Majella Moynihan: ‘They portrayed me as an easy woman’

Radio review: Her tale of forced adoption sounds like the stuff of fiction but is all too real

As visions of dystopia go, 1984 is pretty hard to beat. In an oppressive, male-dominated society, single women wearing distinctive uniforms give birth to children only to hand them over to others deemed more deserving. If this plot sounds less like George Orwell's prescient classic than Margaret Atwood's grim future parable The Handmaid's Tale, that's because the story in question isn't speculative fiction, but rather an episode from Ireland's recent past. The Garda Síochána in 1984, to be precise.

That said, the events described in the Documentary on One: The Case of Majella Moynihan (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) are so shocking that a novelist might balk at making them up. For all that Moynihan's story has been the stuff of headlines since the documentary aired last weekend, it is still beyond belief. An unmarried police officer, 21 years old and pregnant by a fellow guard, is pressured into giving her baby son up for adoption and subsequently faces disciplinary charges of giving birth "outside wedlock". Her job is only saved by the intervention of those well-known feminist advocates, the Catholic hierarchy, who fear dismissal will lead to women going to Britain for abortions. Not only is Big Brother watching you, he's issuing white bonnets.

Perhaps because of the subject matter, the documentary is straightforward, traditional even. Produced by Sarah Blake and Aoife Kelleher, who also narrates, it's more akin to investigative journalism, resting mainly on Moynihan's testimony, with added archive clips and occasional contributions from colleagues. Unsurprisingly for a former officer, Moynihan recounts her experiences in clear, forensic fashion. When she lets her guard down, so to speak, the impact is all the more devastating.

Having agreed to adoption under duress from superiors, she recalls her distress at not being allowed to hold her newly born son, David, in a hospital nursery. She felt like a criminal when charged for giving birth: “At that stage I just wanted to die.” Moynihan then tells how her career was saved when Garda Commissioner Larry Wren met the Archbishop of Dublin Kevin McNamara “in the archbishop’s palace”. It’s a damning illustration of where the balance of power lay between church and state then.


Throughout it all, Moynihan is dignified but palpably angry. The producers’ decision to rely on her memories – albeit backed by documentary evidence – is justified by the power of her unvarnished retelling. It’s a stunning way to kick off a new season of Documentary on One, underlining how a well-told story can not only affect the listener personally but also set the news agenda.

Ultimately, Moynihan thinks senior gardaí set out to make an example of her

The documentary's impact is highlighted and indeed amplified by Moynihan's appearance on Monday's edition of Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Far from repeating herself, the interview adds to the sense of outrage about her treatment. Aided by O'Rourke's typically perceptive questioning, Moynihan brings other troubling aspects of her case to light.

She expands on her unhappy upbringing in an industrial home, following her mother’s death in a road accident. “My interest in joining the gardaí was definitely for justice, because I felt the injustices of life myself,” she says, sounding alive to the multiple ironies to this statement. What O’Rourke calls her “vulnerable and disadvantaged” background would later count against her when she became pregnant. “If I had come from a strong family, would they have done this?” she asks.

Ultimately, Moynihan thinks senior gardaí set out to make an example of her. “They were going to stone you,” says O’Rourke. She kept her job, but her career was effectively over: a superior told her she “was history”. Worse followed. She matter-of-factly recalls being sexually harassed – “they portrayed me as an easy woman” – and attempting to take her own life on several occasions.

At this stage, even the normally unflappable O’Rourke sounds stunned. “You came through it, though,” he adds, somewhat weakly. Moynihan assents. Long married with another son, she has also been reunited with David. But her revelation that “the relationship hasn’t been great” underscores the aftershocks of such past injustices. Her story makes for utterly compelling listening, the latest in a series of memorable interviews hosted by O’Rourke, who is officially having a moment. As for Moynihan, the next time someone bleats about liberties being curtailed by “the PC police”, just think of her.

Misogyny is not a thing of the past, of course. Much airtime is given over to the sickening case of murdered schoolgirl Ana Kriégel, following the conviction of two teenage boys for her killing. So dreadful are the circumstances of her death that one could be forgiven for moving the dial from Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), as Fergal Keane tells host Mary Wilson of the "incredibly tense" scene when the verdict arrives on Tuesday. But that would be to miss the horribly resonant details about the two guilty boys that were previously unreported, such as Boy A's horrific online porn searches.

More pertinently, one would not learn about Ana. A lonely girl who craved friendship, the appalling bullying she experienced on many social media platforms has been well documented throughout the court proceedings. Not for nothing does Ciara Kelly on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) think that the case raises the wisdom of children owning mobile devices.

But as Wilson, Kelly and O’Rourke hear, Ana had joy in her life too. She wasn’t a victim, but a vibrant girl who loved dancing, swimming and time with her family. The clip of Geraldine Kriégel speaking of her daughter outside court is heartbreaking: “Ana was our strength, she was a dream come true for us, and always will be.” Her death is a nightmare, too awful to contemplate. But to hear her mother’s testimony is the best way to remember Ana’s life.

Radio Moment of the Week: McKean crashes out

As part of the "Challenge Henry" segment on the Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), reporter Henry McKean is dispatched by host Ivan Yates to drive racecars at Mondello Park. A self-confessed "terrible driver", McKean has trouble controlling his car on the track, as his tape reveals. "I'm supposed to brake, but I'm not braking," he shouts. "I nearly went flying off." There's the sound of revving, then silence. McKean explains he careened off the track at that point. "I'm sorry the tape went off there, because everything became disconnected," he says, as Yates chuckles. Talk about car crash radio.