Ann Lovett: Death at the grotto

 

From the archive: Thirty three years ago, a 15-year-old girl in Granard, Co Longford, died giving birth in secret.

'It happened then, so it could happen again any time. I am sure it could.' one schoolgirl tells Rosita Boland in Granard, Co Longford. But mostly, the town wants just to forget

It's the first building you see as you approach Granard: St Mary's Catholic church, built high on a rise at the edge of the town, the steeple distinctive for miles around. Directly behind the church, on a grassy hill, is Granard's 12th-century motte. This is the highest point in Granard. From here, there is a panoramic view of the mainly flat surrounding countryside of Co Longford, accessed via the grassy lane that runs beneath the motte.

It was down this grassy lane, around 4 p.m., that three boys walked after school on January 31st, 1984, an icily cold day. It had been raining heavily and the ground was wet.  Granard's grotto lies behind double iron gates on one side of the laneway, secluded, a dozen metres or so from the main road. That afternoon, a red schoolbag lay by the entrance, apparently abandoned. When the boys stopped to look at it, they heard a moaning from the far side of the grotto.

What the boys found were the prone figures of 15-year-old Ann Lovett, and her stillborn infant son, who was lying alongside her. She had given birth alone, on the chill, exposed stone surface of the grotto, in the rain. She had a pair of scissors with her to cut the umbilical cord, and was already dying, bruised and covered in blood, when the boys found her. She died in Mullingar Hospital two hours later.

Three weeks later, an inquest in Mullingar into her death  returned a verdict of death due to irreversible shock caused by haemorrhage and exposure during childbirth. The same inquest found a verdict of death due to asphyxia during birth for her baby son, who was never given a name.

What happened in Granard 20 years ago was the shame of all Ireland: collectively, as a society, we were all responsible. We were forced to ask ourselves horrible questions about our society at a time when we were unused to asking ourselves such questions. The Kerry Babies, the X case, and the saga of Bishop Casey's son were all still to come.

In 1984, Granard was a small town. It still is. The 2002 Census records a population of 1,013. There is one main street - Main Street. The church is at one end, and the Mercy Secondary School, where Ann Lovett was once a pupil, is at the other. It seems everyone knows everyone else in the town. It's hard to believe big secrets could be kept in such a small community, but after Ann Lovett's death, both her school and her family - a household of two parents and eight siblings - publicly denied all knowledge of her pregnancy, although the baby she gave birth to was full term.

Father Francis Kelly has been a priest for 40 years, the last 16 spent in Granard. This week, in the sitting-room of his parochial house, in the grounds of St Mary's Church, he talks about everything and nothing for 25 minutes. The motte behind the church. The Barron Report. The teaching of Latin. School committees. Politicians. Rationalisation in multinational companies. Then he stops. Neither of us says anything.

"Every few years or thereabouts, someone comes from some journalistic institution," he says, finally.

In 20 years, the fir trees that surround and overhang the grotto where Ann Lovett gave birth, have grown tall and thick. The place itself is bare of flowers, cards, votives, or tokens of the kind found at many other grottoes around the country: there is nothing to indicate what once happened there.

Father Kelly says nobody lays flowers at the grotto on the anniversary of Ann Lovett's death. He sounds both surprised and affronted that I ask. "The memory is deeper than that - than to be remembered with flowers."

There is never a memorial Mass, because requests for those must come from the family, and the family does not ask. Patricia Lovett, Ann's mother, still lives in Granard. Father Kelly repeats several times that she is a very active and respected parishioner of his church; that the people of the town collectively wish to protect her from any further hurt.

"The intervention of the media in Granard at the time was regarded by the people as being intrusive, bordering on uncaring barbarity," he says. "It was seen in the town as an attempt to attach blame. There was an effort made to blame the secondary school where she went. That school is still the same caring institution it was at that time," he insists.

"The people of Granard don't want to make a big issue out of what happened, even after 20 years. The media have tried to read more into it thawhat it was. Such tragedies as these happen in life. It was not the biggest and most important story that happened in Granard in 20 years. It was just another unfortunate episode."

What would Father Kelly consider to be Granard's most important story since 1984? There is a long pause. Then he says: "That we survived. That our parish survived."

Many of the shops and pubs on Granard's Main Street have a personality and individual style now missing in many bigger towns. There is virtually no neon. Craft is still valued here. Devine's on the Main Street is an old-fashioned shop where the tailor works at a period Singer sewing machine, operated by foot. He is expertly sewing a zip onto a workman's jacket when I go in. He tells me he came back from London to take over the business from his father. Then I say I'm a journalist: does he know it is the 20th anniversary of Ann Lovett's death this weekend? Instantly, he averts his gaze.

"I wasn't here at the time."

"Do people in Granard ever talk about it now?"

"I wouldn't have a clue. I wasn't here."

"But you live here now. Do people ever talk about it now?"

"I wouldn't have a clue."

In Paul Fay's bar, a few yards down the street, people are reluctant to talk about Ann Lovett.

"She's dead and buried and that's where you people should leave her," says a male customer. There is a hostile silence. "Do you think people here are ashamed of what happened?" I ask.

"No, we're not ashamed. Why should we be ashamed?" Customers drink up within minutes of my arrival and leave.

One businesswoman on the Main Street talks to me provided I do not identify her business.

"People don't want to talk about it because then they can pretend it never happened. A couple of people talked to Lorelei Harris when she made that programme here [the 1995 RTÉ radio documentary, Letters to Ann], and they had a very hard time afterwards. People felt they shouldn't have broken rank."

Donohoe's is a beautiful example of a classic grocery-bar, held by the same family for three generations. I am asked by its only customer what brings me to Granard. On reply, his hand goes up instantly, covering his face. "Stop! Have you a tape recorder down your blouse?" Then he says, quite vehemently: "The family weren't from here at all, anyway. They weren't Granard people. They were blow-ins."

In the Greville Arms Hotel, local farmer James Reynolds, who is running for election in June, is giving interviews about his campaign to journalists from the Longford News and Longford Leader in the room where I'm eating. He says he went to school with Ann, but that he doesn't want to make any comment about the case, other than: "It is very traumatic. The people of Granard have been through enough."

Michael Duffy is the principal of the Mercy Secondary School, and has been working at the school for 30 years. He is courtesy itself, but when we sit down in his office, he closes his eyes for a few seconds, as if he hopes that when he opens them, I will no longer be there. There is a Mass every November for all the dead past pupils; Ann is commemorated in that way, exactly the same as everyone else. No, he does not think her death was a catalyst in Irish society. No, they have never discussed her death with their pupils. He is not sure if his pupils know who she was. It happened so long ago.

It transpires that some, at least, of Michael Duffy's pupils do know who Ann Lovett was. Of the dozen pupils in navy uniform I offer her name to outside the school gates, all but one recognise it instantly. Do they think a similar tragedy could happen now, I ask a group of 16-year-old girls. Most of them say no. One says yes, twice.

"It happened then, so it could happen again any time. I am sure it could," she says.

Twenty years after Ann Lovett's death, some questions remain unanswered. The identity of the baby's father was never ascertained, nor were his responsibilities in the tragedy raised at the time. Whoever the father of Ann Lovett's son was, he never faced court for criminal charges of having sex with a minor. The Garda investigations petered out. There was a private inquiry into Ann Lovett's death, but the report was not made public.

Despite what the people of Granard seem to believe, Ann Lovett's story was not sensationalised by the media. Her story was in itself sensational and, in 1984, it acted as a key that unlocked a Pandora's box of many other of Ireland's dark, and previously untold, stories. The death of Ann Lovett, was not, as Granard maintains, only a local tragedy. Time has proved it to be lodged in our national consciousness: once known, Ann Lovett's story has been impossible to unknow, or to forget.

Emily O'Reilly's account of her report that broke hte story.

On the first Saturday of February 1984, I was at work as a general reporter in the newsroom of the Sunday Tribune. Shortly before lunch, the news editor, Brian Trench (now a media lecturer in DCU), asked me to check out a story. An anonymous caller had rung him to say that a young girl had died some days earlier while giving birth in a field just outside the town of Granard, Co Longford. Her name was Ann Lovett.

I had no difficulty in checking out the story. I went first to a file of that week's newspapers in an out-office and scanned through the death notices.

Ann's death had been recorded in that Thursday's Irish Independent. There was no mention of a baby. The notice said that the 15-year-old had been "beloved" of her parents.

I rang the local Garda station. Gardaí confirmed the full story: that a girl had died shortly after giving birth to a baby who had also died. They said they were investigating.

I rang the local convent where the gardaí, I think, had said she had gone to school. The nuns also confirmed the story, but said they wanted time to compose a fuller response. When I rang back a few hours later they declined to take the call.

Nothing more needed to be done. A story that resonates 20 years later had come together with no great effort on my part.

Towards the evening, the newsroom staff, including the then editor, Vincent Browne, debated whether or not to name the girl in the story. It was journalist Maggie O'Kane, I seem to recall, who said that no one would remember an anonymous child, but that everyone would remember the name Ann Lovett.

I went ahead and wrote the short news report, naming her. My first sentence was a simple one: that a 15-year-old-girl had died after giving birth near a grotto just outside the town of Granard. Brian Trench wanted the sentence to read instead that gardaí were investigating the death. I disagreed. The story was that the girl and the baby had died in the most tragic of circumstances. To me, the Garda investigation was incidental.

The story created an immediate storm. If my memory is correct, the then Fine Gael TD, Nuala Fennell - at the time a junior Minister for women's affairs, went on radio and announced an inquiry into the deaths. To this day I have no idea what happened to it; I know there was an inquiry, but in those pre-openness, -transparency and -accountability times there was little expectation that such a report would ever be made public.

A few days later, I took the bus to Granard. Somebody wrote last week that Granard "was besieged with reporters and camera crews". It wasn't. RTÉ, and maybe the BBC, sent crews down, but after interviewing the largely silent nuns, and getting short shrift from everyone else, they quickly left. There was no Sky news then, no Irish editions of British tabloids, precious little local radio.

There was just a largely timid and tiny press corps - timid compared with the ratings-fuelled aggression of the current media crop.

What I recall is a miserable, embarrassed few days trailing around the town, desperately trying to get anyone to talk to me and then fleeing back to the local hotel when the baleful stares of the locals got too much.

Sunday Independent journalist, Liam Collins, and I took refuge together, even pooling our information in order to generate some copy. I remember that Liam was brave enough to push a polite letter under the door of the family home on the main street, but he, like everyone then and since, got no response.

One evening, in the hotel bar, a few local men started to talk to us. From the conversation, I got the impression that some people in the town did know Ann had been pregnant. But, the men intimated, the presumption was that if locals knew, the nuns knew and if the nuns knew the parents knew and therefore what right had anybody to intervene?

Twenty years later, I now believe that it is entirely possible that Ann concealed her pregnancy, at least from her family.

I remember, while in Granard, trying to get some idea of what Ann was like. One of the extraordinary things about this story is that no photograph of her has ever been published. I think she was a dark-haired girl; some young people in the town described her as lively, spirited, good at art. The absence of a photograph makes her even more of an iconic figure, like the anonymous X of the 1992 X abortion case: shadows both.

Two decades later, incredibly, nothing more has been added to the details of the story amassed in those first few days. At the time, in the absence of photographs, of interviews with family members or of anybody who could shed light on what had happened, the story of Ann Lovett became a blank canvas on which everyone sketched their own political, cultural, religious, bias.

Opponents of the 1983 anti-abortion amendment had a field day. So too did lobbyists for a more liberal contraception regime, for more sex education in schools, for the loosening of the still tight grip of the Catholic Church on State legislation. A contrary note was struck by one local newspaper editor who said that, rather than dying alone, Ann had in fact died under the loving gaze of the statue of the Virgin Mary.

And, in the absence of detail of the horror of Ann's story, we got instead - on the Gay Byrne radio show - the most horrendous details of broadly similar events of just a few decades earlier. Women, and relatives of women, wrote to tell their stories of concealed pregnancies - of the terror, the fear, the pain, and most of all, of the most extraordinary lengths they had gone to cover up pregnancy and birth.

I remember just one or two. One woman - or perhaps someone connected with her - described how she had gone from her work in the fields in to the bedroom she had in her employer's house, given birth and put the child in a suitcase.

In some cases, the new-born babies were stuffed into drawers. It was apparent that some women had killed their own babies to avoid detection. It was also clear that in many cases the father was the woman's employer.

I went back to Granard on the fifth anniversary of Ann's death. Her sister, just a year older, was also dead, of a prescription drug overdose taken just three months after Ann and her son had died. Ann's father was dead too.

The family had erected a large gravestone over the communal grave. It read of the loving memory of Ann and her infant, her sister and father. I wondered what story those who read it in decades to come would take from it, or imagine.

In 1984, I was 26 with no children. Twenty years later, I am the mother of five, the eldest just a year younger than Ann was when she died. With the benefit of age, the experience of childbirth and motherhood, would my approach to, my attitude towards the story be any different?

The reporting would not be any different. Ann's public death, and the death of her baby, could not be ignored, not by the most sensitive, the most ethical, the most politically correct of newspapers.

However, I am more intensely aware of what she must have suffered as she gave birth terrified and alone on a bitterly cold January evening. But I am also more intensely aware of someone else's suffering, of the suffering of Ann's mother, a woman whose heartbreak and grief was, almost casually, ignored by most of us who wrote about the story.

Only as a mother now, do I come close to understanding that forgotten part of the Ann Lovett tragedy.

 Emily O'Reilly is the current Ombudsman