Kerry Babies: The official story

The investigation

Since material evidence was uncertain or contradictory, one had to resort to evidence of a mental kind; and where could one find it, except in the very mentality of the accusers? The motives and sequence of actions were therefore reconstituted off-hand but without a shadow of a doubt. (Mythologies, Roland Barthes)

The ‘evidence of a mental kind’ that built the case against Joanne Hayes—off-hand, without material evidence, but without a shadow of a doubt—was obviously in place from the beginning (and before the beginning) of the investigation. Barry O’Halloran points out that the state pathologist at the time, Dr Harbison, made ‘some important observations’ at the end of his post-mortem examination of the dead baby found on the beach at Cahirsiveen:

Because of the large number of stab wounds, he concluded that there had to have been some degree of frenzy and panic involved. In his view these wounds could not have been caused accidentally. The baby, in his opinion, had been murdered. Experience also told him that it was most likely, though not necessarily, the child’s own mother who did it, probably in a temporary state of derangement.

Within this paragraph is the central discursive ‘explanation’ of the baby’s death that dominated the investigation—the frenzied attack by a mother in a state of ‘temporary derangement’. Underlying this explanation is the familiar assumption that a woman’s own biology—in this instance before, during and after childbirth—predisposes her to emotional and mental instability. This hypothesis became the basis of the official garda line of enquiry: John Courtney, who led the investigation, advised the gardaí working with him that ‘Women’s minds are very peculiar at that stage, before or after giving birth’ (cited by Nell McCafferty in A Woman to Blame).

Immediately a search began for the possibly deranged mother. McCafferty cites the initial results of their enquiries:

Cahersiveen has a population of 1428. The collated information profiled an Irish town where such features are not normally given public recognition. Families were named where incest was suspected; a married man was having an affair with a young woman; the female partners in broken romances were checked out; women who had to get married because of pregnancy were reported; a woman was nominated whose husband had been barred from her home on foot of a court order.

McCafferty also reports that a garda in Tralee made telephone calls to CURA, the Catholic organization that offered services to ‘unmarried mothers’, and to two hospitals. The third of these calls, to St. Catherine’s Hospital, ‘gave him precise and detailed information on three unmarried women who had been in the maternity ward in or around the time the Cahirsiveen baby had been discovered’. So much for patient confidentiality.

At his first conference, Courtney advised his team of gardaí to find out whether Joanne Hayes had any boyfriends other than Locke, because

He had always had problems linking men to cases involving women of the type he classified Hayes to be. For instance, ‘the violent death of a girl with loose morals is one of the most difficult to investigate, because no man will come forward and say they had an association with them.’ If there was a man who had had an association with Joanne Hayes, apart from Jeremiah Locke who had been positively identified, ‘it would be almost impossible to locate him.’ (McCafferty)

Clearly, the search was specifically aimed at women involved in unconventional or troubled sexual relationships—temporary derangement apparently isn’t an issue for ‘well-behaved’ women—so that the possibly deranged, hormonally challenged woman they were looking for was also what Courtney called ‘a girl with loose morals’ and there is apparently no telling what a ‘girl like that’ is capable of doing.

That is, the investigating gardaí were operating from within an established discourse of ‘fallen’ woman and essential female instability to build a profile in which the pieces had been excavated from within ‘the mentality of the accusers’.

‘The accused’ having been constructed piecemeal from within the mentalities of the investigating gardaí, it only remained to attach the identikit to an actual body. The report from St Catherine’s of an unmarried woman, Joanne Hayes, who had given birth to a full-term baby but claimed to have miscarried fit the bill; the gardaí were informed. Joanne, not surprisingly, was described as depressed and uncommunicative at this time; she was charged with murder, admitted to a psychiatric ward, and put under a suicide watch.

The official garda report describes the case, in the language of Mills and Boon romances, as ‘a sad tale. It occurred because a young girl in her mid-twenties was scorned by the married man she loved, had children for and wanted for herself—”Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” ’. Those florid words round out Courtney’s thinking. Joanne Hayes ‘became’ the accused to his satisfaction and was a nearly perfect fit by his standards: morally loose (her ‘unsanctioned’ sexual activity told gardaí what ‘kind’ of woman she was) possibly deranged (she was under a suicide watch in a psychiatric ward), and now a furious scorned woman.

The authority assumed by the gardaí to determine ‘truth’ was demonstrated in a particularly raw form when they interrogated Joanne Hayes and her family. The interrogating officers simply refused to hear what Joanne said until she said what they wanted to hear. She at first denied having been pregnant. She then said she had had a miscarriage. Later she broke down and told of giving birth to a still-born baby in a field. She told of placing the baby, in a state of panic, inside plastic bags and hiding him in a pool of water. She described to them the place where she had hidden her baby. She continued under intense questioning for several hours repeating over and over her story of a birth in a field and a baby hidden on the farm; no written record was made of these statements. Later that night, she told of a child born in her bedroom, delivered by her aunt Bridie Fuller. She ‘confessed’ that she had beaten and stabbed that baby to death and had had him thrown into the sea off Slea Head. This statement, agreeing now with the ‘confessions’ obtained simultaneously from the rest of her family, was written down and presented as evidence at Hayes’s arraignment. Only when her statement matched the already established ‘official’ account was it ‘officially’ heard and recorded.

The next day, the baby to whom she had given birth was found, at which point the spurious case against Joanne Hayes collapsed. But having once fitted the identikit to her, and having extracted four confessions, the investigating gardaí doggedly set about proving themselves right.

The ridiculously flimsy and often simply ridiculous official case against Joanne Hayes was dropped by order of the Director of Public Prosecutions; subsequently, a public Tribunal of Inquiry was established to investigate the conduct of the gardaí in obtaining false confessions from Hayes and her family. As Nell McCafferty said, however, the Tribunal quickly became the trial the gardaí had failed to obtain for Hayes and was used, with the collaboration of the presiding Judge, to justify their investigation and its findings.

The Tribunal

The tribunal that had been set up to examine the behaviour of the gardai in the matter failed conspicuously to do so but did provide at least one more important narrative. Its terms of reference were given under three heads, the first being to inquire into ‘the facts and circumstances’ leading to the preferment and subsequent withdrawal of criminal charges against Joanne Hayes and her family. Secondly, it was to inquire into allegations made by the Hayes family in connection with the ‘circumstances surrounding the questioning and the taking of statements from those persons.’ Its third task was to look into ‘any matters connected with, or relevant to the matters aforesaid.’ Justice Kevin Lynch, presiding at the tribunal,

interpreted these terms of reference on three occasions during the inquiry. ‘The government,’ he said, ‘have asked me to investigate, as best I can, the birth of Miss Joanne Hayes’s baby in Abbeydorney’. (McCafferty)

This is a very selective, and largely incorrect, reading of the terms of reference established by the Government. Joanne Hayes and the birth of her baby were not meant to be under investigation; he had been asked to investigate ‘the facts and circumstances’ leading to the preferment and subsequent withdrawal of criminal charges against Joanne Hayes and her family to which the birth of her baby was tangential at best.

He then he said of the birth of that baby:

It is not really the exercise I am engaged on here at all . . . doesn’t matter a thrawneen whether the baby was born inside or outside, IF THERE WAS ONLY ONE BABY.’ (Capitals in original)

He is absolutely correct that this was not the exercise on which he was to be engaged. The evidence shows that Joanne Hayes gave birth to a still-born baby that was not flagged as suspicious following an autopsy. The ‘birth’ of a fictional second baby was a figment of the fevered imagination of the investigating gardaí, invented to justify their continuing pursuit of Joanne Hayes. There was no second baby and none was mentioned in the terms of reference.

He then said that ‘the only subsisting allegations’ which the tribunal had to investigate were those made by the Hayes family. In practice, scant attention was paid to those allegations—or to the terms of reference. The emphasis throughout the tribunal was to be on the ‘other relevant matters,’ generously interpreted to mean the justification of the garda case against Joanne Hayes.

As Barry O’Halloran put it

In normal court cases, the rigid rules of admissibility of evidence are strictly applied. This did not happen at the Tribunal. Mr. Justice Lynch’s exceedingly liberal application of these rules sometimes resulted in lines of questioning being pursued that seemed to all of us present to be irrelevant.

Under these ‘liberal’ rules Hayes’s sexual history, gynaecological profile, and moral character were placed under minute scrutiny. Over the six months that the tribunal sat, her body would be opened up to public inspection in painful and at times what seemed prurient detail. As Nell McCafferty said:

Her gynaecologist, John Creedon, had come into the tribunal and read out everything that had ever been recorded in her confidential records, including the dates and times of her menstrual flow since 1982, the width of her uterus after giving birth to [her first child] Yvonne in 1983, and the kind of catgut used in suturing her afterwards. He described her vulva when he saw her again in hospital in April 1984 and the state her breasts might have been in, if he had examined them, was explored in detail, necessarily imaginative, by both him and the lawyers.

According to Gene Kerrigan, Dr Creedon, when initially questioned by gardaí, had expressed qualms about medical ethics and confidentiality in supplying details of Hayes’s medical records. He nevertheless overcame these qualms sufficiently to give detailed information to the gardaí the next day and again at the tribunal months later. He also had a strange story to tell about cases he knew

where women had secretly had babies at home, where the baby always died. Eventually, after talking to the woman, the truth would be revealed, the baby would be found somewhere . . . [and] would be quietly buried; the gardaí would not be informed. (Kerrigan)

Dr Creedon thought that this was another of those cases. He wasn’t surprised by it. It wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, he said, but it happened often enough to be part of the way we live. He suggested that if the gardaí had a look around Abbeydorney they might find a dead baby. On this point he was correct: Hayes’s baby was to be found hidden on the Abbeydorney farm.

It’s remarkable that Creedon, who had actively campaigned in 1982-3 for the introduction of the eighth amendment to the constitution guaranteeing the right to life of a foetus, should be so sanguine that those babies whose safe passage through the womb he had worked so hard to ensure should not survive past birth. It isn’t clear whether Creedon is talking about exposure, stillbirths, accidental deaths due to inexpert deliveries, or something else entirely. He nevertheless finds this secret birth and unexplained death unsurprising and, by inference, morally preferable to abortion.

The opening up of Hayes’s body for public inspection at the Tribunal was an important element of the attempt to support the three central givens in the ‘official’ discourse—the physical, moral, and mental instability of women, that represented an inherent danger to the life of a child. By naming the sexually encoded parts of Hayes’s body, Creedon and barrister Martin Kennedy, representing Garda superintendents, between them not only reproduced Hayes as a sexual spectacle but underscored cultural assumptions about sexual women in the early eighties. These assumptions included, of course, the virgin/whore binary in which a sexually active woman is always morally doubtful. And because a woman’s whole cultural being in that binary was enclosed within her sexual/reproductive self, this moral doubtfulness is easily extrapolated to cover all areas of her life—the dominant garda attitude in the case proposes that there is no limit to what ‘that kind of woman’ is capable of doing. More on that tomorrow.

About Dr. Jeannette Boyne

Dr. Jeannette Boyne: former out-of-work actor, former working academic and Mellon Fellow, current contributing editor of, born in Ballyfermot, raised in Birmingham, educated by Columbia (the university, not the country). The old cliché says that journalism is the first draft of history; as Jeannette sees it, the job of an online journal like leftbucket is to provide its first edit. View all posts by Dr. Jeannette Boyne →