Kathy Sheridan: How Ireland and the Garda closed ranks on Majella Moynihan

Atmosphere that pervaded the Garda and society wrecked many lives

A thread insinuates itself throughout Majella Moynihan’s heart-stopping story: how societies choose their human sacrifices for some “higher” cause, how choices are made.

When her young mother was killed in a road incident, her father – whom she believes couldn’t cope – signed his five little girls over to the State. For 11 years, she was cared for in an industrial school by Sr Clare, an “outstanding woman . . . the mother of hundreds of children and everybody loved her”. The nun who replaced Sr Clare subjected the child to routine criminal assault.

The girls’ father remarried within a few years and set up home in Dublin and although there were visits to and fro, she says she never “knew” him. When she moved in with him and her stepmother after her Leaving Cert in 1980, she says, “I walked into a house full of strangers . . .”

How many choices had been made by responsible Irish adults by then that framed Moynihan’s view of life, justice or love?


Yet, in a country in deep recession, haemorrhaging the baby boomers of the 1960s to emigration, she won a place in the Garda Síochána. She too made choices. When she got pregnant by another young recruit who went behind her back to her father to ask permission to marry her, she told him angrily she had no intention of marrying him.

Immense courage

The difference is that her choices came out of immense courage for a 21-year-old in that time and context. Asked whether abortion had been a consideration, she said she believed it was a garda’s duty to protect life. That was literally true. It was illegal even to travel elsewhere for an abortion in those years.

That too was a choice, made by the Irish electorate the year before.

The year her son David was born, an inquiry had been set up in Kerry to investigate how gardaí had extracted false confessions of infanticide from Joanne Hayes. That inquiry into Garda malfeasance turned into the crucifixion of Hayes.

Ordnance Survey maps were pinned up in the courtroom so that a distraught, suicidal woman could point out to a slavering audience the precise locations where she and the married man had had sex. Many of those present made a choice to conduct proceedings in that way.

If Hayes "was the anvil on which the new Ireland was hammered out", the lives of Moynihan and her son David were sacrificed on the same crucible

This was the atmosphere that pervaded the Garda Síochána and society when Moynihan decided to proceed with her pregnancy. Did she become pregnant deliberately, she was asked during by senior investigators? Did she want to hold on to him? There were persistent questions about contraception – then only legally available through pharmacies on foot of a medical prescription. To what purpose?

Where were her defenders? Garda middle managers who interrogated or worked with her, wrote reports recommending no charges and praising “an honest, dependable and willing” woman, who “had not been found wanting for assertiveness and courage on the streets”and “though pressed hard . . . did not resort to tears”.

Targeted bullying

The Garda Representative Association had failed so comprehensively in its purpose to protect and defend her that she wasn’t even aware of its existence. This was despite persistent, targeted bullying, sexual harassment and being “shunned” by colleagues.

When news of the charges was leaked the media, the then general secretary of the GRA, Jack Marrinan, cleared up the mystery: "I'm the father of a young lady myself and there are other young ladies who may be listening from time to time . . . I would not like anyone to think that this would be regarded as a normal condition or appropriate behaviour. There's only a few hundred ban garda and by and large they are an extremely highly moral group of ladies and I see the Garda Síochána as people who should be giving a lead".

In that context, the image of two of the most powerful men in Ireland – Garda commissioner Larry Wren and Archbishop Kevin McNamara – meeting at the Archbishop's Palace to discuss the fate of the lowly female recruit is not so startling after all. Wren, then 62, was the new-broom appointee in 1983, a deeply puritanical man and devout Catholic, whose only known interest outside job, home and family was the St Vincent de Paul society.

Sacking her

He must have been surprised when the archbishop warned against sacking her. But it was not out of Christian concern according to Moynihan’s social worker from Cura; it was on the grounds that Wren would be “opening the gates to England”. No wonder they feared women so deeply.

The “missing” Garda file is just another offensive, brazen legacy of all the years of closing ranks.

There are few heroes in this story. If Hayes “was the anvil on which the new Ireland was hammered out”, as Nell McCafferty put it, the lives of Moynihan and her son David were sacrificed on the same crucible. All along that via dolorosa, choices were made about them from the lowest levels to the highest.

The coda came in her interview with Seán O'Rourke. The upside is a happy relationship, an adored second son and the baby David who came back to her as a 27-year-old man. But the cost . . . She alludes quietly to five attempted suicides. And "the relationship with David hasn't been great . . . I'm hoping that it will develop into a powerful relationship".