Since the recent publication of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the historic – and not so historic – treatment of single motherhood in Ireland has been under the microscope.
The Commission was established by the Irish Government in February 2015 to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these church institutions during the period 1922 to 1998. What emerges from the testimonies is the cruelty meted out to young pregnant women, and the unconscionable neglect of their infants by religious orders who saw them as sinful and deserving of punishment.
But what of the women who didn’t go through this system, who kept their so-called illegitimate babies? Did they fare any better?
Just before Christmas, Joanne Hayes, one such woman, received an official apology and was awarded a High Court damages award of E1.5m for her treatment at the hands of, not the religious orders, but the State and its agents – including the gardaí.
A 24-year-old single woman, Joanne was in a secure family set-up which had already embraced her daughter Yvonne, born outside marriage. She was involved in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, and became pregnant again by him in 1984. She gave birth to a baby boy, Shane, on April 13, but he did not survive and was buried on the family farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry.
At the same time, 80 kilometres away, the body of a new-born baby with multiple stab wounds was abandoned on the White Strand, Cahirciveen. A Garda murder inquiry led to Joanne Hayes because she’d been recorded as being pregnant, but not having a live baby. What followed was a grotesque miscarriage of justice in which Joanne and her family were pressurised into signing statements admitting to the murder of the Cahirciveen baby. When she told gardaí about the birth of her own baby, that was neatly tied into the narrative.
“I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on my family,” gardaí claimed she had said. “When the body of the baby was found at Caherciveen, I knew deep down it was my baby.
Even when blood tests determined that the Cahirciveen baby could not have been Joanne Hayes’ by Jeremiah Locke, the gardaí persisted with a bizarre theory that she had given birth to two babies who were twins, but had different fathers. In the meantime, the family had withdrawn their statements claiming they had been fabricated and accused the gardaí of intimidation.
By October that year the murder charges against Joanne Hayes were struck out.
But that was only the start of it.
The Minister for Justice of the time, Michael Noonan, ordered an investigation into the Garda handling of the case and the following year the Kerry Babies Tribunal was established. The hearings lasted six months, and proved to be an excruciating ordeal for Joanne and her family. In a five-day long cross-examination, she was asked intimate details about her sexual life and practices and was painted as a predator, although the conduct of the gardaí was supposedly the remit of the investigation. She was forced to ‘relive’ the harrowing experience of childbirth in a field, and was interrogated about her menstrual cycle and use of contraception.
In evidence she and her family reiterated that they had been coerced both physically and verbally into making false statements that implicated them in the death of the Cahirciveen baby. However, while the tribunal report established definitively that Joanne Hayes had no connection whatsoever with the Cahirciveen baby, it insisted that she had assaulted her new-born with a bath brush and choked him to death, even though forensic evidence could not establish whether the child had achieved independent life. (It’s interesting that the family’s “statements” were full of such lurid descriptions.)
The gardaí were given a slap on the wrist for running a “slipshod” investigation, but the tribunal failed to answer the central crucial question: how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken?
In the High Court action Joanne Hayes took against the State, she sought to over-turn the tribunal’s finding that she had killed her own son since it was completely unsubstantiated and was made despite the fact that an autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death. She said the finding allowed gardaí to imply that she was “promiscuous”, and “a woman of loose morals”.
Last December’s State apology and legal compensation officially recognises – after 36 years – that Joanne Hayes was the victim of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, unlawful arrest, assault and battery, abuse of power, conspiracy and emotional suffering and that her constitutional and human rights had been violated.
This barrage of power weaponry ranged against one young woman demonstrates that is was not just the Church which wanted to control and punish women who stepped outside the sexual norm. As journalist Gene Kerrigan, who covered the tribunal, said at the time, the Kerry Babies case raised issues that “had more to do with attitudes towards women, morality, sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth than any impartial attempt to establish the facts around the police investigation”.
Joanne Hayes was a woman who had chosen to have not one but two babies on her own, in the same hostile environment that drove thousands of single mothers into institutions where their children were taken from them. Sociologist Tom Inglis, writing about the case in 2004, observed that Joanne Hayes was not “the classic Irish single mother”. She did not hide, or give up her first baby, Inglis goes on. In that sense, she was “a bold and transgressive figure,” and the case illustrated how “sexually transgressive” women became isolated, marginalised and oppressed.
The public reaction to the case suggested that much public sympathy lay with Joanne Hayes, but as historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarks, ” it also underlined the extent to which women were still left to carry the blame and the stigma as a result of pregnancies outside marriage”.
Joanne Hayes became a symbol of realpolitik in that darkest of decades when divorce , contraception and abortion were central to the political discourse, but women were not.
Symbol or not, the odd thing is when you google Joanne Hayes, there are no images of her as she is now, a 60- year- old survivor. The photos of her that remain are from 1984/85 when she was in the eye of the storm.
It’s as if Joanne Hayes’ life stopped then, as if she died.
Of course, she hasn’t died. She has gone on to rear her daughter protected by her community and living determinedly out of the public eye. But the lack of any kind of media visibility is – e.g. she was not in court last December when the settlement was made – speaks of a woman, whose privacy and integrity was so traduced and manhandled (and I use the word advisedly) by the State, that she could not bear any further exposure, even to mark the public vindication of her reputation and character.
“My life has become pubic property and my body a subject for discussion all over the world,” she wrote in her autobiography, My Story, which came out in 1985. That was almost her last word on the subject.
Except for this: in a letter to journalist Nell McCafferty in 2006, pleading against the making of a film based on McCafferty’s book about the case, A Woman to Blame, she wrote: “I have to live with the past every day and for the rest of my life.”
But McCafferty had already sold the film rights and could do nothing: “Unfortunately, Joanne Hayes belongs to history,” she responded.
The murder of the Cahirciveen baby – subsequently christened John – has never been solved. The frenzied violence perpetrated on that baby suggests another equally dark chapter in the story of Ireland’s relationship to its uncherished children.