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Kerry Babies: The Latest Example of Ireland’s Attitude Towards Women?

Nathan Young looks at the scandal through the lens of Ireland’s continuing history of mistreating women.

The fact that recent headlines centre around the case of the mistreatment of a woman in 1984 comes as no surprise. After all, Ireland’s historic mistreatment of women both socially and through state or state-sanctioned abuse is well-documented.

The story of the “Kerry Babies” began on the 14th of April 1984, when the body of a baby was discovered in Cahersiveen, County Kerry. The Gardaí investigating the murder contacted local maternity wards to see if any unmarried women had been in their care recently, and checked to see which of these women were unaccounted for. This led them to a woman by the name of Joanne Hayes. She and members of her family were brought to the Garda station for questioning where she confessed to the murder. She later denied the murder, giving a different account in which she miscarried and buried the foetus on family land, and claimed that the initial confession had been coerced.

Strict adherence to Catholic sensibility was evident throughout every botched step of the process

The foetus was recovered, and the coroner ruled that evidence of independent life was “inconclusive,” meaning that the miscarriage story was plausible at the very least. The Gardaí then began investigating whether Hayes had had twins, and it was found that the blood groups of the two babies were different. Hayes, the foetus from the farm, and the probable father Jeremiah Locke were both blood group O, but the baby from Cahersiveen was blood group A. Of course, not content with absolving a single mother, they proceeded with a new theory; that Hayes was the mother of both babies through superfecundation. This would mean that Hayes would have had to have sexual relations with two different men in a short space of time in order to become pregnant by both of them. The expert opinion was that this was “extremely rare and unlikely,” yet Hayes was questioned about other men she had had intercourse with in a bid to prove superfecundation.

Since this saga there have been ongoing accusations of misconduct by the Gardaí during the investigation, mostly centred on the fact that the initial confession was withdrawn. It is in the news most recently because DNA evidence from late last year shows once again that Hayes is not the mother of the Cahersiveen baby.

The calls for respectful, reasoned debate are coming from a church whose political influence was once unparalleled

The Kerry Babies case is one that differs from many other cited examples, as the Catholic Church is not directly involved, although strict adherence to Catholic sensibility was evident throughout every botched step of the process. During the tribunal Locke was introduced as a married man with three children. Hayes, however, was cross-examined about every detail of her sex life as an unmarried woman in open court. A priest publicly criticised the fact that Locke was questioned on contraception, which had not been used. No comment from any church official was made on how Hayes was treated.

The story as an isolated occurrence is important as an example of a woman and her family being grossly mistreated, and because the true story of the baby was never learned. It is also a case study in the behaviour and attitudes of Irish officialdom. The Gardaí and Leo Varadkar have apologised since the recent DNA evidence, but the official position of the state is still that of the Tribunal, which states that Hayes killed her baby, and that there was no wrongdoing on behalf of the Gardaí aside from “exaggeration.”

It is a case study in the behaviour and attitudes of Irish officialdom

With this case, as well as the Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes such as Tuam, it is possible to think of Ireland, or at least Irish officialdom, as cruel, draconian, deeply distrustful of women and completely in the pocket of the Church. To believe that there may be ethical concerns with late term abortions may merit some debate, but to believe, as Irish law does, that an abortion in the first trimester is the taking of the life of a child is only valid if one accepts canon law on when a soul enters a body. Our constitution also criminalises blasphemy, another crime that can only be understood if you accept the existence of a jealous, tempestuous God. Divorce was illegal until 1996 and homosexuality was illegal until 1993.

It is in the context of these stories and this unfortunate history that the upcoming referendum debate should be examined. The calls for respectful, reasoned debate are coming from a church whose political influence was once unparalleled, and it must not be forgotten what life was like then.