Repeat of Kerry babies case unlikely in modern Ireland

Attitudes to gardaí and role of women have changed dramatically since nadir of 1980s

Joanne Hayes leaving the tribunal of enquiry into the Kerry babies in 1985. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Joanne Hayes leaving the tribunal of enquiry into the Kerry babies in 1985. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The Kerry babies case would be unlikely to happen today.

The Ireland of 2018 bears little resemblance to that of 1985, when an 82-day tribunal gripped national attention and put the spotlight on the conduct of An Garda Síochána, the place of women in Irish society and sexual mores.

There was little scrutiny then of An Garda Síochána – apart from claims that it had a “heavy gang’’ forcing confessions from suspects – and the many scandals that would later emerge were well down the road.

The patriarchal society, leading to the demonising of Joanne Hayes, the central figure in the case, is largely no more.

Ireland has changed beyond recognition.

Thirty-three years ago, contraceptives were available only on prescription for bona fide family planning and health purposes; there was no divorce; homosexual relationships were illegal.

At that time, crowds were turning up at locations around the country to worship the Blessed Virgin

The Catholic Church still wielded considerable power, the scandals that would erode its authority some years away.

At that time, crowds were turning up at locations around the country to worship the Blessed Virgin, as the phenomenon of the “moving statues’’ took off.

The Kerry babies case had its origins in a relationship, which began in the early 1980s, between Joanne Hayes and a married man, Jeremiah Locke, both of whom worked in the Tralee sports centre.

In April 1984, she was living at home in the family farm, near the village of Abbeydorney, with her mother, sister, two brothers and an aunt. The family was assisting her in the rearing of her daughter from the relationship.

She was pregnant for the third time, an earlier pregnancy having ended in a miscarriage.

According to Hayes, she gave birth on the night of April 12th in a field on the farm after midnight, about 30 yards from the farmhouse.

She later said she did not think the baby was alive. She recalled placing the infant, and the afterbirth, in a bundle of hay and returned to the house. The baby was dead.

She was later admitted to Tralee hospital, where she denied to a gynaecologist she had given birth.

The infant would be known as the Abbeydorney baby.

Two days later, some 75km away, the body of “Baby John’’, whose blood samples are now the subject of DNA tests, was washed up in the White Strand, near Cahersiveen, with 28 stab wounds.

The infant would be known as the Cahersiveen baby.

Hayes signed a statement saying she had killed the Cahersiveen baby in the family home

The then Dublin-based Garda murder squad, led by Kerry-born Supt John Courtney, was called in to investigate the murder of the Cahersiveen baby.

Under questioning, Hayes signed a statement saying she had killed the Cahersiveen baby in the family home.

Members of the family signed statements about dumping the baby’s body in the sea off the Dingle Peninsula. Gardaí would later strenuously deny allegations by the Hayes family that they were coerced into making the statements.

An offer from Hayes to show gardaí the location of the body of her baby on the farm in Abbeydorney, which she said would prove she was not the mother of the Cahersiveen baby, was refused.

On her directions, members of the Hayes family located the body on the farm.

Charges of the murder of the Cahersiveen baby against Hayes, and concealment of birth against four other family members, were dropped on the instructions of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Public disquiet led to the setting up of a tribunal under a High Court judge Kevin Lynch.

Blood group findings, meanwhile, had ruled out Hayes and her lover as the parents of the Cahersiveen baby, which was blood group A while Hayes and her lover were blood group O.

To counteract this, gardaí advanced the “superfecundation’’ theory: Hayes had been impregnated by her lover and another man and had given birth to twins with different fathers.

Although the tribunal was established to examine the Garda handling of the case, its focus became Hayes, against whom charges had been dropped, which would not happen today.

She spent 14 hours, over five days, in the witness box, much of it weeping.

Her cross-examination by Martin Kennedy, representing senior gardaí, which caused considerable controversy even then, would be unthinkable in 2018.

Hayes denied having no intention of allowing the child to be alive in this world after it left her body. She was gripping a religious medal and crying

He put it to Hayes she was not in love with her married lover, “when you allowed intimacy to take place on your first date’’.

He suggested she had no intention of “allowing the child to be alive in this world after it left your body’’.

Hayes replied this was untrue. She was gripping a religious medal and crying.

As the questioning became more intense, Kennedy persisted with the “superfecundation’’ theory.

“There was only one baby . . . there was only one baby!’’ she cried.

Her replies became barely audible, such was the level of her distress.

She looked helplessly at the judge. “Please, sir, can I go? Please, sir . . . ’’

Lynch agreed to an adjournment.

The barrister suggested Joanne Hayes’s married lover had never said he would leave his wife for her

She leaped off the witness stand and ran out of the room, down the corridor to the toilet, where she vomited. A local doctor was called to attend to her.

When she later returned to the stand, Kennedy introduced a level of personal interrogation which would now be considered incomprehensible.

He suggested her married lover had never said he would leave his wife for her.

“He did say it,’’ she replied.

“When did he say it?,’’ she was asked.

“He said he would go away with me, eventually,’’ she replied.

“What do you mean by eventually?’’ asked Kennedy .

“I don’t know,’’ she said. “Maybe never, I suppose.’’

The cross-examination led to protests by locals and women’s groups. The Oireachtas women’s affairs committee joined in the condemnation.

The tribunal was compared to a mediaeval witch-hunt with the victims burning at the stake and the crowd dancing around the fire

The then secretary general of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors, Fr Paul Byrne, claimed some of the barristers seemed to be acting irresponsibly in asking questions not relevant to the tribunal.

Poet and Trinity College academic Brendan Kennelly compared the tribunal to “a mediaeval witch-hunt with the victims burning at the stake and the crowd dancing around the fire’’.

The judge’s report, published in October 1985, was regarded at the time as deeply unsatisfactory and caused controversy.

It is impossible to see how such a report could be published today with any level of credibility.

The report said the baby, whose body was found at the Hayes family farm, was born inside the farmhouse and died after Hayes put her hands on its throat to stop it crying, a conclusion strongly rejected by her at the time through solicitor Pat Mann.

It also found she was not the mother of the Cahersiveen baby and that she gave birth to only one baby.

The judge criticised several aspects of the Garda handling of the case. Although he exonerated gardaí from any ill-treatment or physical abuse of the family.

The central weakness of the judge’s report was its failure to explain how the detailed statements from the Hayes family, tallying precisely in details known to be false, came to be taken.

An Irish Times editorial described the report as “especially unsatisfactory’’ and asked who had come up with the detail in the statements.

“How did they come to be translated into statements supposedly taken after caution?’’ it added.

“He cites two causes: pressure and the guilty conscience of the Hayes family. Those answers are no answers at all.’’

The official Cabinet papers, released in 2015, 30 years after the case, were damning of the Garda investigation.

Joanne Hayes has  given no media interviews since her appearance on The Late Late Show in 1985

They revealed the then Garda commissioner Lawrence Wren believed gardaí were “grossly negligent’’ in their handling of the case.

Meanwhile, Hayes, who continues to live in Abbeydorney, has given no media interviews since her appearance on The Late Late Show in 1985 following the publication of her book, My Story.

Michael O’Regan covered the 82-day Kerry babies tribunal for The Irish Times and was co-author with Gerard Colleran of Dark Secrets, a book about the case