"This brings us to a darker, different and in many ways more judgemental Ireland”, said RTÉ’s Paschal Sheehy as he introduced the topic of the Kerry Babies case this week.
Does it now?
Or are we using Joanne Hayes and the sad case of her dead baby, at a distance of 34 years, to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come?
Several media commentators have this week dragged a lot of gothic stage scenery to set the scene for the case: the Catholic Church and the Magdalene laundries feature strongly.
Let’s remember that the Catholic Church had no part in the miscarriage of justice which befell Joanne Hayes in 1984.
It is — rightly — An Garda Síochána which has apologised to her this week but they did not act alone. Joanne Hayes’s baby boy ended up in a plastic bag in a pond on the Hayes’s farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, on April 13, 1984, because our society did not want that baby.
Nell McCafferty’s book on the case, A Woman To Blame, which was reissued in 2010, sketches the silence which surrounded the seven months of Joanne Hayes’s third pregnancy by Jeremiah Locke.
The pregnancy went virtually unmentioned because it was literally unmentionable. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, messing up once was excusable but messing up twice was not.
It showed you were unrepentant. It showed you saw yours as some sort of parallel family. It showed you were prepared to head up that family yourself.
Virtually everyone simply ignored the pregnancy, including Joanne’s workmates and even her family. I don’t think we can give much credence to the testimony of Detective Sergeant Gerry O’Carroll that the pregnancy was not obvious: “I have this curious idea that native Dublin women look hugely pregnant always, while I have noticed that a lot of country women just don’t look pregnant at all.” When the badly abused body of poor little Baby John, “the Kerry Baby”, was found on the beach at Cahirciveen the police were onto Joanne Hayes like a shot.
Everyone knew. No one said anything.
It’s clear Joanne got the message that her baby was not wanted. We don’t know the exact circumstances of the baby’s death. She subsequently told the tribunal she had pulled the baby out by his neck, and that she believed he was not living.
What we do know is that Joanne Hayes’s response to the tragic death of her baby was completely unnatural. It is not the normal response of a healthy bereaved mother to put her baby in a paper bag, then a plastic bag, place it in a pool and walk away.
Unnatural estrangement has been, however, throughout history, the very common response of otherwise normal mothers whose babies are “disallowed”. Cliona Rattigan has written a gripping account of single mothers, child abandonment and infanticide in Ireland in the first 50 years of the last century. Her title, What Else Could I Do? was the defence of a girl called Ena in 1931 who gave birth at her place of employment, a hotel on Eden Quay, Dublin, killed her baby and attempted to conceal his body in a wardrobe.
What else could she do? Her baby was “disallowed”. She would have had no means to support him, or herself, had he lived, because she would have lost her job.
The writer Frank O’Connor described such infanticides in 1949 as “appallingly common”.
Rattigan details case after case, all committed by young women with no other evidence of criminality. One employer in Rathmines, Co Dublin, begged to be allowed to keep on the servant who had killed her own child because, she said, the young woman as essentially “good”, could only have committed the crime in a “frenzy” and should be given a chance.
Rattigan thinks is it unlikely she got that chance, but it has to be said that these young women were nearly always convicted of “child concealment”, not murder, and even if they were convicted of infanticide they did not face hanging.
The legal system obviously understood and sympathised to some extent with the situation in which these young women had found themselves and considered their crimes completely out of character.
If a tiny bit of this compassion had been instilled into the Garda Siochana in Co Kerry in 1984 there would have been no need for an apology this week to Joanne Hayes. One must hope, also, that Baby John’s parents are not being chased with new genetic information out of a spirit of vengeance.
The violence which was visited upon that baby is distressing and could, of course, have been performed by a third party. However Baby John may have been killed by a mother in a “frenzy” who feared her baby was “disallowed”.
Infants need the protection of the law. But it’s far more urgent and much more practicable to tackle , instead, the ways in which our society “disallows” certain babies.
Nell McCafferty writes that “a question” haunts the report of the tribunal into the handling of the Kerry Babies case: “By whom are children unwanted? Is the Hayes family to be isolated and carry blame entirely and is it seriously suggested that Irish society is standing proudly by waiting for the child, any child, no matter the circumstances of its parentage?”
I take issue with the reporting of this case this week in that it sought to send the Kerry Babies case to another country in another era. McCafferty herself added to this on RTÉ radio when she was breathlessly asked “what Ireland was like in 1984?” and said that selling contraceptives could result in a sentence of penal servitude. I was working as an assistant in the Trinity College shop at the time and sold condoms over the counter.
1984 is not another country but this is still a country in which certain babies are “disallowed” on economic grounds. Their mothers, mostly healthy young women in their 20s, seek abortions because one of the richest countries in the world sends them the message that if they have a baby they’ll be on their own.
Expectant mothers are realists. They instinctively read the messages their society gives them and make culturally constructed choices.
It is wrong now as it was wrong in 1984 to visit the blame for the premature ending of a baby’s life on its mother, if we, the wider society, have already rejected the baby.
The best way to honour the Kerry babies and consign Joanne Hayes’s trial to history is for this society to extend an unequivocal welcome to every baby with which we are blessed.
It will be far more practical for our society to look at the way certain babies are ‘disallowed’