The case of the Kerry babies

From the archives: Unanswered questions remain

Thirty years ago this month, two tragedies set off a chain of events leading to the Kerry babies case, gripping national attention and putting the spotlight on the place of women in Irish society, sexual mores and the conduct of An Garda Síochána.

Joanne Hayes, approaching her 25th birthday, gave birth late on the night of April 12th, 1984, in what later became controversial circumstances, to a son who did not survive. The infant would later become known as the Abbeydorney baby, named after the north Kerry village close to the Hayes family farm.

Some 75 kilometres away, at the other side of the county, the body of a baby, who had died from stab wounds to the heart, was washed up in the White Strand, near Caherciveen on April 14th, 1984. The murdered infant would become known as the Caherciveen baby.

The fallout would lead to a judicial tribunal, revealing an Ireland largely unrecognisable today.


Thirty years ago, Ireland was a very different place. Contraceptives were available only on prescription for bona fide family planning and health purposes; there was no divorce; homosexuality was illegal. The Catholic Church was still a powerful institution, the scandals that would erode its authority some years away.

A comparison between the Ireland of 1984 and today would suggest that the Kerry babies case could not happen again, although An Garda Síochána remains under intense scrutiny. The tribunal would not today be as male dominated as it was 30 years ago and somebody in Hayes’s situation would not be subjected to what was criticised at the time as intrusive and detailed questioning about her personal life.

In 1984, Joanne Hayes worked as a receptionist at the Tralee sports centre and lived with her mother, sister, two brothers and an aunt on the family farm. She was pregnant for the third time in a relationship with a married man.

Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage in June 1982; in August, she became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter, who lived with her and the family in Abbeydorney.

According to Joanne Hayes, she gave birth, at the end of her third pregnancy, in a field on the farm after midnight about 30 yards from the farmhouse. She said she pulled out the baby by the neck, gripping the umbilical cord firmly in her hands and breaking it.

She did not think the baby was alive. She placed the infant, and the afterbirth, in a bundle of hay and returned to the house. The baby was dead.

She returned to the field at dawn, put the body in a paper bag and then a plastic bag and placed it in a small nearby pool under an overgrown ditch beside a tree.

She was later admitted to Tralee hospital, where she denied to a gynaecologist she had given birth. Signed statement The then elite Garda murder squad, led by Supt John Courtney, veteran of several high-profile cases, was called in to investigate the murder of the Caherciveen baby.

Under questioning, Joanne Hayes signed a statement saying that she had killed her baby in the house. Members of the family signed statements about dumping the body of the baby 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 Joanne 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 Caherciveen baby, was refused.

On Joanne’s directions, members of the Hayes family located the body on the family farm. It also emerged that blood group findings ruled out the married man with whom she had been having a relationship as the father of the Caherciveen baby. The charges of the murder of the Caherciveen baby against Joanne, and concealment of birth against four other members of the family, were dropped on the instructions of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Public disquiet led to the setting up of the 82-day tribunal under Mr Justice Kevin Lynch, then a recent recruit to the High Court bench. Gardaí advanced the “superfecundation” theory that Joanne Hayes had been impregnated by the man with whom she had been having a relationship and another man about the same time and had given birth to twins with different fathers.

Joanne Hayes spent 14 hours, over five days, in the witness box, much of it weeping. Her cross-examination by Martin Kennedy, a barrister representing Garda superintendents, was considered abrasive and deeply personal, reflecting a patriarchal society which angered women in particular.

He remarked to Joanne Hayes that “You were not in love and still 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”. “It’s untrue,” she replied.

As the cross-examination continued, she became distraught, crying helplessly as she clutched a religious medal. “Please sir, can I go? Please sir . . .” she said to the judge. She leapt off the stand and ran down the corridor to the toilet where she vomited. A doctor was called to give her medical attention.

As public anger intensified, her neighbours protested outside the tribunal in Tralee, as did women’s groups from around the country. The Oireachtas committee on women’s rights strongly condemned the line of questioning.

The tribunal report, published in October 1985, said the baby found at the Hayes family farm was born inside the farmhouse and died after Joanne Hayes put her hands on its throat to stop it crying, a conclusion strongly rejected by Hayes through her solicitor Pat Mann at that time. One birth only The report found that she was not the mother of the Caherciveen baby and that she gave birth to only one baby. It criticised several aspects of the Garda handling of the case, although it exonerated the Garda from any ill-treatment or physical abuse of the family.

An Irish Times editorial, under the headline "Questions Not Answered'', was critical of the judge's report.

“It is especially unsatisfactory in that it fails to explain how the detailed statements from the Hayes family, tallying precisely in details which are now known to be false, came to be taken in Tralee Garda station and at the Hayes farmhouse on May 1st and 2nd, 1984,” the editorial said.

“Who came up with these details? How did they come to be translated into statements supposedly taken after caution? He cites two causes: pressure and the guilty conscience of the Hayes family. Those answers are no answers at all.”

Joanne Hayes, who still lives in Abbeydorney, has declined all requests for interviews since her 1985 appearance on The Late Late Show following the publication of her book, My Story . The killer of the Caherciveen baby was never found.

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, published by The Kerryman in 1985.