Today, the accusations against Joanne Hayes would be laughed out of court. Back then...

Kerry babies: In the patriarchal Ireland of the 1980s, Hayes was an easy target for the justice system

Those born into the Ireland of the 1980s and afterwards and grew into adulthood in a liberal and secular Ireland marked by the legalisation of divorce, marriage equality and legalised abortion cannot comprehend the State that produced, condoned and failed to condemn the Kerry Babies case.

In turn, those who were young in the 1980s were horrified by the tales that they had heard of the grim 1950s, yet most failed to stand up for a young Kerry woman, Joanne Hayes, who faced a tsunami of patriarchy and the trumpeting of values soon shown afterwards to have feet of clay.

Young people I have spoken to in more recent years, if they know anything about the case at all, cannot take it in. How come that we had a justice system that allowed Hayes to be asked details of her private life, that allowed her to be condemned by authority?

Why was a tribunal, set up to investigate why Hayes and her family had signed confessions to a crime they could not possibly have committed, turned into a dissection of her morals and lifestyle that led to her getting physically sick midway through her evidence.


Today, what judge would allow a senior garda describe a young woman as somebody with “loose morals”, as the then head of the Garda murder squad John Courtney did at the tribunal set up to probe how he and his colleagues had conducted a murder investigation into a dead baby whose body was washed ashore in south Kerry with 28 stab wounds?

The explanation, in part, is due to the fact that Ireland was a very different place in the mid-1980s, one that often leaves young people today struggling to understand it. Even those who lived through it struggle to understand it. The open and secular world we now know was decades away.

Contraceptives then were available only to married couples on prescription for bona fide family planning and health purposes, or for rare and heavily-criticised discussions on The Late Late Show. There was no divorce. Homosexual acts were illegal.

Back then, people, and especially those from modest circumstances, were expected to know their place, particularly if they came up against the intimidating and arcane world of Ireland’s legal profession.

The Hayes family was seen as easy meat in that Ireland.

In April 1984, Joanne Hayes was living at home in the village of Abbeydorney with her mother, sister, two brothers and an aunt. Her family helped her to rear her daughter from a relationship with a married man.

She was pregnant for the third time, an earlier pregnancy having ended in a miscarriage. According to Hayes, she gave birth on the night of April 12th in a field on the farm after midnight. The baby was dead.

Two days later, some 75km away, the body of baby John was washed up at the White Strand near Cahersiveen.

She was pilloried and abused in the full glare of national and international publicity

The then Dublin-based murder squad, led by Supt Courtney, was called in to investigate baby John’s death. 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.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. However, the blood groups of Joanne Hayes and her lover did not match those of baby John. The gardaí pursued their case, initially dismissing Joanne’s request to search the farm in Abbeydorney for the body of her baby. When her baby’s body was eventually discovered, the Garda case was in big trouble.

Charges of the murder of baby John against Joanne, and concealment of birth against four other family members, were dropped on the instructions of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Public disquiet led to the setting up of a tribunal under Mr Justice Kevin Lynch, a recent appointee to the bench. Instead of the Garda investigation coming under scrutiny, Joanne Hayes became the victim of an onslaught.

She was pilloried and abused in the full glare of national and international publicity. Today, there might well be a female judge chairing a similar tribunal. There would be female barristers. Back then, the proceedings were male dominated.

To dispute the blood findings, the gardaí introduced the superfecundation theory: she had given birth to twins with two different fathers.

Today, it would be laughed out of court. Back then, it was taken seriously, publicly at any rate.

Martin Kennedy, the barrister representing senior gardaí, set out to portray Joanne as a woman who might well have had two lovers at the same time and given birth to twins.

He put it to her she was not in love with her married lover “when 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”.

Today, this kind of cross-examination at a tribunal, or in a court, would be incomprehensible

She replied that this was untrue. Crying, and clearly distressed, she clutched a religious medal. “There was only one baby … there was only one baby,” she said.

Her replies were barely audible. She looked helplessly at the judge. “Please sir, can I go? Please sir…”

The judge agreed to an adjournment. She leapt off the witness stand and ran out of the room, down the corridor to the toilet, where she vomited. A doctor was called to attend to her.

When she returned to the stand, the personal interrogation continued.

Kennedy suggested her married lover had never said he would leave his wife for her. “He did say it,” she replied. “When did he say it?,” she was asked. “He said he would go away with me eventually,” she replied. “What do you mean by eventually?,” asked Kennedy. ‘’I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe never, I suppose.”

She was a broken woman.

Today, this kind of cross-examination at a tribunal, or in a court, would be incomprehensible.

There was a public outcry. Neighbours of the Hayes family protested outside the tribunal. Women’s groups from around the country also came to protest. Politicians condemned the line of questioning.

The tribunal report was another crushing blow to the Hayes family. It largely exonerated the gardaí and failed to adequately explain the origin of the Garda statements.

Joanne Hayes appeared on The Late Late Show and has given no interviews since. She continues to live in Abbeydorney.

She had to wait decades for vindication and justice in a new Ireland.

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.