Kerry babies scandal: Joanne Hayes’s decades-long wait for an apology

State tribunal turned into show trial which remains dark milestone of era’s attitudes to women

Joanne Hayes, pictured in 1985. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

Joanne Hayes, pictured in 1985. Photograph: Tom Lawlor


Now aged in her sixties, Joanne Hayes has waited almost four decades for Ireland to say sorry for her treatment in a scandal that both gripped and horrified the country.

As well as a compensation payout reported to run into millions of euro, a State apology is to be read out in the High Court over her being wrongfully charged with the murder of a baby found on a beach in Co Kerry in 1984.

Despite the charges being dropped, as well as those against the Hayes family for concealment, a subsequent State tribunal into the affair morphed into a harrowing show trial which remains a dark milestone of Irish attitudes to women at the time.

On April 14th, 1984, a baby boy – now referred to as baby John – was found dead on White Strand, outside Cahersiveen. The newborn was likely just a few days old and had been stabbed 28 times and his neck was broken.

A team of gardaí were sent from Dublin to investigate. On arriving, they learned that Ms Hayes – who lived 80km away in Abbeydorney – had been in hospital apparently after a lengthy pregnancy but there was no sign of a baby.

She and her family were summoned to Tralee Garda station. Graphic confessions of Ms Hayes having murdered baby John were written up by gardaí, including how she killed him with a kitchen knife and bashed his head with a bath brush.

“There was blood everywhere,” Ms Hayes allegedly confessed.

“I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on my family,” gardaí claimed she said. “When the body of the baby was found at Cahersiveen I knew deep down it was my baby.”

Supporters of Joanne Hayes at the Kerry Babies Tribunal, Tralee, Co. KerryPic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Supporters of Joanne Hayes at the Kerry Babies Tribunal, Tralee, Co. KerryPic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

‘Superfecundation’ theory

The confessions were all later withdrawn when Ms Hayes told gardaí she had, in fact, given birth to a baby boy – she named Shane – that was buried on the family farm around the same time as the discovery at Cahersiveen.

Dr John Harbison, then State pathologist, was unable to determine if this baby was still-born or died shortly after his birth.

Although gardaí could not initially find the baby’s remains, when they did so, they then claimed Ms Hayes had had twins. But tests showed the two babies had different blood types.

In a bizarre further twist to the scandal, investigators then came up with a theory of “superfecundation” – that the “twins” were conceived by two different men, explaining the two different blood groups.

After withdrawing their statements, the Hayes family made a series of allegations against gardaí, including intimidation and inappropriate conduct. Charges against them were withdrawn at the district court.

Subsequently, a Tribunal of Inquiry was established under the late Mr Justice Kevin Lynch, known as the Kerry Babies Tribunal, which was supposed to investigate how Ms Hayes was charged with murder and her family with concealment.

In what was likened to a medieval witch-hunt, Ms Hayes was publicly cross-examined over five days on the stand, where she was asked thousands of questions, many of them about her sex life.

Then aged 25, she was an unmarried mother of another child – her daughter Yvonne – and had been in a relationship with a married man.

Unfounded statements

Outside the hearings, demonstrators protested over the treatment of Ms Hayes, in what was seen as a de-facto trial and a damning expose of official Ireland’s attitude towards women.

The inquiry mostly exonerated gardaí and found Ms Hayes was not the mother of the baby on the beach but was the mother of the baby on the farm and that she had assaulted her new born with a bath brush and choked him to death.

In the High Court, Ms Hayes said the finding that she had killed her own son was completely unsubstantiated and was made despite the fact an autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death.

Seeking a declaration that the tribunal’s findings of wrongdoing against her and her family are unfounded and incorrect, she said it allowed for gardaí to imply she was “promiscuous”, “a woman of loose morals”, and for unfounded statements about her relationship with former partner Jeremiah Locke as well as her sexual history.

The tribunal report contained numerous findings against them that were untrue, unfounded, not supported by any evidence, and purely speculative, the family said.

Neither the parents nor the killer of baby John have ever been identified.

Two years ago, the Garda began a full murder inquiry with house to house inquiries on Valentia Island, after issuing a letter of apology to Ms Hayes.