As Gay Byrne said on his programme, just over two weeks after the Ann Lovett story broke, there were “too many letters. They couldn’t be ignored.” The schoolgirl was 15, when she was found in shock and close to death, having given birth to a baby boy at the grotto on a hill just outside her home town of Granard, Co Longford. Her son was dead by the time passersby discovered her, and Ann died later that day in hospital.
The hundreds of letters people sent to the Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ radio in response to this tragedy in 1984 contained the previously untold stories of many women in Ireland at the time. As Byrne put it then: "Time and again they make the point that being able to write it all down is a relief. They thank Ann Lovett for giving them the courage to express what they have kept secret. Her sacrifice was not in vain, is their point."
The programme was a devastating piece of broadcasting, which gave voice to women who had until then suffered in silence. It also revealed the different perspectives of a nation, by turns angry, ashamed, sorrowful and indignant, as it grappled with the deaths of a teenager and her baby. Here we publish extracts from some of the letters, many of which were identified only by their place of origin.
'Never in the 10 years since the birth of my baby have my parents ever talked about my pregnancy'
“I know how Ann felt, as I have travelled down that same lonely road. At the age of 16 I found myself pregnant and still at school. I concealed my pregnancy until I was eight months pregnant. My mother then discovered with great horror that her only daughter was one of these unmentionable people. How could I humiliate them this way? What would the neighbours think? My parents were very well-off business people. It was decided that I would go and look after my poor old sick great-aunt in Dublin.
After six weeks I gave birth to a baby boy and returned home immediately to pick up from before, as if nothing had ever happened. Never in the past 10 years since the birth of my baby have my parents ever talked about my pregnancy. They even talk about other girls who get into trouble as if I never had a baby. Of course, my baby was adopted. There was never any question of anything else happening. I hide my secret with great hurt and guilt. I feel very depressed at times and wish I could reveal my long-kept secret to somebody. On several occasions I’ve walked into my local GP’s waiting room in the hope of talking to him, but always fail to wait and see him for fear of what he might think of me.
'My mother never went outside the door after news of my downfall became public'
In 1972 I found myself expecting. I was 16. I was expelled and disgraced from the Mercy Convent in Carlow town. A priest who visited me told me I would pay for my great sin for the rest of my life. My baby, a boy, was taken from me. I am not allowed to trace him. My own mother died before the child was born. She never went outside the door after news of my downfall became public.
I accepted all this as part of my punishment. But I am still paying. I cannot relate all the things that happened in my life without breaking down. My point is that I lived after my sin and I’ve been treated as an outcast ever since. All this sorrow would be turned to gossip had Ann lived. Why was there this fear in 1984, [meaning] that Ann could tell no one? When the people of Granard pray before their grotto, pray for us who lived to pay.
'Her distress was all hidden. She got no help or care. It didn't exist then'
As I drop you this line my heart is so sad for poor little Ann Lovett. A particular case that will always remain in my mind: in about 1940 Mary was an agricultural servant girl, employed by a farmer in this area. Mary worked about 12 or 13 hours a day, beginning at 6am.
Mary became pregnant, like so many of these poor agricultural slaves. Mary’s lover was a married man from the nearby village, the father of nine children. She was 28 years of age, a beautiful singer and always in good humour.
Mary was able to hide her pregnancy until about the seventh month, when one day the farmer’s wife, who was also pregnant, confronted her. Mary denied everything and said her body gathered fluid sometimes and it disappeared again. Mary’s employer didn’t really believe this, but a blind eye was turned to the situation. Mary continued with her work. A day or two before Good Friday in that year, it was potato setting day. Mary rushed into the house just before dinner to give the final help, serving up the meal for all the others. She had none herself, as she said she had a headache. She then cleaned and washed up after the meal and asked for an hour or two off to go to bed with this blinding headache. Mary got the permission, and after about an hour her employer called to her bedroom door which was locked. Mary assured her that she was much better and would be up shortly.
After about another hour the house was filled with the screams of a new baby. The employer went to the garden for her husband. He set off to Mary’s house, a few miles away, and brought back her elderly father. Mary still had the door locked, and, after they forced it open, she denied everything. They searched the room and found a little baby boy choked by a stocking and packed with her clothes in her case. The father walked his daughter home and carried the case. Later that night the baby was buried in the nearby graveyard.
Mary returned to her work after two days. She got no sympathy or concession. After two or three weeks she had to visit a doctor. She was sent to hospital for treatment: her breasts were “almost rotted”, the doctor said. She again returned to her job on her discharge from hospital. Her distress, her broken heart were all hidden. She got no help or care. It didn’t exist then.
‘I really believe it was meant to happen to save this generation’
Teenagers all over Ireland should be on their knees praying to what I believe is their new martyr, Ann Lovett. Let there be no doubt but that she died in the arms of Mary to save all other girls from ending their lives like her. Her pain surely was her purgatory here on Earth, and she and her baby are enjoying a special place in heaven. I really believe it was meant to happen to save this generation. On having several conversations here in schools, there was not a home in Ireland on Sunday night that parents were not sitting down talking to their children, hoping to make them understand that they should feel able to tell their parents if they have a problem.
EILEEN CARTER, DUBLIN 13
‘Babies are great, as long as they have a mammy and daddy who are married’
During Ann Lovett’s pregnancy, what were we doing in this country? We were going quite hysterical over pro-life amendments, we were refusing to allow another teenage mother permission to return to school to complete her education, we were sacking another woman from her teaching job because she had had a baby by a married, separated – deserted in fact – man.
Now that is quite a dismal scene to any prospective single mother, but especially to a 14- or 15-year-old schoolgirl. Babies are great, and welcome in Ireland as long as they have a mammy and daddy who are married and respectable. Our pro-life, pro-baby ideas vanish outside of this neat church-approved set-up.
There have been Ann Lovetts in the past and will be more in the future, because we are dishonest and hypocritical.
PATRICIA FITZPATRICK, IRISH PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT, LEIXLIP
‘Some people think we are to blame for what has happened. We feel this is unfair’
We feel there is a lot of hostility around for people like us who campaigned for and voted
Yes in the referendum [in 1983 the Constitution was amended to add the Eighth Amendment, which asserted that the unborn had an explicit right to life]. It would seem that some people think we are to blame for what has happened.
We feel this is unfair, and we would like to inform people of what we do. We work closely with the nearby mother-and-baby home. On occasion this home is unable to provide immediate accommodation, so we help out by providing short-term and sometimes long-term accommodation for single, pregnant girls. More importantly, we provide moral support and friendship for girls and their families, and sometimes material needs. We also have a telephone service, which we advertise locally.
We are a small group and could do much more if we had more voluntary help. We therefore appeal to all those who wish they could have helped Ann Lovett to come forward and give some practical help to us.
‘My son is 11 now, and my parents are proud of him’
I was working during my school holidays. I was 15 and pregnant. No one knew at the time, and I was able to hide it. I lived in a small town and the people didn’t worry me: it was my parents. Please don’t get me wrong about my parents, they were, and are, the dearest and best parents anyone could hope for. But my main worry was: would I shame them? What would they think of me? Would it kill them?
I got off from work when I went into labour. I walked around, wondering what I was going to do. I was going to jump into the river. I kept praying to myself and I decided to go home. I went to bed, telling my mother I had a sore throat. I went through eight hours of strong labour and I had the baby; thank God, no complications.
My mother came into the room to check on me, and you can imagine her shock. She rushed for the doctor and everything turned out fine. I remember my father saying, “Don’t worry, you can keep your son. I fed nine of you – one more won’t make any difference.” My son is 11 now, and my parents are proud of him. He knows I’m not married and he accepts it.
No one should blame Ann’s parents and they certainly shouldn’t blame themselves. It’s only someone who goes through it knows the pressure. You just can’t bring yourself to tell anyone. My parents were hurt that I couldn’t confide in them. I would love for Ann’s family to know my story, as I understand why she didn’t tell them. She was thinking of them and only them. I am lucky to be alive to be able to tell you my story, not like poor Ann.
Just a few words to all unmarried girls who have had babies: we give life and not take it, which is a good thing.
- These letters were read out on The Gay Byrne Show on February 23rd, 1984.