The field, the plaster face of the Virgin Mary, the labouring, dying 15-year-old, the dead baby…
The tragedy of Ann Lovett and her baby was the defining image of 1980s Ireland for many people of my generation, writes Victoria White.
We were Ann’s generation, after all. Many of us felt that if a few rolls of the dice had been different we could have been her.
We read ourselves into her story in our own way. That’s human nature. It is, however, important to be brought face to face with the truth every now and then, even if it ruins the story we have told ourselves.
Rosita Boland’s painstaking work on the Ann Lovett story for The Irish Times produced at the weekend what might be called a journalistic coup but was really far more than that.
Ann Lovett’s boyfriend Ricky McDonnell spoke publicly for the first time in 34 years about his love affair with the feisty young girl who stole his heart.
As the journalist who broke the Ann Lovett story, Emily O’Reilly, said at the weekend, the interview “changes the narrative”. Essentially, the narrative was that of a passive victim. The fact that the girl was 15 bespoke sexual immaturity and innocence.
By contrast, Ann had had — at least in the compelling memory of Ricky McDonnell — a passionate and loving relationship of the kind that doesn’t come along that many times in a lifetime.
She was only 14 when she and Ricky started having sex. Well, look, I wouldn’t be too thrilled if my daughter did the same, but it happens. I was in love at 15.
Shakespeare’s Juliet was only 12. The Virgin Mary wasn’t much more (though I suppose that’s a case with a difference). It seems that kids without much security at home tend to find their love outside the home early.
We know from Ricky McDonnell’s testimony that Ann wasn’t being properly looked out for.
Even at 13, she could be out late with Ricky without consequences at home. She was staying with him most of the night several nights a week when she was 14 and it seems no-one came looking for her.
If what he says is true, that constitutes neglect.
And as for Ricky himself… His parents were separated and then his dad died of TB. When his mother moved to England he wouldn’t stay in school. He was living on his own back in Ireland by the time he was 15, catching foxes with lamps at night to make money out of their hides.
What you are looking at there is surely the legacy of massive disadvantage. We were still a poor country and we had been much poorer.
No wonder they clung to each other, these lovely kids.
The words that stick with me most from the interview are those in which he describes Ann:
How we stereotype and demean the passions of young men! Ann was loved as any woman would wish to be loved. She was loved because she was strong, not because she was weak.
It was an essential part of the official narrative that Ann was ashamed she was pregnant. She concealed her pregnancy. She confided in no-one, as far as we know.
The birth and death under the BVM looked like a plea for forgiveness, or mercy, depending on your point of view.
I went with mercy after reading an astonishing chapter in a book called Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light by John Cornwell which showed with computer-generated precision that visions of the Virgin Mary are always given to young girls who have lost a mother-figure in the preceding eight weeks.
Whether they come from God or from your own psychology is up to you and irrelevant. The Virgin comes to comfort the motherless.
But Ann Lovett may have chosen “The Palms” in Granard, Co Longford, as the place she would have her baby for reasons completely outside all official narratives.
She does not seem to have been in any way ashamed of having had sex and of being pregnant. Her shame — her horror — seems to have come in the aftermath of the assault she suffered by a third party, which spelled the end of her relationship with McDonnell.
We do not know if this assault was sexual but she wrote in what sounded like a suicide note to McDonnell was, in his words:
We do not know if she meant to die with her baby or not. But McDonnell sees the choice of the grotto as her baby’s place of birth as “a protest”.
Those two bodies still lie there in our minds, protesting still, but against different things than those which dominated the official narrative.
Most of all, it seems, Ann’s is protesting against the assault that she suffered.
She may have told no-one but McDonnell and then swore him to secrecy. But did her mother not notice she was distraught and bruised?
Why did the gardaí not investigate the assault, about which Ricky McDonnell gave evidence?
Why did two enquiries, one by the gardaí and one led by then-minister Nuala Fennell lead nowhere and where are they?
Even at this distance, we do need answers to those questions.
I would like to echo journalist Nell McCafferty’s call for a DNA test on Ann’s poor little baby, Patrick.
If the gardaí can carry out DNA testing and exhaustive investigation to try to establish the identity of the Cahersiveen Kerry baby, who died the same year, why can Patrick’s paternity not be established?
If the baby is not McDonnell’s, an investigation into a sexual assault on Ann Lovett should be carried out even now. Particularly as when Ann’s little sister Patricia died of an overdose six months later she had a bruise on her chin and an abrasion on her cheek.
We have to try to read what the bodies of Ann and Patrick and Patricia are telling us, even at this remove.
Because it is likely they will teach us a lesson which we need now as much as then, and would need even if every BVM turned to rubble, every priest were dead and there was a family planning clinic on every street corner.
The lesson is that young people are precious. They need love. They need protection. They need care. They need respect.
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