1980s Ireland was no place for women

Majella Moynihan told her story this week and joins the likes of Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes, and Eileen Flynn as women who were failed by the State, writes Dan Buckley

1980s Ireland was no place for women

Majella Moynihan told her story this week and joins the likes of Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes, and Eileen Flynn as women who were failed by the State, writes Dan Buckley

As the novelist LP Hartley put it, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. In Ireland, our past — even our recent past — is another planet; they do things not just differently but incomprehensibly there.

The 1980s were particularly hard on women, during which a perfect storm of fetid religious piety bordering on mania coalesced with abnormal social norms being enforced by an overbearing and self-righteous justice system. The result was the subjugation of women, driven by the Irish Catholic impulse to control female sexuality.

Today, it is incomprehensible that any woman would risk losing her job simply for being a single mother but that was the bitter reality for Majella Moynihan who, in 1985, found herself hounded, besmirched, and threatened with dismissal from An Garda Siochána.

It would be unthinkable now for any young girl to feel compelled to give birth alone in front of a grotto, risking both her own life and that of her baby.

That is what happened to Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old from Granard, Co Longford, who lost her own life after giving birth beside a statue of the Virgin Mary on January 31, 1984.

The teenager, who died in hospital later that day, was found by three boys walking home from school. Her newborn son died in the grotto. The story of her death played a huge part in a national debate about female sexuality and, in particular, about women giving birth outside marriage.

There was also a tragic postscript as, on April 22, 1984, less than three months after Ann died, her 14-year-old sister Patricia took her own life.

The case of Joanne Hayes and the Kerry Babies scandal would read today like a work of fiction worthy of playwright John B Keane.

It was a real life horror for Ms Hayes who had to endure a charge of murder and a tribunal of investigation after a newborn baby was found dead and abandoned on the White Strand near Caherciveen on April 14, 1984.

She had given birth to a stillborn baby around the same time and, although she lived in Abbeydorney, almost 70km away, she was the prime suspect. Gardaí theorised that she have had sex with two different men over 48 hours and become pregnant by both.

Majella Moynihan as a Garda in 1988
Majella Moynihan as a Garda in 1988

Inexplicably, “confessions” about the Caherciveen baby were elicited from members of the Hayes family. The case was finally dropped by the DPP.

The experience of Wexford school teacher Eileen Flynn mirrors that of Majella Moynihan, the only difference being that she was actually sacked. In August 1982 Ms Flynn was dismissed from her job as an English and history teacher at the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross, Co Wexford.

At the time, she was unmarried with a baby son and was living with the baby’s father, a separated man, Richie Roche. The couple later married.

Ms Flynn, who died in 2008, lost her unfair dismissal case at the Employment Appeals Tribunal and at the circuit court. She also lost her appeal to the High Court on March 8, 1985. In his judgment, Mr Justice Declan Costello said: “I do not think that the respondents over-emphasise the power of example on the lives of the pupils in the school and they were entitled to conclude that the appellant’s conduct was capable of damaging their efforts to foster in their pupils norms of behaviour and religious tenets which the school had been established to promote.”

The experience of these four women was fostered by an oppressive Catholicism that was openly hostile to women.

In 1980s Ireland, a Catholic version of Sharia law prevailed, was accepted by the majority of the population and penetrated almost every form of life and social order. Divorce was banned and would not be available until a referendum in 1995 when it was allowed by a narrow margin. Voters were as repressively conservative as the authorities. Any attempt by the legislature to change the almost total ban on abortion was prevented by the passing of the eighth amendment to the Constitution in 1983 by a similar margin to last year’s poll which removed it.

Sex between consenting adult males was still a crime, punishable by imprisonment and even contraception was proscribed except for married couples. Although the contraceptive pill was officially legalised in 1979 for “bona-fide family planning purposes” at the discretion of a doctor, it was not fully available fully until 1993.

In 1977, the government gave effect to the EEC’s 1975 directive on equality by passing the Employment Equality Act, which also established the Employment Equality Agency. Yet full equality was still a pipedream for women. From the bedroom to the boardroom, to the corridors of power, men still ruled the roost.

Though the unmarried mother’s allowance had been introduced in 1973, there was still a stigma to having a child outside wedlock in early 1980s Ireland. Mother and baby homes were still prevalent where so-called penitents suffered coercive confinement, allowed outside the walls of these institutions only on Sundays for the procession to Mass and back.

The full horrors of the Magdalene laundries, an unholy alliance of Church and State, were still to be exposed. To this day, the landscape contains mass graves, the final resting place of the mothers and babies supposedly cared for in these asylums.

They weren’t confined to the Catholic Church. Survivors of the Bethany Home in Dublin, a residential institution for ‘fallen women’ run by the Church of Ireland, are still campaigning for the Government to extend to them the same redress offered to survivors of abuse at Catholic institutions.

This was the febrile atmosphere of 1980s Ireland that confronted Majella Moynihan, Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes, and Eileen Flynn who found themselves at the mercy of a male-dominated Church, judiciary, government, and police force.

In a very real sense, Ann Lovett died for Ireland, a martyr to the hypocrisy of unchristian Irish Catholicism. Joanne Hayes and Majella Moynihan are also martyrs of sorts as their stories have forced us all to cast a cold eye on Ireland’s treatment of women, our attitudes to sexuality as well as the function of central government, the judiciary and the gardaí.

As a society, we owe these women an apology for allowing such a culture of oppression to grow and fester and to make their lives a misery.

We also owe them our thanks.

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