had killed it in the manner suggested by the detectives.

Judge Lynch said it was probable the Caherciveen baby, afterwards named John, was born in Co Kerry and was “illegitimate’’. The judge noted from statistics there were at least two such births in Kerry per week, in 1984, and commented: “What is so unbelievably extraordinary about two women in Co Kerry, in one of the weeks in 1984, both deciding to do away with their babies? The tribunal accepts that it is something of a co-incidence, but does not accept that there is anything really unbelievable about it.’’

Baby John, known as ‘’the Kerry baby’’, lies at rest in a cemetery in Caherciveen.

Joanne Hayes, now 55 and long since returned to normal life, guards her privacy and has turned down several requests for interviews. In 2012, she pleaded with film-makers who had suggested a movie based on her story not to proceed with the plan.

- Donal Hickey has worked for the Irish Examiner for nearly 40 years. He covered this story as it broke and the Kerry Babies Tribunal for its duration.

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