a new Ireland was forged on the anvil of one woman's suffering
Mar 08, 2010
mark International Women’s Day, this introduction from a new book by NELL
MCCAFFERTY plots how the ‘medieval’ treatment
of Joanne Hayes in the Kerry Babies case acted as a catalyst for
WAS MEDIEVAL. A group of men put a young unmarried woman on the stand
and questioned her about the exact circumstances of the conception and
birth and death of her newborn baby. She came from a tiny village in
the west of Ireland. They had come down from the capital, Dublin. The
pope had just come and gone from Ireland. The men wondered aloud if
the woman had in fact given birth to two newborn babies who had been
found dead in Kerry, though blood tests showed that she could only
have been mother to one. The men put forward and examined for six
months a theory of superfecundation, which postulates that a woman can
conceive of twins by two men if she has sexual intercourse with both
in the space of 24 hours. “There were times when we all thought she
had twins,” said presiding Justice Kevin Lynch.
legal men and a succession of male doctors, psychiatrists and police
officers – 43 in all – spent six months probing the young
woman’s mind and body. A doctor gave the dimensions of her vagina
during a previous birth. Ordnance survey maps were used to pinpoint
the exact locations of the places where she had sexual congress with
her married lover. The question was asked, “Did she love this man or
what was he and other men prepared to do with her?” It was medieval,
but it happened in 1985. The probing of the woman’s sexual history
brought the men gathered around her to such a fever pitch that she
collapsed. She was excused, temporarily, and could be heard retching
and sobbing in the corridor.
judge ordered that she be sedated and then brought back to testify.
She gave evidence in a daze, her head bobbing off the microphone. The
judge asked that her friends keep a suicide watch on her that night.
country was sickened, and showed support for Joanne Hayes by sending
her flowers and Mass cards. When the inquisition finally ended, the
country rapidly changed, by constitutional vote, and a New Ireland
came into being. It was forged on the anvil of Joanne Hayes’s
suffering. Never again, the changes showed, would one woman be held to
blame for the ills that had beset Ireland. Or, at least, never again
would an exclusively male panel of men sit in judgment of one woman.
UNDERSTAND WHAT was done to Joanne Hayes and why, and how much has
changed as a result of that, it is necessary to set a context. When
John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979, he preached against
contraception, divorce and women’s work outside the home. There had
been stirrings of modernity on the island, thanks to the
Irishwomen’s Liberation Movement, founded in 1970, and accession to
the European Community (now European Union) in 1973. The IWLM demand
for the legalisation of contraception had met with popular support,
and opposition from State and church. The sale or advertisement of
contraceptives was illegal and punishable by penal servitude. The
legal prohibition on married women engaging in paid work outside the
home had been lifted in exchange for massive European funding, though
the enforced entry of women into the paid workforce was treated with
reluctance by business, trades unions and parliament. At the time of
the ending of the marriage bar in 1975, less than 10 per cent of
married women were in the workforce, and single women were mostly
confined to work in the unskilled service sector.
the appetite among women for freedom from the kitchen sink was
growing. There had been growing unease at State-sanctioned punishment
of those women who had incurred State or church displeasure. The
punishment had been aimed mainly at single mothers, whose children
were deemed illegitimate in law, an official sanction of bastardy that
the Catholic Church relished. It was normal to incarcerate single
mothers in Magdalene homes run by the religious, usually until their
children were adopted, but often for life. Thousands of Irishwomen, in
succeeding generations since the foundation of the State, had thus
been spirited away and forced to put their children up for adoption.
Others escaped to England and came home childless. This seems medieval
now. It was normal right up to the legal crucifixion of Joanne Hayes,
who had defied sanction by giving birth to and rearing her first child
at home, and holding down a paid job.
seems ridiculous now that divorce was unobtainable in Ireland until
1996, though marital breakdown and separation had been steadily
increasing. Even more puzzling, on face of it, is that the IWLM did
not include a demand for divorce among the six demands published in
their initial manifesto. It is not that we lacked courage. It is,
simply, that the demand did not occur to us in Catholic Ireland, the
Constitution of which expressed State approval of the special position
of the Catholic Church.
had little or no idea how a woman who was forbidden the right to work
might survive, usually with children, after marital breakdown. At that
time the children’s allowance was paid to the father. There was no
welfare payment for separated wives.
in financial need relied on the discretionary judgment of a Poor Law
Officer. There was no knowledge, much less recognition, even among us,
of the extent of wife battering in the home. There were no refuges for
such women. There was grim stoic acceptance of the adage that if you
make your bed, you must lie in it. Romance and sex had little to do
with marriage, within which, as the late Nuala Fennell put it, women
faced a nightmare of unremitting pregnancy. Six children per marriage
was the norm, often exceeded.
OUR PLIGHT was ostensibly sad, all our feminist wars were merry. In
the heyday of the 1970s, the laws against Irishwomen were so
self-evidently silly that taking aim at them was like shooting fish in
a barrel. Then the pope came. The Irish lived easily with the
contradiction of adoring him while simultaneously breaking his edicts.
So did some priests – an effective underground network made known
which clerics would give absolution for what were, officially, mortal
sins. It was in the aftermath of the papal visit that civil hell was
visited on Catholic Ireland in the form of a constitutional referendum
had John Paul departed these shores than a tiny group of right-wing,
ultra-conservative Catholic lay people, mostly medical practitioners,
visited parliament to announce that abortion could and would be
introduced into Ireland via a loophole in the Constitution. In the
space of two hours, these people wrung astonishing commitments from a
Fianna Fáil government and the main opposition, Fine Gael, that the
constitutional loophole would be closed. The fight to save fertilised
eggs was on.
country was put through a crash course on such hitherto unknown facts
as the existence of zygotes. In the space of two years, three
governments came and went. Bishop Joseph Cassidy declared with smug
certainty that the most dangerous place in the world was in a
woman’s womb. The Constitution was amended in November 1983 to give
the fertilised egg a right to life that was equal to that of the women
in whose body it was growing. The era of the unborn was upon us.
Hayes conceived during that time of perfervid dictat. Her baby died
after it. The men were sent to find out what had happened to the
fertilised egg they had spent years theoretically defending. After
they had filleted her to their satisfaction, the judge pronounced that
she had hit her newborn baby with a bath brush, after giving birth, to
make sure that it was dead. One cannot, of course, kill a dead baby,
but damage to Hayes was done by the judicial implication that she
wanted the child dead.
measure of his temperament and attitudes to women in the Kerry Babies
case is the judicial pronouncement made at its end by Justice Lynch.
He asked, “What have I got to do with the women of Ireland in
general? What have the women of Ireland got to do with this case?”
He presumed to lecture Irish women on what he saw as their misguided
support for Hayes in her agony, by sending her flowers and Mass cards.
He found that the “most wronged woman” in the matter was Mary
Locke, the wife of Jeremiah Locke, the man who had fathered Joanne’s
babies. “Why no flowers for Mrs Locke?” he asked. “Why no cards
or Mass cards. Why no public assemblies to support her in her
embarrassment and agony? Is it because she married Jeremiah Locke and
thus got in the way of the foolish hopes and ambitions of Joanne
Hayes?” Mary Locke’s reply to his query was simple, dignified and
devastating for Lynch. She declared: “Joanne Hayes was harshly
LEGALISATION of abortion, in severely restricted circumstances, was
introduced in 1992 after the X case erupted. A 14-year-old girl, raped
and impregnated by an acquaintance, was brought to England by her
parents to secure an abortion.
parents asked Irish police if DNA from the aborted foetus might be
used to secure a conviction against the rapist. The State moved
instantly to obtain a court order, which demanded that the parents
return to Ireland, with the pregnant child, or face charges and
possible imprisonment if they procured an abortion for her outside the
jurisdiction. Frightened, they brought their pregnant, suicidal
daughter home to face her doom.
face of absolute citizen outrage against internment of the child in
Ireland, the Supreme Court convened and found that abortion could be
allowed when the life of the mother is threatened by suicide.
to a mother’s health, as opposed to her life, are still not
considered grounds for abortion. This cruelty to pregnant women
obtains even where it is medically certain that a diseased foetus will
not live seconds beyond birth.
the wake of the X case and in exchange for a multimillion injection of
funds from the EU, the people voted to allow freedom of travel abroad
for an abortion, and freedom of information about abortion at home.
That EU funding is generally acknowledged to have given birth to the
Celtic Tiger era. The fate of eggs that are fertilised in Ireland and
then exported troubles the Irish not at all. As ever, uncomfortable
problems are exported to England and a blind Irish eye is turned to
them. The men of medicine disgraced themselves again in the course of
yet another referendum to refine and impose further limitations on the
original amendment on fertilised eggs. The three masters of Dublin’s
maternity gave a press conference in which they intended to throw
their weight behind it. Under questioning from a now less subservient
media, they admitted that their real preference was that termination
should be allowed in cases where a damaged foetus would not long
proposed amendment failed. The Dáil has yet to act to bring
legislation into line with the expressed national vote that abortion
be permitted in limited circumstances.
situation of Irishwomen is not, however, bleak. Where contraception is
concerned, the change is startling. Where once, any reference to
contraceptive practice was banned, television now carries happily and
casually brazen narrative ads from the State-funded Crisis Pregnancy
Agency. For instance, a young woman is seen going upstairs and into
the bedroom with a young man. Her mother calls the daughter. “Have
you taken your pill?” In another ad, a heterosexual couple are
kissing heavily in a fish and chip shop. The waitress, delivering
their order, asks, “Would you like a condom with that?” Condoms
are displayed for sale in supermarkets, pubs and pharmacies, in varied
flavours and sizes and strengths.
GAEL MINISTER Nuala Fennell abolished the bastardisation of children
in the aftermath of the Kerry Babies case, and homosexuality was
decriminalised by Fianna Fáil Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.
Senator Mary Robinson, political adviser to the IWLM, was elected
president of Ireland in 1992 and served two successive terms, as did
her successor, Mary McAleese. Though women otherwise failed to make a
breakthrough in parliamentary representation, and are fewer in number
now than they were before the Kerry Babies case, Irishwomen have
broken new territory in formerly barren places. Married or single,
they now make up nearly half the workforce. The Magdalene houses are
closed, and orphan placement agencies at an effective end. Creches for
the children of working parents flourish, in a society where double
income families are now the norm. The birth rate has shrunk to less
than three children per family, and advances have been made in regards
to equal pay and equal opportunity, which is now a trade-union mantra.
against that, marital breakdown has increased and divorce is common.
Divorce is not a sign of success in human relations, but it does
herald an adult willingness to deal honestly and openly and legally
with human failure. Abortion rates are high, albeit conducted
elsewhere. Again, the rates do not signal success, but a mature
acceptance that conception and birth does not always guarantee a happy
or desired outcome. The fact that contraceptive practice is not yet
the norm among sexually active teenagers signals that sex education
still leaves much to be desired.
now do two jobs – working outside the home by day, and rearing a
family by night, albeit men do a little more housework than they used
to, and can be seen interacting with their children.
in sum, Irish people are in a much better state than they were at the
time of the Kerry Babies case, if one takes sexual health as the norm
against which we are to measure ourselves – and it seems an
eminently reasonable measurement. To meet, mate, and make a nest, with
or without babies, is precious – there are many forms of living
together, in community, and these forms do not always include a
partner in the home, or sexual congress. Friendship is precious.
Joanne Hayes and her family were sustained in their ordeal by the
friendship of neighbours and, especially, women friends.
days of barbarism are effectively over, though much remains to be
done. A single startling example will suffice. It would be considered
barbaric nowadays for a couple, heterosexual or gay, to walk down a
wedding aisle as virgins; to commit themselves legally to a lifelong
relationship, civil or religious, without first living together; to
delude themselves that a certificate of marriage means certainty.
is very much the norm nowadays, before making such a commitment, to
first live together, and then make a baby. The old order of marriage,
home and baby has been completely reversed to home, baby and
nightmare that was an Irish honeymoon has vanished. It used to be that
a couple brought a towel on honeymoon to absorb the blood that would
allegedly flow after the woman had been penetrated by a battering ram
known as the penis. Today, most sexually active people happily and
enthusiastically engage in sexual congress, equipped with
contraception. Horrific exceptions apart – and they are many – the
day of the damaged cowboy is done, as is the day of the damaging
cleric, doctor, lawyer and elected politician.
are not fully healthy yet, but we are getting there, and it is
is an edited version of the introduction to A
Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Case by Nell McCafferty,
published by Cork University Press
2010 The Irish Times
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