Ireland, 1984: A year of fierce debates and ‘mounting evils’

From the Archives: Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes, Majella Moynihan – all victims of the highly conservative society of 1984

That year, 15-year-old Ann Lovett died after giving birth to a stillborn son at a grotto in Granard, Co Longford; a full-term pregnancy that appeared to have gone unnoticed by all who knew her.

Teacher Eileen Flynn twice lost her appeal of unfair dismissal against the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross, Co Wexford. She had been living with a married man, and had had a baby with him. Her private life was deemed by her employers, the Holy Faith nuns, to be lacking in the Catholic standards expected of their teachers.

Two dead babies were found in Co Kerry in 1984; one at Cahersiveen and one at Abbeydorney. Joanne Hayes, who already had one child with a married man and was the mother of one of the dead babies, became the focus of a tribunal of inquiry in relation to both babies.

In 2019 we heard the full story of garda Majella Moynihan, who in 1984 was unmarried and gave birth to a son she had had by a fellow unmarried garda recruit. She subsequently came under pressure to give the child up for adoption, and the following year was charged with alleged breaches of Garda regulations.


The story was first reported by Mary Maher in The Irish Times in February 1985. The garda remained unnamed throughout The Irish Times’s coverage of the case at the time. Almost 35 years later, her full story came to light in an RTÉ Radio documentary.*

"Sometimes I think the word misogyny is over-used, but it is difficult to find another word when you think of 1984, because of the level of hostility towards women and the focus on retribution," says historian Diarmaid Ferriter. "Not everything in the determination to do women down went unchallenged."

Ferriter sees the beginnings of changes in attitude towards church and state dating from that time. “Joanne Hayes was meant to be a fallen woman, but there was public sympathy and support for her, because there was disgust at the way she was treated.”

“Fundamentally, 1984 was so difficult for women to begin with, with the failure of the abortion referendum in 1983,” says feminist and former academic, Ailbhe Symth. “We barely had time to pick ourselves up when Ann Lovett died. A lot of us knew that that dark underbelly was in Ireland, so while deeply sad, we knew these terrible things were happening.

“When she died, it jolted us into a realisation that the feminist movement couldn’t just retire, and say we had tried to do enough. We said we had to keep going; 1984 was a stark reminder of how difficult it was. We were kind of reeling from it all – Ann Lovett, Eileen Flynn, Joanne Hayes. We were recognising that this was all coming to the surface. And it was so important to keep on fighting. Women didn’t want to stay silent any more about what was happening.”

To look at the front pages of The Irish Times for the year 1984 is to glean something of the wider context of that year. The big recurring subjects of the time were all closely interconnected between family, church, State and society. They were: contraception and family planning; abortion; marriage and divorce; and sex outside marriage. There was also a sharp focus by the church on morality.

It was a year when the front page recorded that Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, publicly declared that it was "good Christian practice" to "thank heaven for pretty girls". It was the same year that the male education officer for Co Longford called for Maeve Binchy's book, Light a Penny Candle, to be removed from the town's school library, because it contained "jokes of conjugal love"; also a front-page story. Both comments from public figures would be unthinkable in 2019.

These are some of the subjects Ireland was deeply preoccupied with in 1984.

Abortion and pregnancy outside marriage

In 1983 in a referendum on abortion, 66.9 per cent of the electorate voted to write the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution. This gave the life of the unborn the same value as that of its mother. The topic of abortion and pregnancy outside marriage continued to be widely debated throughout 1984.

Nuala Fennell, then Minister of State with responsibilities for women's affairs, said of the Eighth Amendment legislation: "Contrary to what many people had hoped, there had been no apparent increase in tolerance and understanding of the difficulties faced by single mothers. We are left wondering where are the bishops, priests, doctors and lawyers who led public opinion with such zeal and energy for a pro-life vote."

The number of unmarried women keeping their babies had risen from 40 per cent to 75 per cent

Fennell made particular reference to the intolerance shown in the case of Nancy O'Donnell, of Athlone, Co Westmeath. She was 19, and an unmarried mother. Just one week before Fennell made her statement, Athlone Urban District Council had attempted to evict O'Donnell and her baby from the council house she occupied, due to the fact she was unmarried.

In the summer of 1984, the Federation of Services for unmarried parents and their children held their annual conference, and published the report of their latest figures, which were from 1982. They found that the birth rate outside marriage had doubled in the decade from 1972 to 1982 and that the number of girls and women going to England for abortions had quadrupled in the same period.

In 1982, there were 4,351 children born to unmarried mothers. This was 6.1 per cent of all births that year. For the same period, 3,647 abortions were recorded in England of women giving Irish addresses.

The chair of the Federation, Gemma Rowley, noted that in the last decade, "The number of unmarried women keeping their babies had risen from 40 per cent to 75 per cent. This trend means that traditional services such as adoption and mother and baby homes, must now be in a process of change. Adoption is perhaps the area where most change has occurred," she said.

That year, a week-old baby was found abandoned in a straw shopping basket at the entrance to the Seven Towers pub in Ballymun. He was taken to Temple Street Hospital, where the nurses named him Peter and told reporters two other babies had been similarly abandoned the previous year.

Abortion was being discussed in the then European Economic Community (now the European Union), with EEC representatives urging Ireland, Greece and Belgium to introduce abortion.

In response, Fianna Fáil member Eileen Lemass pledged to oppose these moves. She told an Irish Times reporter, "It is lucky that Ireland has adopted the constitutional amendment to protect the life of the unborn. These moves bear out the claims of pro-amendment people that pressure to allow abortions in Ireland is coming from the European parliament."

Mary Banotti, then a MEP, declared: "This is just the beginning of a long debate which may not even get started. A motion for a resolution which has been put to the parliament's legal affairs committee recommends that 'every woman should have the right to decide to terminate her pregnancy in conditions laid down in law'."

In 2018, the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment was passed by 66.4 per cent to 33.4 per cent.

Divorce and marriage breakdown

By 1984, the number of married people who had separated was continuing to grow. There was a public row between representatives of the State census, who continue to be responsible for the Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures, and an organisation called the Divorce Action Group.

The CSO published figures from their 1983 Labour Force Survey, which recorded the estimate of “ever-married persons” returning as now separated as 21,000. This figure was criticised by the Divorce Action Group, who claimed the true figure was closer to 70,000.

At the New Ireland Forum, which ran from 1983 to 1984, political parties discussed developments that might help with the complicated situation in Northern Ireland. The Catholic Church was to be invited to one of these discussions and early in 1984 made a written submission to the forum.

The Catholic bishops united to warn the forum that: “There must be limits to political pluralism. It is our conviction that the introduction of civil divorce would be a direct attack on the very institution of marriage, therefore on the institution of the family and accordingly on the basic fibre of our society.”

While acknowledging that the number of marriages breaking down had increased in recent years, they stated, “We are convinced that our people would still wish to maintain intact the concept of marriage as a commitment for life”.

Their statement was criticised, which prompted the then cardinal, Tomás Ó Fiaich, to say that the Catholic Church had been “shabbily treated by the forum. The abuse some of the Catholic bishops have come in for in the past couple of days is not conducive to making them very sympathetic to accepting the invitation. It would be very strange if the forum or anyone else were to expect the Catholic bishops to say, ‘yes divorce is a very good thing, let us have it’.”

Nonetheless, in March, Bishop Joseph Cassidy of Clonfert told a news conference at that year's episcopal meeting at Maynooth College that: "He did not have statistics about the extent of marital failure. But he confirmed that feedback from the council and the regional marriage tribunals, which deal with applications for annulments, showed a higher rate than normal of breakdown among young people and in cases where the woman was pregnant prior to marriage."

The Church of Ireland put out its own statement on their stance on divorce, saying it would support “the introduction of divorce legislation in the Republic, based on the irretrievable breakdown of marriage”.

In May, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which then represented 600,000 workers, called “for the removal of the constitutional ban on divorce and the government to hold a referendum to change the law at the earliest possible date”.

The Irish Times held two MRBI polls in 1984 on divorce, one in February and one in October. The earlier poll found that two-thirds of the electorate backed the introduction of divorce.

By the autumn, the figures had changed. Almost half the electorate, 48 per cent, now wanted to keep the legislation. Support for divorce had dropped to 42 per cent, with the remaining 10 per cent undecided. “The poll reflects increasingly vocal resistance to change as lines are drawn in a public debate on the issue which could become as contentious as the abortion referendum,” noted the report on the findings of the second poll.

A case brought before the Supreme Court in March that year demonstrated the impact on one woman and her family after her marriage had broken down. The court report read: “A woman whose husband bought a house before the 1976 family Home Protection Act came into force has no claim to a share in the sale of the family home following the breakdown of their marriage, the Supreme Court decided.

“At the time of her marriage, she had been forced by the State to resign her job in the civil service. While she had contributed to the purchase of their first home in Dublin, her husband had obtained a 100 per cent per cent loan for the Cork house when he was transferred there, and the surplus on the sale of the Dublin house was used to buy furniture and fittings.

"In his judgment yesterday, Mr Justice Henchy said this expenditure could not be said to have relieved the husband of any share of the financial burden he incurred in purchasing the house and could not be said to have given the wife any beneficial interest in the house.

“The woman said yesterday she was astonished at the judgment. After two years of a legal battle, she had been left with nothing. She had had to provide a home for herself and her three children. Her solicitor said the only avenue open to her was to go to the European Court but it would be a lengthy business.”

The divorce referendum of 1986 was defeated by 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent. The referendum of 1995 passed by 50.28 per cent to 49.72 per cent.

The church and marriage

Marriage in a Catholic church in 1984 required a couple to complete a four-week preparatory course. These courses were funded by the church, and were run by a network of 1,800 people, chosen and trained by church members. Dioceses also required a three-month notice of intention to marry.

That year, further pre-marriage preparation was to be introduced.

At an episcopal meeting in Maynooth College, Bishop Joseph Cassidy of Clonfert announced that: “From Easter Sunday, couples wishing to marry in the Catholic Church must fill in a mandatory inquiry form about suitability for marriage to the satisfaction of their priest.”

This new initiative was to “reduce the number of broken marriages in Ireland”. The new document had been two years in the planning, and was aimed at “avoiding imprudent marriages and in helping couples to prepare for marriage”.

The news report read: “Bishop Cassidy said each application for marriage would be considered from a pastoral point of view. In his own case, he would talk to the couple, find out if they believed in the Catholic faith and the sacraments and whether they intended to practise their faith. He would ask the couple as a gesture of goodwill to separate for a period – but not for a long one. He was doing this so that they were not entering marriage ‘as a social thing or as a charade’.”

The bishop went on to list the "mounting evils" that followed contraceptive legislation in other countries

“At a preliminary meeting of the couple with a local priest, the first part of the form would be completed, dealing with personal details. After the couple had taken part in a course, the other two parts would be filled in, with the priest asking ‘more searching questions’ aimed at finding out the couple’s appreciation of marriage as lifelong, indissoluble and exclusive. If a priest is concerned about a couple’s readiness for marriage, he is to consult his bishop.

“ ‘The bishop must decide whether it is wiser that they should postpone the marriage for a time,’ Bishop Cassidy said. ‘But they would always have the right of direct appeal to the bishop. It means, I am afraid, a lot more work for an overworked episcopacy’.”


Contraception had been illegal in Ireland until 1980. The 1980 Bill allowed for the sale of contraceptives, but with the proviso that they could only be distributed by a chemist, who needed to see a prescription from a doctor.

By 1984, there was pressure from society to lift these restrictions and make contraceptives much more widely available.

Barry Desmond was Minister for Health in 1984. He was aiming to introduce new legislation to make contraception available without a prescription. There was considerable dissent among the parties throughout the year about his proposal.

In January, it was reported that the "Desmond Bill was to allow open sale of contraceptives. The general sale of condoms and spermicides in shops and supermarkets and newsagents is to be allowed under the new family planning legislation drawn up by the Minister for Health. The proposed legislation drops the reference to 'abortifacients' and abolishes restriction on licensing for the importation of contraceptives".

In response, Fianna Fáil stated: “There was ‘no question of an all-party agreement on the proposed legislation on contraception’.”

Garret FitzGerald of Fine Gael said: “We now know from bitter experience that we get stuck if party political lines were drawn on an issue of this kind.”

However, his colleague Alice Glenn declared that she would vote against any Bill in the Dáil which proposed to make "contraceptives available to unmarried couples," saying "such a Bill would be legislating for permissiveness".

The first representative of the clergy to speak out on the matter was the bishop of Kerry, Dr Kevin McNamara.

He stated that: “The legislators must bear in mind that when civil legislation ignores God’s laws for human behaviour and for human society, perhaps even going so far as to facilitate or encourage its violation, gravely harmful consequences for individuals and society will follow.”

The bishop went on to list the “mounting evils” that followed contraceptive legislation in other countries. “The moral corruption of youth, the alarming increase in abortion, the spread of pornography and venereal disease and the instability of marriage, the erosion of moral standards, the acceptance of pre-marital intercourse as an integral part of the social system, the spread of the knowledge and use of contraceptives to young people of ever-lower age groups.”

Making contraceptives freely available would be facilitating, as he said: “Seriously immoral behaviour, and by the standards of the gospel, it is a grave violation of God’s law.”

In April, Barry Desmond opened a family planning clinic in Dún Laoghaire; one of a number of such clinics in the Eastern Health Board District, intended as pilot projects. He said he was not “unduly concerned” if the clinic was breaking the letter of the law on selling non-medical contraceptives. “The law is an ass in this regard,” he told the media.

At the same time, the Well Woman Centre was facing prosecution in the Dublin District Court for selling condoms from a coin-operated vending machine without prescriptions.

At the Workers Party ardfheis that April, much of the discussion was on personal freedom and choice around sexuality and fertility. Deputy Proinsias de Rossa announced that the only way to do this was “to take on the church authorities”.

By the summer a special committee of the Irish Medical Organisation had been convened on the specific matter of making contraceptives available to those who sought them, whether married or not. They announced that: "Almost all doctors are prepared to provide family planning services without prejudice and will recommend to the organisation's council next week that such services should be available to all sexually active people, regardless of marital status."

Despite the continued resistance from the church, in February 1985 legislation was passed to make condoms and spermicides available without prescription in chemists to people over 18.


The subject of incest twice made the front page in 1984, although no subsequent public outcry on the topic occurred. "Incest increasing problem for teachers" read a headline in May. "Teachers now have to deal with problems of pregnancy and incest among their pupils and they have no training to enable them to cope," the general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, Kieran Mulvey, stated at their meeting.

Mulvey was calling for the introduction of a sex-education programme. “But teaching sex education without mention of family planning is like trying to teach science without reference to Einstein,” he said.

That year, in their annual report, the Rape Crisis Centre reported that 21 of their rape cases in 1983 had come to them as victims of incest. Anne O’Donnell of the centre said: “Incest is clearly a big problem in Ireland today, but one which is largely ignored or denied.”

Commenting on these figures, Nuala Fennell, then minister of state with responsibility for women’s affairs said that over the past few months she had received an increasing number of personal letters from people around the country concerned with incest.

“They come from doctors, social workers and concerned relatives and are seeking my help or advice on a case. There’s no doubt that it’s a problem, but it is underneath the surface here,” she said.

The McColgan family of Co Sligo, all four of whom were subjected to horrific sexual and physical abuse by their father, were being consistently abused during this year, and many others. Their father Joe stood trial in 1995 for their abuse, and the children surrendered their anonymity to have his name made public.

The church and celibacy

In March, Pope John Paul II published a 50-page “apostolic exhortation” document, aimed at members of all the Catholic Church’s religious orders. He urged them to keep their original vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and praised their decision to become “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”.

He went on to state that: “Virginity or celibacy is better than matrimony. The vow of chastity allows members of religious orders to choose Jesus as their ‘exclusive spouse’. Evangelic chastity helps us to transform in our interior life everything that has its sources in the lust of the flesh.”

The report on the publication of the document also carried a response from a member of the clergy. “An American priest working at the Vatican harshly criticised the document, especially the pope’s repeated references – four times in three pages – to members of religious orders as ‘eunuchs’.

“It’s disastrous,” he said, asking not to be named. “It’s absolutely horrendous to equate our religious vows with castrating oneself.”

Teachers in Catholic schools and their sex lives

In 1984, at a meeting of the general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), its general secretary Kieran Mulvey reported on the number of complaints the organisation had had from female teachers about interview boards. Secondary schools were overwhelmingly Catholic-run, and interview boards routinely included a member of local clergy.

“For some, the interviews were a catch 22 situation. They were asked if they were married and if they were, had they children? If they have not, then they must be doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, and so were judged not suitable for the schools,” he said.

That same year, teacher Eileen Flynn twice unsuccessfully appealed her dismissal in 1982 from her teaching job at the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross, Co Wexford. She had been living with a separated man, Richie Roche, and had had a child by him.

In February, it was reported that: “The Employment Appeals Tribunal accepted the convent’s view that her general attitude and behaviour did not measure up to Catholic standards which might reasonably be expected of a convent teacher.”

After the tribunal both ASTI and the Teacher’s Union of Ireland (TUI) discussed the topic at their annual conferences. “The private lives of teachers and their sexual morality should be of no concern of school managements,” representatives of both organisations jointly stated.

The ASTI delegates proposed a motion “That where a teacher’s lifestyle or morals conflicted with the views of the school management, this should not be acceptable as grounds for dismissal”. It passed by 202 votes to 22.

The TUI delegates voted unanimously for a resolution affirming the absolute right of teachers to privacy in their personal lives and instructed the union executive “to resist with every means at its disposal any infringements of this right by school managements”.

Kathleen Lough, representing Galway Regional Technical College, said at the TUI conference that: "Ireland was probably unique in Europe in the extent to which people here insisted on poking their noses into other people's private affairs. When people talk about the moral character of teachers and setting a good example to pupils, they are not talking about law and order," she said. "They just want to know if you lead a particular kind of sexual life."

In July, Eileen Flynn appealed her dismissal in the circuit court. A moral theologian was called to give evidence, the Reverend Dr Patrick Hannon; called because he was deemed by judge Noel Ryan to be an expert on Catholic moral teaching. "The church condemns the sin but not the sinner," Hannon told the judge.

Flynn again lost her appeal. In his summing up, Judge Ryan stated: "Times are changing and we must change with them, but they have not changed that much in this or the adjoining jurisdiction with regard to some things."

He said he believed the dismissal from her teaching role was not because of her pregnancy, it was because her lifestyle had “become repugnant” to the values which the nuns held.

Flynn took her case to the High Court in 1985, where she again lost her appeal, for the third and final time.

In his judgment, Justice Declan Costello said of the nuns who had dismissed her: "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."

Eileen Flynn died in 2008. She never received an apology from the Holy Faith Convent.

*This story was amended on July 7th 2019

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland is Senior Features Writer with The Irish Times. She was named NewsBrands Ireland Journalist of the Year for 2018