It is a week when the airwaves are dominated by two women, one who has died suddenly, the other whose life was destroyed over 30 years ago, but both of whom provide ample opportunity for comment on how the position of women in Ireland has changed down the years.
The coverage of Dolores O'Riordan's tragically premature death and the belated Garda apology to Joanne Hayes over her treatment during the so-called Kerry Babies case highlights something else, however: how women in contemporary Ireland are still subject to subtly stifling attitudes, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not.
The sad news of the Cranberries singer’s death prompts shock as well as numbed appreciation. The latter manifests itself as a kind of retrospective wonder at how a shy girl from Limerick (a trope used by many of the on-air pundits discussing) transcended her origins to become a superstar with her band in the 1990s. But the darker aspects of O’Riordan’s life also come into play.
Speaking to Matt Cooper on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), music journalist John Cadell says he was unaware O'Riordan's father had been brain-damaged from a motorbike injury before she was born. This in turn deprived her of a potential protector from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a relative.
Such traumas have become all too familiar experiences in retellings of Irish life in the 1970s, which may account for the appealing “ordinary” quality that journalist and broadcaster Nadine O’Regan ascribes to O’Riordan.
Overcoming such odds did not, however, lead to a happy ending. O’Regan details the anorexia and, later, the back pain that the singer suffered after she rose to fame. Thankfully O’Riordan’s talents are also discussed in illuminating fashion, with Cooper’s guests highlighting the local accent and universal reach of her voice. It’s a bright moment which only underscores the sense of loss.
Yet even as as Cadell and O'Regan remark that O'Riordan's achievements proved to a generation of young Irish women that they could be world-beaters, coverage elsewhere suggests that old attitudes still, well, linger. Bulletins on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) describe O'Riordan as "the lead singer of The Cranberries and mother of three children". While factually correct and emotionally resonant, it's nonetheless a jarring description to place at the top of the news. It's almost as if motherhood conferred a value on O'Riordan that might be lacking if she was merely a world-famous singer.
This is quite possibly unintentional, but it’s telling too. For instance, when the death of Peter Sutherland was announced on RTÉ’s news bulletins the previous week, he wasn’t described as the former attorney general and father of three.
But while successful women can still be portrayed as naturally suited to certain roles, the case of Joanne Hayes provides a jolting reminder of how women were viewed in the not-too-distant past.
Discussing the issue on The Last Word, Cooper remarks that some of his young production staff cannot believe what happened to Hayes, who endured a Kafka-esque ordeal after being wrongly accused of murdering a baby boy found on a Kerry strand in 1984. Even for those of us who were around at the time, her story sounds, if anything, more nightmarish when recounted now.
Cooper sounds genuinely disgusted that the Garda apology has only come after DNA evidence showed Hayes was not Baby John's mother, something that was proved at the time by differing blood types
Cooper first hears a neat précis of the case from journalist Aoife Barry. Hayes, whose own baby by a married father had died at birth and been buried on her family farm in Kerry, was charged over the death of the other child, posthumously named Baby John, despite his body being discovered 70 miles away. Meanwhile, UCD lecturer Mary McAuliffe provides Cooper with both context and insight.
Noting that despite her innocence Hayes was "further demonised" in a subsequent judicial tribunal into the Garda inquiry, McAuliffe contrasts this harsh treatment with that of Hayes's lover, Jeremiah Locke, who "gets off very easily". Hayes was also unfavourably compared to Locke's pregnant wife: McAuliffe characterises their respective public images as "the jezebel and the respectable woman". Cooper's guest also makes the pertinent point that the pursuit of Hayes, even after charges had been dropped, diverted attention from finding the real murderer: the case remains unsolved to this day.
Throughout this, Cooper moves between outrage and optimism. He sounds genuinely disgusted that the Garda apology has only come after DNA evidence showed Hayes was not Baby John’s mother, something that was proved at the time by differing blood types: “They needed a DNA test to tell them what everyone knew,” Cooper says. But the host also tries to divine a more positive message, suggesting that the Kerry babies affair marked a “turning point in social attitudes”, as many men as well as women were horrified by the Garda’s behaviour.
McAuliffe is more guarded in her verdict, saying it was “the beginning of a turning point”. For McAuliffe, the central theme of Hayes’s ordeal is a wider, ongoing one: “What really came out was the attitude to women and particularly female sexuality, the idea that women’s bodies and behaviours needed to be controlled.” Far from being in the past, it’s an attitude that still has an uncomfortable ring of familiarity.
Radio moment of the week: Kenny’s Connemara blues
By way of starting off the week, Pat Kenny (Newstalk, weekdays) sets out to debunk the notion that the third Monday in January, aka "Blue Monday", is the most depressing day of the year. Kenny reads an email from a listener, Mick from Connemara, who says he is in "mighty form" as he looks out his window at singing birds, budding daffodils and a "glorious sunrise" before concluding that "there's so much to smile at today". All fine and well, until Kenny receives another message from Mick a few minutes later. "An update," reads Kenny, chuckling, "The rain has started. Return to normality." Now that's a washed-out theory.